Some Considerations About Merit Pay

The Board and the Association shall each appoint five (5) members to a compensation committee. The purpose and intent of this compensation committee shall be to develop and implement a teacher compensation structure based on professional teacher effectiveness. The Board and the Association further agree that teacher compensation levels shall not increase until such time that the Board and the Association, through the work of this committee, develop, ratify and implement a professional teaching compensation structure based on teacher performance and fiscal sustainability. – from the Springboro School Board’s contract negotiation

The Springboro Board of Education and the Springboro Education Association are currently in contract negotiations for 2013-2014. The Board, in order to encourage transparency*, posted the first draft of these negotiations online. Both sides have suggested meaningful changes: the Board wants to chop the contract down to a mostly bare-bones type thing; the SEA wants a beefed-up contract that will allow them greater say in their schools.

Perhaps the biggest change in the contract is the question of compensation. The Board is gutting the pay scale the Disctrict has used in the past (which is currently based on experience and education) in favor of setting up a committee that would establish a new system based on teacher effectiveness. This is not a new idea in education policy. It’s generally called “merit pay.”

Merit pay is something that on the surface seems really great. Why not pay the most effective educators more? It seems intuitive. But here are some things the District, and perhaps, more specifically, the Board, should take into consideration before implementing such a system.

1. Merit pay does not conclusively increase student achievement.
Many of the merit pay systems that currently exist (mostly in urban school districts) are relatively new, and it’s too early to tell if they will have substantial effects. Of those that already exist, the New York City system is probably the most notorious. It mostly failed. Although, many argued that the system was not used correctly. Scientific studies have been inconclusive. One study says merit pay does increase student achievement, but that the fear of losing pay actually increases student achievement¬†more. Another study showed that performance pay did not affect student achievement. And the entire concept of merit pay seems to go against what popular psychologists know about motivation.

2. A good merit pay system will involve compromises.
The model for a good merit pay system is probably Newark, New Jersey. Last November, the Newark Teachers Union approved a contract that included merit pay. This approval was the result of an almost year-long negotiation that at times involved Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, and a commissioner hand-chosen by New Jersey governor Chris Christie. As a result, the Newark model is one-of-a-kind because it combines merit pay with peer evaluation. Teachers, fearing their pay being attached to test scores, suggested peer evaluation as a way to judge performance.

3. How do you judge merit?
The problem Newark faced is, of course, the problem any district would have to face in order to enact merit pay. How do you distinguish the great teachers from the mediocre ones? The reason merit pay has been jumping around education headlines recently is because there is an assumption underlying education policy today that we have an objective measurement of student achievement–namely, standardized test scores.

But standardized test scores are entirely constructed, and at times, quite arbitrary. Mr. Petroni, a Springboro School Board member, has noted that the distinctions the Ohio Graduation Test makes are almost useless. Where Mr. Petroni and I disagree is that he thinks we should demand better scores on these tests and I believe we should rethink the tests. Standardized tests, more generally, and the OAT and OGT more specifically, have been accused of being heavily biased. A study at Youngstown State University by Dr. Randy L. Hoover¬†found that the OAT and OGT do not test for student growth as much as they test for student circumstance. It’s easy to see, when looking at OAT data, that more affluent districts do better than less affluent ones, but Dr. Hoover argues that this has less to do with the quality of education in these differing districts and more to do with the economic and historical realities of the students. All the OAT tests, in other words, is whether a student is rich or poor.

This is something that confounded me for a really long time so I’m going to parse it out here. The common education reform line is that there is an achievement gap–that low-income students achieve at a lower level than their high-income peers do. And there are certainly horror stories. In Detroit, for instance, there are 100,000 adults with high school degrees who are functionally illiterate. These horror stories, however, have been combined with the high-low income “achievement” disparity to obfuscate the reality of our standardized tests. Policy-makers have thus far clung even closer to standardized tests, reasoning that we can ensure a literate graduated populace by forcing them into testing.

The problem is standardized tests don’t really tell us whether we have a critical-thinking, well-educated populace. A student union in Rhode Island recently challenged 50 high-power highly successful individuals to take the standardized test high school students in Rhode Island have to pass for graduation. Shockingly, 60% failed.

All this to say, standardized tests are not testing what they are supposed to be testing. And if a School Board wants to change the way teachers are compensated, they better bring something a lot better than tying salaries to student test scores to the table. Or, perhaps, the Board would be willing to take the OGT themselves.

*Pretty much everyone who writes about this negotiation is accused of being biased toward a certain side. I admit, for instance, that I most often find my opinions in line with the Springboro Education Association. However, any phrases that I use to show intention by either side should be approached with much caution. In this piece, I have tried to extend the benefit of doubt to both sides, assuming the best. It should be noted that some of these acts also have more nefarious effects. For instance, posting the negotiations online could perhaps be a strategic move–one made by the Board to antagonize the Association.

