It looks like, at least in the near term, any use of teacher performance pay in the Wake County school system would be on a limited basis.
Wake County school board members debated the use of merit pay when reviewing the draft strategic plan last week. Some school board members support its use while others are adamantly against it or only support using it in limited cases.
Performance pay is already in limited use in Wake.
It was first used a few years ago at Wilburn Elementary School under the TAP program. Now Wilburn is one of four lower-performing Wake schools in the Renaissance Schools Program that uses performance pay as part of the federal Race to the Top grant.
The school board voted in March to expand the use of performance pay to Walnut Creek Elementary School and the Longview School.
What set the discussion off last week was page 17 of the strategic plan under the section for processes for retaining teachers.
"Signing bonus and performance bonus plans will be used to retain effective teachers and principals in low-performing schools with unique challenges," according to the strategic plan.
School board member Christine Kushner questioned why it's in the plan. She said that bonus plans have been around a long time and brought a lot of acrimony into school systems between teachers. She said it pits teachers against each other.
“There are not many models — if any — that truly work to raise teaching and raise achievement for teachers," Kushner said. "I would much rather us go down the road of supporting our PLTs (professional learning teams), expanding professional development, really focus on team building among our teachers and have effective teachers mentor younger teachers and go more toward that cooperative approach.”
School board chairman Kevin Hill, a retired teacher and principal, said that bonus plans have been divisive at many of the schools he's been at. Hill said that research shows that signing and performance bonuses help to attract teacher but does little to retain teachers after 2-3 years.
Kushner said she'd like to look back at what happened with TAP at Wilburn, which she said started great but was not successful by the third year. She pointed out that this occurred even with TAP having started with the support of more than 80 percent of Wilburn's teachers.
School board member Susan Evans said she had circled the performance pay item in red on her copy of the strategic plan and had written the word "no" in the margin.
“I would much prefer us do everything we can as a district and from the administration level, or whatever it takes, to make every one of our schools somewhere that our teachers want to teach," Evans said. "I just have an aversion to feeling like we’ve got to compensate teachers extra to come to certain schools. If that’s the case, then we need to address that from a different direction and we need to make that school a place where any teacher wants to teach, and if that means addressing the population or whatever it is, then we need to do that.
I’m just not in favor. I know we’ve done it already because we applied for some grants under that scenario. I voted against it then and I’ll be verbal against it now. I certainly would take great offense at having this in our strategic plan. I don’t think it’s the best way to motivate our teachers.”
School board member Jim Martin said that national board certification is an "effective performance evaluation plan." The state helps teachers pay the cost of going through the rigorous certification process. Upon obtaining certification, the state gives teachers an annual 12 percent increase in their pay.
Superintendent Tony Tata responded to Martin by pointing back to research shared with the board last year showing there's very little correlation between advanced degrees and national board certification and student performance.
Tata added that he has about 25 teachers on his teacher advisory council who, "to a person," advocate for some type of performance pay.
Tata said the advisory council members know and believe they are all excellent teachers who would like to be able distinguish themselves from others. Tata said he has to believe they’re representative of many teachers.
“I would not want to take away our flexibility to pilot this or use this in discrete cases," Tata said. "I would prefer to have the opportunity to apply this in areas where we want to increase achievement or retain teachers, as we’ve done at Walnut Creek and the four Renaissance Schools.”
While Hill said he wasn't indicating he's advocating keeping performance pay in the strategic plan, he said the key word in the bullet item was "unique." He said the board would have to vote on any request from Tata to use performance pay.
School board member John Tedesco noted that performance pay is part of the Race to the Top grant requirements and is part of the agenda for the U.S. Department of Education. He said it's not in Wake's best interests to exclude using the grant money in the way that's been prescribed by the feds.
“In any other profession when you take on extra duty and extra work and you produce extra results, you are rewarded for such," Tedesco also said. "Why are our teachers any less professionals? Why shouldn’t our teachers be treated just as such professionals?”
Martin, a professor at N.C. State, responded by saying he's “one of the few of us around this table who has lived in the education scenario.”
“This is a very politically charged issue nationally so we can’t just say ‘cause it’s in Race to the Top means everything is good," Martin said.
"If we took the check, we need to use it the way we took it," Tedesco responded.
"There’s a big difference in taking the check and putting it in the strategic plan," Martin replied back.
Martin said dropping it from the strategic plan wouldn't prevent Tata from being able to recommend use of performance pay if it's for a "good reason." Martin said including it in the strategic plan would reflect the implication that performance pay is a general direction and a focus area for Wake.
Hill and Evans also joined in by saying that Tata wouldn't be precluded from recommending the use of performance pay even if it's dropped from the strategic plan.
"Regardless of where the board goes on this with the strategic plan, I believe it is a tool at the disposal of the superintendent to recommend to the board in unique cases," Hill said.
While the school board debates the issue, state Sen. Phil Berger has included the use of performance pay in his education reform plan. This week, the Senate Education Committee approved the plan proposed by the president pro tempore of the Senate.