Close to Home — The Unmet Promise of Teacher Merit Pay

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Once again, merit pay is being considered as the magical ingredient needed to fix the schools, this time in Washington, where Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee wants to offer sizable cash incentives to teachers who relinquish tenure protection and raise student test scores. Post education reporter Jay Mathews devoted his Oct. 6 Metro column to a discussion of this plan. Lest we forget that pay-for-performance schemes have failed wherever they have been tried, here is a first-hand account of my Fairfax County experience.

In the late 1980s, Superintendent Robert R. Spillane instituted a complicated, demanding pay-for-performance plan in the Fairfax County Public Schools. All teachers would be evaluated every four years and satisfactory performance would result in the Career Level I designation. Those who tried for Career Level II status would be rated on an extremely complicated, rigorous standard, but big money would be the potential reward.

I was an experienced teacher by that time, with five years in Philadelphia, three with the Defense Department system in France and Belgium, one in New Jersey, and six in Fairfax County. I loved teaching, worked hard to perfect my craft and didn't need others to validate me. However, I did need money. Our son was in college, our daughter would follow soon and the tuition bills kept coming. So I decided to go for it.

The year I was evaluated, 1988-89, was our daughter's senior year in high school. I knew that the time and energy that would be demanded of me would detract from my ability to enjoy her last year at home. Nevertheless, the financial reward would be significant. Or so I thought.

Initially, the school board promised a 9 percent pay raise for Career Level II teachers. Soon that changed. A pay raise would increase retirement benefits; that would be too costly. Instead, the reward would be a 9 percent bonus for three years, until the next evaluation cycle. It was still significant money, so I soldiered on. My classes may have suffered from my distraction and fatigue, but I jumped through all the hoops. Eventually, I was awarded Career Level II status.

The first year, I received the 9 percent bonus as promised. But this was now the early 1990s, and the Fairfax County schools fell on hard times. Budget cuts had to be made, and my second year as a Career Level II teacher brought a 50 percent reduction in my bonus. Did that mean I was now only half as good a teacher? By the third year, the bonus disappeared entirely with neither a word of apology nor a promise to reinstate the payments when funding became available. I was a dues-paying member of the teachers union, but there was no recourse.

In February 2000, school personnel received a letter from Spillane's successor, Daniel A. Domenech, stating that he was recommending a 5 percent cost-of-living increase for fiscal 2001. He was also planning to seek bonuses amounting to $2,000, which had been suggested by the newly formed Accountability Task Force, for teachers in schools in the Project Excel program. What was wrong with this picture?

I sent a lengthy letter to Domenech. I explained what had transpired not 10 years before. I asked that he keep faith with those of us who had bought into the merit-pay plan of his predecessor before spending on new merit-pay initiatives. I received a polite reply one month later thanking me for my letter but insisting that there was nothing he could do. Since then, expensive programs, including International Baccalaureate, have been adopted by the Fairfax County school system, but the system has made no effort to meet its previous obligation.

When teachers earn a reward that brings us closer to the professional salary we deserve, that's a good thing. When the reward is suddenly taken away, that reminds us that we are, after all, merely laborers. My merit-pay fiasco may be ancient history, but it should raise this question: What happens to "pay for performance" when the teacher performs but the payment disappears?

-- Bernadette Nakamura


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