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Iffy results for incentive pay

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The Rochester school district has paid thousands of dollars in extra income to teachers through programs designed to test incentive pay. The state and federal governments are investing in the programs — one in its third year and another set to launch in the fall — to test a key component of education reform: Does incentive pay lead to improvements in student outcomes?

But the results so far have been mixed.

The extra income teachers have earned has mostly been for time spent in professional development. Goals set for improvements in student achievement, however, have fallen short.

One program, the East High School teacher incentive agreement, completed its second school year last June. Teachers at East established six school-wide goals that had to be met to earn the additional pay. The goals were supposed to be challenging, but attainable.

For example, one of the academic goals for teachers was to increase graduation rates from 42 percent to 50 percent for East students who began ninth grade in September 2008 and graduated in June 2012. Another goal: increasing the percentage of students passing the English language Regents exam from 69 to 85 percent for students who graduated in 2012.

Teachers could have earned a maximum of $1,650 if they met their academic goals and $800 for professional development goals.

But none of East's teachers met the academic goals, says Susan Hasenauer-Curtis, the district's director of school innovation. About 34 teachers did receive $800 for completing 24 hours of professional development instruction and 73 received about $1,350 after completing at least 36 hours of instruction.

The second initiative, the Teacher Incentive Fund, is a multiple schools, five-year program that gets under way this fall. Both teachers and principals are participating, and the goal is to earn a "highly effective" rating on their next professional evaluation.

But the program has a twist. In one group of 10 schools, the teachers and principals will be rewarded with extra pay — about 10 percent of the school's average median salary — if they meet their goal. The teachers also had to agree to allow classroom observations as they taught.

In another group of 10 schools, the teachers and principals have the same goal, but they will not be rewarded even if they succeed.

Rewarding workers for exceptional performance is a tactic commonly practiced in the private sector, often to motivate employees. Education reformers have also touted the benefits of incentive pay in public schools as a way to increase teacher morale, saying that highly effective teachers should be rewarded with perks and bonuses. Average or mediocre performance shouldn't be rewarded, reformers say. But the current system treats average and high performers the same, they say.

Teachers unions haven't embraced the idea of higher teacher pay for higher student performance, particularly if the model links specific teachers to their students' academic progress. They say it's difficult to identify which teacher caused an improvement in a student's performance, since students sometimes work with multiple teachers, coaches, and other caring adults. A football coach's emotional support, for example, may be what motivated a student to spend more time studying for a math test, they say.

The district's experiment in incentive pay for teachers was initiated by former Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard, who viewed the programs as integral to district reform.

But Brizard pushed for programs that directly tied teacher incentive pay to student performance on standardized tests. The Rochester Teachers Association pushed back.

"He didn't get it," says RTA President Adam Urbanski. "That approach presumes that teachers are just holding back, withholding excellent teaching, which is nonsense."

That kind of thinking is one of the reasons why incentive pay doesn't work, he says.

"This assumes that teachers are the problem," Urbanski says. "Teachers are the solution."

But the programs pursued by the district take a different approach, says Hasenauer-Curtis. Emphasizing professional development should help teachers in the classroom, which, in turn, should have a positive effect on students,

And the programs' professional development goals shouldn't be minimized, because teachers have to commit large chunks of time outside of the classroom, she says. And some teachers have made multiple commitments to professional development, including pursuing advanced degrees.

The programs are also collaborative and consensual, Hasenauer-Curtis says. At least 80 percent of the teachers in the participating schools agreed to commit to the programs. And teachers participate as a group instead of competing against each other.

Still, despite millions in funding, it's unclear if the programs will lead to higher student achievement. Urbanski doesn't sound optimistic, though he says it may be too early to tell.

"If they [student test scores] don't improve, maybe the money should go to improving the lives of families, after-school programs for children, and improving children's readiness for learning," he says. "This way no one dies of this same cure again."

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