Details key to teacher merit pay

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal


Leaders of several Northeast Mississippi school districts said they are intrigued by a plan floated recently by Gov. Phil Bryant to pay teachers based on performance.
They also said the plan’s details will be critical.
“I’m interested in it because I like the idea of rewarding those teachers who are doing good things with kids,” said Lee County Superintendent Jimmy Weeks, adding he would want to see how the plan develops before he could say if he supports it.
Bryant announced the idea on July 27 in unveiling a report written by The Research and Curriculum Unit at Mississippi State University. The governor’s office requested the report on performance-based compensation for the state’s educators.
Teachers’ salaries are currently based on their years of experience and their highest degree earned – bachelor’s, master’s, specialist or doctorate. Each year, they receive an automatic salary increase that ranges from $495 to $794, again depending on their degree.
The new report calls for salaries to no longer rise automatically but for those increases to be based on a combination of how teachers perform on evaluations given by administrators, how students score on state tests and how well schools reach certain goals – such as graduation rates, ACT scores or student reading levels. Teachers of non-tested subjects could be rewarded for those school goals.
It would use results from a new teacher evaluation system being developed by the Mississippi Department of Education. That will measure teachers on a range of skills and rank them from unsatisfactory to emerging to effective to distinguished – rankings that could be used under the governor’s plan to determine how much of a salary hike each teacher would receive.
“I think it is an instrument that can provide a very appropriate measure of a teacher’s performance in the classroom,” Corinth Superintendent Lee Childress said of the evaluation system.
“I like the fact it emphasizes for a teacher participation in professional development the school sponsors, but it also contains a personal growth component, and I think that is extremely important because all of us as educators must grow as individuals.”
Because Mississippi will soon adopt new state tests when it switches to the Common Core State Standards – new curriculum guidelines – in two years, the report said test scores should not be used for the first few years, until a baseline can be established. It also recommended counting student scores on state tests toward report-card grades to give the pupils an incentive to try their best.
Mississippi’s current model for paying teachers is determined by the state Legislature. Bryant could ask the 2013 Legislature to revamp it, but the report released by the RCU called for districts to use local taxpayer money to fund bonuses.
Many districts now provide local supplements to teachers to add to what the state pays. In most cases, that money is also based upon years of experience and degrees earned. The report said that local money should instead be diverted toward paying bonuses to top-performing teachers.
Booneville Superintendent Todd English said the use of local money could lead to inequity between districts that could afford merit pay and those that could not.
“A major concern for me is, and I’ll quote Dr. Burnham (former state superintendent), in Mississippi your quality of education depends on your zip code,” English said.
“They are pushing the state’s responsibility to fund education back to the local governments. And if local governments can’t step up, class sizes will be larger, resources will be less and student achievement will suffer in those districts that can’t foot the bill. We’re only exacerbating the achievement gap.”
English said he believes that performance-based pay for teachers is inevitable but that the “devil is in the details.”
One key, he said, will be in how test scores are used in a way that doesn’t put teachers with a large number of impoverished students at a disadvantage. The RCU report tried to address this by calling for a value-added formula that would account for variables a teacher can not control.
Also important will be how the system is funded, English said.
“The major factor that has to be addressed is the additional funding for education because if you freeze teachers’ pay or potentially lower teachers’ pay, you will lose quality teachers,” he said “We are already the 49th state out of 50 in teachers’ pay.”
Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden agreed that funding was critical.
“I do not have an issue with competitive pay, however, first and foremost, we need to pay a competitive salary to teachers,” Loden said.
Another challenge, said Charles Garrett, will be determining criteria for bonuses.
“It is very hard to define what a good teacher is,” said Garrett, who recently retired as New Albany superintendent to take a leadership position with the Wellspring Center for Professional Futures. “A good teacher may be a person who has a wonderful rapport with students and is very creative. It may be someone who produces high test scores. A great teacher may be someone who communicates very well with parents or someone who is active with extra-curricular activities.
“…I think a lot of educators like to see the idea of some kind of performance consideration in pay. The challenge has always been determining what those details are.”
Monroe County Superintendent Scott Cantrell also said he wants to see how the initiative develops.
“I’ll be interested to see the entire plan,” he said. “…Obviously Gov. Bryant thinks it would be a good thing, and he didn’t go into it haphazardly.”
Union County Superintendent Ken Basil said he likes the increased accountability.
“We all need to be held accountable, and we need to pay our better teachers,” he said. “…This is something they need to explore. If they get all of the nuts and bolts down where it is fair, I’ll be all for it.”
Childress said that the plan, which could also reward goals for school-wide performance, could foster greater collaboration.
“It is tied to performance and how students perform and how schools perform,” he said. “I think that is a key component because every classroom deserves to have the most effective teacher it can possibly have.”
chris.kieffer@journalinc.com