How performance pay works in the Prince George's Schools

By William R. Hite Jr. and Donald J. Briscoe
Upper Marlboro
Sunday, November 1, 2009

Performance pay is supposed to be the third rail of education reform. But in Prince George's County, we have shown that it doesn't have to be.

Two years ago, we agreed to reward teachers and principals who elevate student achievement in high-need schools. Our program shows that the government can be a catalyst for school reform and that the Obama administration's plans to dramatically expand incentive programs are essential to changing school systems that currently fail, or cannot afford, to reward effective teaching.

It also shows what administrators and teachers can accomplish when we work together. During the 2006-07 school year, Prince George's schools and the unions joined hands to create and implement the district's first pay-for-performance program, supported by a five-year, $17 million grant from the federal government's Teacher Incentive Fund. TIF helps states and school districts develop innovative systems to reward teachers and principals who boost student achievement in high-need schools.

Yes, we had our disagreements as we worked out how to supplement the existing compensation system, which is based largely on seniority and qualifications, not performance. But thanks to the involvement of teachers and administrators selected by the unions, we were able to create a voluntary program that provides up to $10,000 in bonuses for effective teachers in high-need schools and as much as $12,000 for administrators who work to turn around struggling schools. Two committees that included teachers and administrators designed both the cash-incentive structure and the program's professional development system, which helps teachers improve classroom instruction and assists teachers and administrators in earning their bonuses.

Ultimately, 35 of 36 principals and assistant principals who were eligible for the program signed on. (The one principal who did not had served on the advisory committee and wanted to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.) At the same time, one-third of the 643 eligible teachers voluntarily enrolled in the program. That should put to rest the argument that all teachers will resist being judged on the basis of performance.

Our experience suggests that the Obama administration's plans to rapidly expand TIF funding hold great promise. Since TIF's inception, 34 grants have been awarded. Yet, the popular program is vastly oversubscribed, with 132 applications pending. Financially strapped districts are typically unable to launch and fund performance bonus systems on their own.

Last year, TIF received $97 million in funding. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided an infusion of $200 million, and the administration has budgeted for another $487 million in the upcoming fiscal year -- altogether a seven-fold increase. The proposal is currently before Congress.

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have said repeatedly that they do not plan to impose reform on teachers. They want to work with unions, teachers and principals to design performance-pay systems. Our experience in Prince George's County shows that district and union leaders will respond to the challenge of creating innovative solutions that benefit staff and students.

Performance pay, linked in part to student achievement, is starting to transform traditional teacher compensation systems. It has begun to nudge schools away from a culture of compliance to one that rewards effective teaching and student progress.

We hope that Congress will continue to support efforts to connect teacher performance to student achievement. These programs provide the opportunity and resources to attract talented and effective teachers to schools that serve disadvantaged students. It is time to shake up the status quo.

William R. Hite Jr. is superintendent of the Prince George's County Public Schools. Donald J. Briscoe is the president of the Prince George's County Educators' Association.

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