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Keep Funding Stable for the Teacher Incentive Fund
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Keep Funding Stable for the Teacher Incentive Fund

Program Supports Comprehensive and Aligned Approaches to Attracting, Evaluating, and Developing Great Teachers and Leaders

The Teacher Incentive Fund is leading to important reforms in participating states and districts and Congress should maintain its funding level in the coming year, argues Robin Chait.

A teacher at Kennedy Elementary School in Houston, TX, works with her fifth-grade students on math problems. (AP/Pat Sullivan)
A teacher at Kennedy Elementary School in Houston, TX, works with her fifth-grade students on math problems. (AP/Pat Sullivan)

As congressional appropriators consider fiscal year 2011 funding levels for federal education programs we strongly urge them to maintain the current funding level of $400 million for the Teacher Incentive Fund, or TIF, a federal program that supports compensation reforms for educators in high-need schools.

The program is advancing the kinds of reforms human capital systems in our schools need. Its latest iteration does more than the prior iteration of the program to leverage changes to policies besides teacher and principal compensation systems. For instance, it requires participating states and districts to develop comprehensive and aligned approaches to attracting, evaluating, and developing educators. This alignment—combined with other reform efforts—is key to ensuring that TIF promotes systemic changes in participating states, districts, and schools. The most recent group of programs funded by TIF grants demonstrate this new emphasis.

Until recently the program solely focused on differentiated compensation though many of the programs it supported included other components such as professional development. New administrative guidance from the Department of Education, however, requires TIF programs to upgrade the quality of their teacher and principal evaluation systems to ensure they are “rigorous, transparent, and fair,” differentiate among teachers and principals’ performance, and incorporate student growth and classroom observations.

The new guidance also requires grantees to provide targeted and high-quality professional development to teachers and principals. And programs must ensure that compensation systems are part of a “coherent and integrated approach of the local educational agency to strengthening the educator workforce.”

Alignment is particularly important because recent research supports the view that compensation reforms that are not combined with and aligned to other district reform strategies such as professional development and high-quality evaluation are not likely to improve teacher practice or student achievement. In other words, it’s not enough for teachers and principals to earn incentives or to learn that they haven’t earned one. They need information about how they can improve their practice and the support and training to help them improve.

Moreover, the new TIF requirement to improve the quality of evaluation systems is integral to improving state and district human capital systems overall. Teacher evaluation systems are the foundation for all other human capital reforms such as reforms to tenure, compensation, and professional development systems. Districts can’t make good judgments about teachers’ employment without high-quality information about how well teachers perform in the classroom. High-quality evaluation systems also help educators identify their strengths and weaknesses and help districts better target professional development to educators’ areas of need.

Recent studies show why a more all-encompassing approach to teacher compensation reform is more effective. Researchers at the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University conducted a rigorous study that evaluated the impact of a performance pay program in Nashville. It found that paying middle school mathematics teachers performance incentives based solely on test scores without other supporting strategies like strong evaluation systems or aligned professional development had no impact on student achievement.

In contrast, a recent analysis of the Teacher Advancement Program found the program had a positive impact on student achievement gains. TAP is a comprehensive school reform that includes performance pay, professional development, rigorous evaluation, and career advancement opportunities for teachers A Stanford student studied TAP’s effect on student growth in 151 TAP schools in 10 states and found greater achievement gains in mathematics and reading in TAP schools than non-TAPs. Several of the TIF programs implement the TAP program.

The new TIF grantees offer great examples of this comprehensive approach. The Mission Possible program in the Guilford County School System in Greensboro, North Carolina, is a comprehensive compensation reform that operates in 30 high-need schools in the district. The program includes ongoing professional development, collaborative support, and smaller class sizes. Teachers are offered recruitment or retention bonuses to work in Mission Possible schools and become eligible for performance bonuses based on student achievement. The program has increased student graduation rates with the participating schools, significantly outperforming others in the county.

Similarly, the CLASS Project run by the Chalkboard Project in Oregon contains four components: expanded career paths; performance evaluations; professional development; and compensation reforms. It currently operates in 12 districts. The first three districts that implemented CLASS show impressive gains (the others are too new to have results). Students in Sherwood and Tillamook districts, for example, had at least double the growth in student achievement of comparison districts.

These projects and others need federal support so they can continue to innovate and experiment with promising approaches that produce results for students. States and districts are often forced to spend all their dollars maintaining existing programs in difficult economic times, and they’re unable to free new dollars to invest in innovations that will yield dividends in the future. Fortunately, that’s a perfect role for the federal government.

Robin Chait is the Associate Director for Teacher Quality at American Progress.

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