Springboro School Board Should Take Time To Investigate Other Reforms Before Making A Decision About Charter Conversion

My hometown (Springboro) school board recently announced that it would be exploring the option of charter conversion.

Jonathan Wright Elementary, a building that has not been used by the District since 2009, currently houses a community center and a church, but no students. The District still owns the building, though. And now the School Board is interested in transforming it into a charter school.

Admittedly, I have been a supporter of charter schools at least in the sense that I don’t think they should always be written off as a corporate scam to make money off our children. Last winter, I interned at a charter school in Columbus and loved it. Some of my former students at Breakthrough Cincinnati go to charter schools in Cincinnati, and sometimes it’s a great alternative to what CPS offers.

But here are some things the School Board should think about before going forward with a charter conversion:

Resources include more than money.
School board member Don Miller, the only member to vote against looking into the charter conversion, was quoted in the Dayton Daily News, saying he was concerned about money and other resources. The Dayton Daily included a statistic about how much money Springboro Community City Schools gets from the state for each student. This statistic is misleading.

The idea of money following the student scares some people, but it’s actually exactly how school funding works now. We aren’t talking vouchers here. If I move to Cincinnati Public Schools after attending Springboro Community City Schools (SCCS) for a while, Springboro no longer gets my money. CPS does. Essentially, when a charter is given, it becomes its own district so even if I am a charter student living in Springboro, my money from the state will go to the charter.

The reason why SCCS might oppose this arrangement is because once money gets doled out to the district, it stops following the student. Overly simplified, what this means is that the district gets a lump sum based on the number of students in the district and then decides where that money goes. Thus, theoretically, a district could decide to spend more on kindergarteners than fifth-graders.

So say SCCS decides to open a charter school that serves fifth-graders. Now the kindergarten is underfunded because the kindergarten program was drawing from funds provided by the fifth-graders. So yes, this could happen, but it’s not the ultimate concern when considering resources and charter conversions.

Board President Kelly Kohls told the Dayton Daily that she thinks the charter conversion could serve the district’s gifted population. If you run through this scenario, a couple of disconcerting things happen. First, you are going to drain the gifted population from the district. This drain is not necessarily bad, but changing the demographics of the district schools will change how the district doles out resources.

Less gifted students at the high school level, for instance, would provide incentive to the district to cut AP and honors classes. These cuts would have an adverse effect on the entire population of students because students who are not identified as gifted or who are but stay at the district school will have less access to these rigorous courses.

This effect would be similar for any population of students the charter conversion was meant to serve.

Charters are sexy, but there are other ways to promote growth in a district.
Because charter schools are legal in 42 of the 50 states (this study says 41, but Washington recently passed charter legislation) and because charter systems like KIPP have achieved significant success, charters are politically popular. When charters are mentioned in the media, people rarely talk about the failing ones (of which there are many). So they are sexy.

The success of charters, however, is not solely due to their charter-ness. The charter school where I interned was highly successful. When it first opened, it struggled. It took finding the right school leader and hiring the right staff before the school could really take off. But once those things were taken care of, student achievement experienced big gains. The school leader was free to institute policies that benefited students, and teachers, out of trust for their school leader, bought into these policies. These two things are not radical things to implement–innovative school leaders and trust between administration and teachers.

Contrast this example with an incident at Springboro High School last year. In March, it was mysteriously announced that Dr. Malone, the school’s principal, would finish out his contract at the Central Office, effectively ending his duties as principal. The specifics of this decision were never fully released. The Superintendent at the time, Gene Lolli, took the hit for it, but popular sentiment was that the school board had been trying to pull something. The school board kept silent during the announcement, during the public outrage, and quietly reinstated Dr. Malone to principal.

This kind of micromanaging–moving a principal who had frequently led the high school to high ratings from the Ohio Department of Education–is exactly what prevents Springboro City Community Schools from innovating. SCCS has an army of qualified, experienced, well-respected principals, but too often, their hands are tied when district policies come down.

The School Board could promote more innovation simply by allowing principals more lee-way in how their schools are run.

Diversifying a district’s portfolio need not include charters.
Springboro would do well to learn from another Ohio suburb, Reynoldsburg. Reynoldsburg has diversified the options open to students not by charter conversions but by creating STEM elementary, middle, and high schools and by pioneering a high school system where students can choose one of four career-oriented academies.

When talking about charter schools, conversions are the most consistent, but no conversion charter school meets Springboro’s achievement.

nondrant-charter-structure-Aug-30

From a 2011 study of OH charter schools by the Fordham Institute

This chart shows that conversions do relatively well on expected growth but hover around the average for Performance Index scores. SCCS’s PI is 106.5. No conversion breaks 100. Even with the relative success of conversions (they seem to be more consistent than startups), it’s statistically doubtful that a conversion would provide Springboro students with the quality of education they receive in the district.

Obviously, I would love to see an addition to the community that provides more academic benefits to its students, but let’s explore¬†all options before doing something that could potentially harm what we already have.