If Wisconsin lawmakers ever get around to seriously pondering changes in K-12 education, they should ask UW-Madison professor Allan Odden about research linking teacher bonuses to student performance.
'Democrats, Republicans, big-city schools and small rural schools all want to change teacher pay structures,' says Odden, co-director of the UW's Consortium for Policy Research in Education. 'The real challenge is getting viable ideas and plans on the table.'
Across the country, school districts have had mixed success with merit-pay programs, lately dubbed 'performance pay' to broaden political appeal.
In January, Houston expanded its school-based bonus system to target individual teachers, who can receive $3,000 bonuses if students meet performance expectations. Last year, Denver began a $25 million plan that pays more to teachers who earn advanced degrees, take tough assignments and meet student-achievement goals. And California lawmakers last year proposed a constitutional amendment linking teacher pay to student performance.
But, as with many other educational reforms, Wisconsin has been slow to embrace merit pay. This, says Odden, may be because educational leaders here are 'a little bit squeamish about testing and uncertain about strong state accountability measures.'
That hasn't stopped Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Green from touting a merit-pay plan. Green argues that teachers shouldn't get raises simply for longevity, and vows to convene a task force to develop a statewide program.
But Green's idea isn't new. In fact, three consecutive governors have made similar attempts. In 2000, Tommy Thompson pitched a plan to give teachers $3,000 bonuses for year-to-year gains in student achievement. Scott McCallum pushed a similar idea. And Jim Doyle's last state budget proposed $1.8 million for grants to districts that develop new pay structures tied to various measures of teacher performance. Lawmakers cut it from the budget.
Now, in addition to election-year politics, the issue of merit pay is being raised in connection with state revenue caps, which are increasingly choking local school districts.
John Matthews, executive director of Madison Teachers Inc., once called merit pay 'the next right-wing agenda.' But many educators are less dismissive of the idea, and even some teachers unions are supportive.
'We think there may be some fair way to reward teachers for those factors that they control,' says Mike McNett, director of collective bargaining and research for the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC). But McNett opposes linking pay raises to student test scores, citing research showing the significant role of outside factors in student achievement, including student mobility, socioeconomic status and the educational levels of parents.
'To base teacher pay on those issues that aren't controlled by the teacher simply breeds cynicism and is de-motivating for teachers,' McNett says. And he argues it would encourage the best teachers to seek jobs with the highest-performing students, drawing them away from where they're needed most.
Thus far, policymakers haven't convinced major stakeholders of the best way to measure teacher success. Studies have shown that neither years of experience nor education degrees are strongly linked to teacher effectiveness. And it doesn't take many years as a teacher to recognize that there are few tangible rewards for relentlessly pursuing gains in student achievement.
Like it or not, money is a powerful motivator. Odden says his research shows that merit-based programs identify and prioritize school- and district-level goals, which translates into more consistent front-line results.
'Bonuses tied to achievement reward teachers for doing what the system wants them to do,' says Odden. 'Teachers say this helps them prioritize what's most important, and it allows them to sort out all the multiple signals that they get.'
It will take money and a detailed plan to make any merit pay system work. This is no easy task, but lawmakers who head both the Senate and Assembly's education committees say they're open to ideas.
'I think if we're going to require more of our teachers and our students, there has to be some type of mechanism to reward people who perform better,' says Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon). He adds that local school districts should have the ultimate authority on teacher pay.
Rep. Debi Towns (R-Janesville) is willing to look at models that fairly measure what teachers realistically control.
'A lot of people think that teachers who consistently perform successfully are worth more than those who consistently underperform,' says Towns. 'In many jobs, if you don't produce, you're not going to stay in that job for long, or at least you're not going to excel financially. That's not the same for teachers.'
Maybe it should be. And increasingly, successful teachers think so, too. Just ask them if they'd like a bonus for doing their jobs well.