Partnering for Compensation Reform

Collaborations Between Union and District Leadership in Four School Systems

Meg Sommerfeld explains how compensation-reform programs can be implemented with support from unions and district officials, and produce winning results.

With the right mix of ingredients, compensation-reform programs can be implemented with support from unions and district officials—and produce winning results. (iStockphoto)
With the right mix of ingredients, compensation-reform programs can be implemented with support from unions and district officials—and produce winning results. (iStockphoto)

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If it hasn’t been made clear by the recent protests played out in the state capitols of Ohio and Wisconsin, teacher pay is a hot-button issue.

Even at a time when labor unions are under fire in some states, in many areas teachers’ unions and school-district officials are coming together collaboratively to explore new ways of compensating teachers. Indeed, a growing number of American school systems are experimenting with innovative and varied methods of tying educators’ salaries more closely to their work through differential pay.

Differential pay means paying teachers differently based on their performance, their responsibilities, and/or their teaching assignments. For instance, it can mean increasing pay for teachers who are highly effective, take on the role of master or mentor teachers, or teach in a high-needs school. In some systems teachers’ unions are working collaboratively with school districts to develop differential pay programs.

For this paper, I examined four school districts that have successfully partnered with their local teachers’ unions to create differential pay programs, in an effort to better understand how these collaborations have evolved and what they are accomplishing. The common elements of these collaborations provide helpful guidance for districts and unions embarking on new reforms of teacher-related policies and programs.

Teacher compensation reform has bipartisan support and President Barack Obama has made it a central component of his administration’s education-reform strategy. “We’ve got to do a better job of rewarding outstanding teachers,” he asserted in a November 2009 speech. Indeed, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have repeatedly urged the nation’s schools to take a fresh look at how they compensate teachers as one part of a broader policy effort to ensure all children have a highly effective teacher. “We know that from the moment our kids enter a school, the most important factor in their success—other than their parents—is the person standing in front of the classroom, the teacher,” President Obama observed in the 2009 speech.

The concept of rewarding excellent teachers with extra pay is not a new one. During the 1980s and 1990s, American education leaders began focusing more attention on what was then called “merit pay.” They sought to develop alternatives to the conventional teacher salary schedule, which typically tied pay raises to years of service and college course credits accrued.

The notion of rewarding the most talented teachers with financial incentives has gained more traction in recent years. And more districts and states are not just debating the idea but are actually creating a variety of different programs and putting them into practice. The concept itself has also largely evolved beyond simple bonuses tied solely to achievement test results. Instead, today’s compensation-reform programs are often one component of larger, more comprehensive initiatives that are revamping entire systems of how teachers are recruited, trained, developed, and evaluated. Like a jigsaw puzzle, each piece must fit together with the others to form a complete solution.

New federal dollars that underwrite these ideas have certainly also encouraged the expansion of the concept. Most recently, in September 2010, the Education Department awarded $442 million in Teacher Incentive Fund grants. The fund is a five-year, $1.2 billion federal program administered by the U.S. Department of Education aimed at encouraging school systems, state education departments, and nonprofit organizations in 27 states to implement performance-based teacher and principal compensation systems and other efforts to build teacher capacity, especially in high-need and hard-to-staff areas.

Improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance is also one of four cornerstones in the Obama administration’s $4.53 billion Race to the Top grant competition, along with higher academic standards, using data to improve student achievement, and turning around low-performing schools. And one of the strategies within that cornerstone is providing effective educators the opportunity to earn additional pay and take on additional responsibilities.

Meanwhile, private philanthropies such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Milken Family Foundation, among others, are increasingly using their grant dollars to encourage schools to find innovative ways to improve the quality of their teaching force, including the adoption of performance pay.

At the same time, teachers’ unions have taken notice of these developments. A growing number have begun working with district leaders to develop new systems for rewarding excellent teachers that both labor and management can agree on. We examined four districts that are successfully collaborating with teachers’ unions:

  • Prince George’s County Schools, Maryland
  • Pittsburgh Public Schools, Pennsylvania
  • Toledo Public Schools, Ohio
  • Weld County School District Re-8, Colorado (abbreviated as Weld Re-8)

Each of these four districts is among the first cohort of 34 school districts and other organizations that received grants from the Teacher Incentive Fund in 2007. The Education Department has awarded these TIF grants to districts with performancebased compensation efforts it has determined are “rewarding excellence, attracting teachers and principals to high-need and hard-to-staff areas, and providing all teachers and principals with the feedback and support they need to succeed.”

