When Republican John McCain addressed the NAACP in Cincinnati on Wednesday, he focused on education. One of the strategies that McCain endorsed in his speech is that effective teachers should earn more money. That proposal also has the backing of Democrat Barack Obama.
Teachers have long resisted this idea, but they are gradually warming up to it. Still, many questions surround the issue of merit pay, including whether teachers can be punished for the challenges facing students — especially if those students are low-income, learning disabled, or struggling to speak English.
One school district in Colorado already has tackled the problem.
Eagle County, which has had one of the most radical compensation systems for teachers, also has a lot of new immigrants.
Eighty-five percent of the students in the county speak Spanish as their first language. This, combined with a high rate of student mobility, means that often, students can suffer from bad test scores. And under the merit pay system, those test scores also affect teachers.
Deborah Savino, a teacher at Avon Elementary, says she seldom sees the same students from one year to the next, saying the school has a "mobility rate" of 87 percent. "So 87 percent of our students are coming in and out of this door. It makes it very hard to grow students with that mobility rate. It's almost impossible," she says.
Teachers do have other routes to prosperity. Savino, for instance, became a master teacher. She has fewer classes, so she can help evaluate other teachers and help turn around her struggling school. For that, she gets a serious bonus: $11,500, which she says helps her pay her mortgage in the Vail Valley area, which includes several tony ski resorts.
McCain and Obama have both backed the creation of master teachers as a way of raising standards. But of course, no U.S. president will decide just how much to pay master teachers, and the person sitting in the Oval Office cannot ease the resentment these separate pay levels create.
Many teachers do not like to see their peers turned into administrators. Mike Salamoni, who teaches art at Avon Elementary, says these good teachers are being pulled out of the classroom.
"I mean, if these truly are our best teachers, I'd like to see them with more contact time with the students," he says.
Merit Pay In Higher Performing Schools
Down the road at Brush Creek Elementary, there are fewer immigrant students, and achievement scores tend to be higher. But here, as elsewhere, feelings about performance pay boil down to this: Did you get rewarded?
Music teacher Heather Marner says that the reward system has been good to her and that she is earning more money than she did before.
"I don't think it's changed the way I teach," she says. "I think that I feel more honored and recognized now for the way I do teach."
This raises another question: Is performance pay working if it just rewards teachers who are already doing a good job?
Merit Pay And Hurt Feelings?
The pay system in Eagle has also left a lot of hurt feelings. As many experts recommend, pay boosts here are based in part on a comprehensive evaluation of teacher performance. So even if test scores don't go up, ambitious teachers can be recognized.
But Brush Creek teacher Kate Turnipseed says the whole system has just gotten too subjective and complicated: "They're so detailed. And they're so cumbersome, and you can never get the A plus. It's been a very damaging evaluation system for me."
That kind of bitterness recently led the county to overhaul the program. The district has dropped provisions that gave individual teachers a pay boost if their students did well. Now, teachers profit when the entire school advances. And teachers get a cost-of-living increase no matter what, which is meant to ease the high turnover rate in this expensive part of the world.
The lesson of Eagle's experience and that of other districts is that teachers have to be on board before a new system is passed. Kristan Van Hook is with the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, which helps design performance pay systems.
"It's essential that teachers buy-in. They're the ones implementing the program. If they aren't supportive, in our experience, it's not effective. We work with them to have a faculty vote to join the program."
The teachers union in Eagle County is weak, and administrators there admit that they've been struggling to get teachers on board.
Regardless of the next president's position, the future of performance pay will likely depend on the success or failure of each local experiment.