Act 10 allows Wisconsin schools to offer teachers ‘merit pay’ incentives instead of automatic raises

August 8, 2013

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Steve Gunn Steve Gunn

Steve, Editor-in-chief of EAGnews, joined in 2009. Previously, he was a newspaper journalist.
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Part 6 in a series of Act 10 success stories

CEDARBURG, Wis. – Daryl Herrick has long understood the importance of evaluating teachers and helping them become the best they can be.

Several years ago he devised an innovative evaluation system that measures teachers in three different ways every year, in an effort to be “fair, consistent and accurate.”

But the Cedarburg superintendent lacked the power to make the connection between teacher evaluations and compensation, because the teachers union wouldn’t allow it.  merit pay 1

In the bad old days of collective bargaining, Wisconsin teachers were compensated based on salary scales spelled out in union contracts. Salary was determined strictly by seniority and the number of graduate level college classes a teacher completed, just the way the union wanted it.

There was no room for extra pay for outstanding teachers. There was no way to financially penalize lesser teachers. Just about every teacher received an annual raise, whether they deserved it or not.

But all of that changed in the 2011-12 school year, when Act 10 became law. Suddenly teachers unions lost their power to block innovative programs, leaving the Cedarburg school board the freedom to create a merit pay system based on Herrick’s “effective educator initiative.”

Now Cedarburg teachers have a chance to increase their income as they push themselves to become better instructors. Many other schools around the state have either implemented various forms of merit pay or are developing programs.

The money the school district formerly spent on union scale raises – about $300,000 per year – is now dispersed among teachers who are getting the job done for kids.

“The teachers union doesn’t like it,” said Herrick, who retired in June as superintendent of Cedarburg schools. “They would like to go back to the old days. But why would we do that? We get nothing for it.

“Our motivation is not about money. It’s about measuring and developing teacher effectiveness. The taxpayer is finally getting something back (for the extra pay).”

Herrick told EAGnews the merit pay system has driven home the point that “student achievement is going to be tied to teacher performance,” whether anyone likes it or not.

The effectiveness of the merit pay system can be measured. In 2006-07, the first year the district used the evaluation system, about 18 percent of teachers ranked in the lower 1/3 of the performance categories, Herrick said. That total was less than one percent in the 2012-13 school year, with merit pay in full swing.

Clearly the lure of a few extra dollars can be a good thing.

‘Average is not acceptable’

A lot of so-called experts question whether teachers can be fairly evaluated under any given circumstances. They argue too many factors are beyond teachers’ control, including parental encouragement and support.

But Herrick was careful to design an evaluation system that measures teacher effectiveness in three different stages, using several different criteria.

In February of every year, there is the “observations and artifacts” stage, where teachers and principals present written evidence of the type of work that teachers do, then principals rate the teachers in various categories on a scale of 1-5.

At the end of the school year the district borrows 10 effective teaching standards developed by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, assigns a weight to each standard based on the importance they place on each, and assigns a 1-5 score to each teacher for each category. The numerical score is multiplied by the weight to get the teacher’s final score.

The final stage involves the principal writing a summary of each teacher’s performance.

In June of each year, a group of administrators – including the superintendent, principals, the human resource director and the finance director – meet to do a final evaluation of each teacher. The two numerical scores are considered, as well as the written evaluation.

Any inconsistencies between the three evaluations are discussed thoroughly, until a consensus is formed.

Over the summer each teacher receives a letter, informing them if they qualified for a bonus or not.

Teachers who receive bonuses fall into one of four categories, with different dollar amounts assigned to each. They include “distinguished” ($2,800), “high performing” ($1,900), “proficient” ($1,575) and “average” ($500).

The two lowest categories – basic and unacceptable – do not come with bonus money. After six years teachers are expected to rank above the “average” category to get a bonus.

“Average is not acceptable in Cedarburg after a certain point,” Herrick said. “After six years there is no excuse.”

Adding merit pay to the mix has motivated some teachers to push themselves even harder, Herrick said.

“We certainly have some who believe they should be paid more for how they perform, and now they’re going to achieve that,” he said.

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