Through our four case studies of these TIF grantees, the author has identified six common elements at work in these performance-pay partnerships between districts and unions:

  • There is a history of trust—the belief that the other party genuinely wants what is best for you—between teachers’ unions and school district leaders.
  • Leaders identify key challenges together and focus on joint problem solving and learning.
  • Teacher input is encouraged and valued in the design of pay programs.
  • Pay programs embrace a comprehensive approach focused on building teacher capacity, including a focus on new professional development systems and teacher evaluation systems.
  • Teacher participation in pay programs is voluntary.
  • Districts allow for flexibility in program design.

Some critics have raised questions about whether performance pay in particular has an impact on student achievement. A study released in the fall of 2010 by researchers at Vanderbilt University raised questions about the effectiveness of one performance-pay program involving 300 middle-school math teachers in Nashville, TN, suggesting it had little impact on student performance. Notably, however, the Vanderbilt program was narrow in scope, limited largely to a bonus tied solely to test scores, and lacking additional program components or supports for teachers. Unlike the programs we studied, however, the Nashville program did not take a comprehensive approach that tied performance pay to improvements in professional development or to changes in how teachers are evaluated.

More comprehensive and collaborative approaches, such as the partnerships we examined in the four districts receiving TIF funds, are more likely to be successful. There is little reason to expect that a simple bonus by itself can have a profound impact if it is not paired with substantive changes in professional development, teacher evaluation, teacher working conditions, and a significant role for teacher leadership and input in schoolwide reform efforts, among other elements. Many of these more comprehensive approaches are just beginning to be put into practice, so little evidence exists yet of their relative effectiveness on student achievement. More research in this area will be helpful in determining the impact of these reforms over the long term.

In the future we can expect the federal government to focus more attention on school district-union collaborations, especially those aimed at improving teacher quality. One sign of this growing interest: In February Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the leaders of the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers and Dennis Van Roekel of the National Education Association, came together in Denver to lead a national conference focused on labor-management collaboration. Conference sponsors also included the National School Boards Association, the American Association of School Administrators, the Council of Great City Schools, and the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, and the Ford Foundation provided funding for the gathering.

The meeting highlighted partnerships such as those in this study, which are aimed at finding common ground in how school districts can work effectively with teachers’ unions to improve teacher quality and school performance. To be eligible to participate, school districts had to pledge to send their school board president, superintendent, and teachers’ union or association leader to the meeting as a group and to work together collaboratively afterward on policymaking. The U.S. Education Department selected 150 school districts to participate, including three of the four districts profiled in this report case—Prince George’s County, MD; Toledo, OH; and, Weld County School District Re-8, CO.

Meanwhile, state legislators in Oklahoma, Nebraska, Ohio, and Indiana, among others, have passed new laws to encourage school districts in their states to adopt performance pay and engage in various forms of compensation reform. Spurred by the tenets of the “Race to the Top” funding competition, some states have also altered existing laws that had previously barred or made it difficult for districts to tie salaries to performance criteria. At least 19 states currently have some type of performance-pay law on the books, according to one estimate published by the journal Education Next last fall.

An analysis of Race to the Top applications from 36 states, conducted by the Education Commission of the States, found that the states fell into three categories:

  • State-led: 18 states were developing pilot pay-for-performance initiatives that could serve as models for other districts in the state.
  • Pilot programs: Nine states had state-led programs that would use Race to the Top funding to “identify and compensate high-performing teachers” either by the state making awards directly to teachers, giving funds directly to participating local districts, or some combination of both methods.
  • Local educational agency: Nine other states asserted that local districts could determine for themselves whether to implement performance-pay programs.

At the local level a growing number of districts are piloting new compensation structures. During the 2009-2010 school year, approximately one-third of the more than 100 large districts in a National Council for Teacher Quality database reported having a performance-pay plan in place.

As politicians at the federal, state, and local levels are all honing in on the critical issue of compensation reform and attempting to encourage more union-district collaboration, we expect a growing number of educators to be seeking guidance on these topics. In this report we examine four union-district collaborations in detail. We believe these case studies will help shed light on the experience of four districts already working hand in hand on these issues and the lessons they have learned from their collaborative ventures on performance pay. These case studies are followed by an in-depth discussion of the elements that help them succeed.

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Meg Sommerfeld is a journalist who has been writing about education issues for more than 20 years. She is currently a freelance writer, editor, and consultant.

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