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What's the Future of Merit Pay for Teachers?

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Updated on May 4, 2009

President Obama has been talking tough on education, especially on the issue of teacher quality and compensation. “The time for holding ourselves accountable is here,” he said at a recent speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. ”It’s time to expect more from our students, it’s time to start rewarding good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones.” Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have made it clear that they want innovative programs that give teachers the incentive to improve, and they’re willing to help pay for it with funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

School officials across the country are heeding that call to action with a commitment to reinventing how teachers are paid. However, getting the topic on the table is one thing, getting the details right is another.

The first step, many officials say, is understanding what options schools have for rewarding their teachers. Here’s a list of what teacher compensation, or “merit pay”, could mean for the teachers in your school:

  1. Pay for performance. These are bonuses based on assessments of student learning.
  2. Hard-to-staff-school pay. This money is given to teachers working in at-risk schools.
  3. Skill-shortage pay. This money is given for teaching subjects that are difficult to staff, such as math, science, technology and special needs.
  4. Advanced-role pay. This is compensation for teachers taking on leadership roles as mentors for other teachers at their school.
  5. Recruitment and retention. This would be a bonus, often in the form of a tax credit for housing, to encourage teachers to stay in the classroom.
  6. Pay for professional development. This money would be given to teachers who complete professional development programs, attain a degree, or seek additional certification.

One of the most controversial merit pay proposals to date is coming out of Washington D.C. Public Schools. District of Columbia schools currently rank as some of the worst schools in the country, and the Chancellor of Public Instruction, Michelle Rhee, is hoping to turn that around with a radical new compensation program that has been met with much resistance.

In the program, teachers could opt for one of two payment tracks. On the green track, teachers would give up the traditional metrics used for giving raises—years in the field and level of education—in place of a new system, where pay hikes would be given based on the results of standardized test scores. On the red track, teachers would not give up those traditional compensation methods, but would receive smaller pay increases. Under Rhee’s plan, teachers on the red track would also be subject to an accelerated dismissal process—giving teachers as little as 90 days to improve student performance on tests.

Teachers in DC are divided in their support of the program, and negotiations have stalled amid threats of court proceedings, arbitration and teacher job actions from the Washington Teacher’s Union. The union says that the program fails to work with teachers, and instead looks to impose mandates on them.

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