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Update on Performance Pay: Gaining National Attention

A May series of three articles in the San Jose Mercury News reported on the movement towards performance pay in California and Denver’s progress on this initiative.* The first article highlighted the experience of Vaughn Next Learning Center, a Los Angeles area charter school (formerly a public school) which is gaining attention worldwide. In a state dominated by powerful school unions and tenured positions after two years, a teacher at this school says, “When money is on the line, it really motivates you” and another teacher, apparently unthreatened by performance pay, says, “I feel very secure.”

Despite the fact that 100% of the student body comes from low income families and that those with special needs are not sent elsewhere, these students outperform those from similar schools on standardized tests. Savings realized from disassociation from the LA school district over 20 years ago combined with Principal Yvonne Chan’s fundraising ability resulted in smaller class size and the hiring of more teachers. The physical plant and technology at Vaughn are not overly impressive. The school year is 20 days longer than the public school year. The starting base salaries are $2000 lower than in the public schools, but the upside potential is greater and the top salaries higher.

This School has caught the eye of California Governor Schwarzenegger who will decide shortly whether to send voters to the polls this fall to vote on a two initiatives: a merit pay proposal which links teachers’ salaries to evaluation and improvements in test scores; and one which would extend the teacher probationary period from two to five years and permit them to be fired after two poor performance evaluations.

Not unexpectedly, the union opposes these measures and maintains that lower class size and a safe environment with adequate supplies produce higher quality teaching and that evaluation will add to their growing list of responsibilities. We hear these same objections and fears in the independent school world.

Yet how does Yvonne Chan have 82 teachers who have bought into performance pay, and is able to state confidently “I have only good teachers�no barely breathing bodies.”

These appear to be some of the key elements to her success:

  1. Phasing in over time on a volunteer basis. When our clients want to move to a different salary structure and link compensation to evaluation in some way, this consultant often recommends this way of adopting a band, range or ladder system combined with a substantive evaluation: give teachers the OPTION to move to the new system without being able to move back to the present one (or lack of one); and hire all new teachers under the new system. With “patience and persistence” over twelve years, Ms. Chan achieved her goal.
  2. Peer evaluations. Peer input constitutes 1/3 of teachers’ evaluations. Littleford & Associates recommends peer observations and feedback from colleagues as ONE integral component of the system.
  3. Specific evaluation criteria. Littleford & Associates recommends involving teachers early on in the development of such criteria. The criteria may include, but are not limited to, the teaching act and the teaching environment and criteria that relate to responsibility as an employee. Most of the criteria must be based on researched principles of effective instruction and management and can include “local” criteria.
  4. Design an evaluation system that is constructive in practice and in tone. This consultant recommends linking the system to professional growth goals so that each teacher sees a direct relationship between evaluation and professional development. Staff development dollars should follow the guidelines and outcomes of the teacher evaluation process.
  5. Hire for attitude and for “fit” with the school culture and climate not just for credentials.
  6. Being willing to weather some initial conflict and political fallout. Most of the disaffected uncomfortable teachers are likely to leave voluntarily as Ms. Chan learned. But both young teachers AND seasoned ones were still attracted to Vaughn. The Vaughn example mirrors some aspects of the Denver school system experience. Denver found that “merit pay” was too political a phrase and now calls their system “Professional Compensation System for Teachers”. We know from our work with independent schools that the term “merit” can evoke some fear.

Denver teachers work with principals to develop certain goals that can affect salary. Music teachers, for example, have specific criteria that relate to student mastery of their subject. Littleford & Associates encourages this same process with our clients as they design their unique evaluation systems.

The Denver system has a detailed “salary calculator” which teachers can use to determine their potential pay based on the attainment of certain “scores”. Our firm does not believe that an elaborate system, which potentially COULD be susceptible to the same manipulation as scales and stipends, is needed to achieve some form of performance based compensation.

The Vaughn experience is consistent with our Firm’s consistent message: When meaningful substantive evaluation is in place, heads feel the benefits of improved faculty morale and school stability because their ability to deliver feedback and professional growth opportunities becomes more structured and predictable. Parental gossip and value judgments about the quality of teaching become a far less significant element of teacher performance evaluation.

* San Jose Mercury News, May 2-4, 2005

John Littleford
Senior Partner