Budget Outlines Funding for Teacher Merit Pay Programs

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 7, 2009; 7:21 PM

President Obama is seeking to add hundreds of millions for teacher merit pay programs, an investment in a reform that has often drawn criticism from teachers unions.

Even as education officials have eliminated 12 programs they say are not proven to benefit students -- a savings of $550 million -- the department is seeking $517 million for performance pay grants, up from $97 million in last year's budget. In addition, the stimulus law included an additional $200 million for such programs.

Throughout his campaign, Obama repeatedly endorsed performance pay plans, so long as they are developed with the blessing of teachers. But the budget provides one of the first glimpses of the administration's commitment to dramatically expand the smattering of merit pay experiments in schools across the country.

"The president is making a strong statement that he wants teaching shaken up," said Jack Jennings, president of the D.C.-based Center on Education Policy. "I presume the unions will not be very happy, but I doubt they will take a strident position in opposition because . . . Obama has said he wants to work with local unions in fashioning these types of programs."

The $47 billion spending plan also includes an early blueprint of the types of reforms the administration will endorse. The plan adds $52 million in grants to plan, design and open charter schools. It also adds funding to help transform the lowest-performing schools, and to expand education research.

In a conference call with reporters, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he envisions performance pay programs that will give a boost to the best teachers and encourage them to work in struggling schools in high-poverty neighborhoods.

"This is a very significant investment," Duncan said. He said the grants would be used to "reward those teachers and those principals that are making a huge difference in students' lives."

The position of teachers unions on performance pay has softened in recent years, and some local unions have worked in concert with schools to create merit pay plans. But concern remains about systems that tie bonuses to test scores.

National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel said in a statement that the "money should be tied to quality professional development."

"For example, it should be used to focus on the practice of teaching, and rewarding national board certification," Van Roekel said. "At a time when states are cutting stipends and extra pay for teachers who attain it, these federal funds should be used to plug those holes."

The American Federation of Teachers was silent about the increase in a press release it put out on the budget proposal.

Schools seeking the grant funding would have flexibility in how bonuses are doled out, but the budget calls for the extra pay to be tied to gains in student achievement as well multiple evaluations of teachers. Schools also would have to build in a system to reward educators who take on extra tasks or leadership roles.

Michael J. Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank, said the challenge will be in coming up with programs everyone can agree on.

"The administration is showing that it's serious about paying teachers for performance," Petrilli said. "Now the question is how "performance" is defined. The teachers unions want to define it as "showing up for professional development." But only in education would people take that definition of 'pay for performance' with a straight face."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company