POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 19, 2007:
Performance Art or Science
Are you a good teacher or a bad teacher? Your salary may depend on it, if legislature has its way
While state lawmakers grapple with the possibility of implementing a statewide merit pay system for teachers, Tulsa Public Schools are already using a merit pay system, of sorts.
Dr. Michael Zolkoski, superintendent of TPS, was among numerous speakers to address lawmakers at the state Capitol last week during one of five interim study hearings scheduled to examine the subject of performance-based pay for teachers.
House Speaker Lance Cargill announced the hearings last month, stating, "We need bold reforms to start rewarding teachers for success in the classroom so that our best and hardest-working teachers are paid for their achievements."
Basing pay increases on comparative job performance, the Harrah Republican argued, will result in better accountability and higher standards in public education.
Zolkoski, though, among others, warned that lawmakers should tread carefully when it comes to such "bold reforms."
He said such a change would be premature at this point, contending that lawmakers have some learning of their own to do before they revamp the pay system for teachers.
"They need to study certain models," Zolkoski told UTW.
When he began his stint about a year ago as head of the state's largest school district, Zolkoski implemented a form of merit pay as an attraction and retention tool for quality teachers.
He said math, science, special education and foreign language teachers get a sign-on bonus of $2,000.
Also, National Board Certified Teachers get a sign-on bonus of $5,000 per year for their first three years at Gilcrease Intermediate School and Madison Middle School, which adds to the 10-year, $5,000 bonus provided by the state for NBCTs.
Zolkoski estimated that TPS spent between $2 million and $3 million extra in salaries in the past year.
However, the educator said, "It depends on how you define 'merit pay'" whether his bonus system would qualify as such.
He implemented it to attract and retain teachers in areas where they were previously lacking, and in that regard it's been a success, he said. However, the forms a "merit pay system" can take vary widely, and all versions wouldn't provide the accountability lawmakers are trying to achieve, said Zolkoski.
The crucial question in creating a merit-based pay system, Zolkoski said, is determining what "merit" even means, and how it's evaluated and measured.
"If we use an instrument to evaluate teachers, we need to make sure it has validity and truly measures teachers' performance," he said.
For instance, lawmakers would have to determine if "merit" would be measured by district, campus or on an individual level.
In southern Texas, where Zolkoski worked until retirement in Brownsville before moving to Tulsa to serve as superintendent of TPS, a merit pay system was in place both for campuses and individual teachers.
The campus-level merit system is still in place, but he said the individual system has since been discontinued.
Under the campus model, he said teachers would get pay raises or cuts by taking a job at a different school, which might be useful as a retention tool but doesn't do much to distinguish between individual teachers' performance levels.
Under the individualized system, he explained, "merit" amounted to having more college credit hours.
"We were essentially paying people to go back to college," said Zolkoski.
He said last week's hearing didn't go very far in answering that crucial question of how "merit" would be defined.
"A lot of the testimony there had to do with offering incentive pay for special assignments and for teacher retention," he said.
Whichever measure of "merit" lawmakers decide to encourage and reward, though, Zolkoski said they should first provide across-the-board pay raises to bring Oklahoma's average teacher salary up to at least the regional average.
Roy Bishop, president of the Oklahoma Education Association teachers' union, agreed.
If Cargill and others have an arch-nemesis in their quest to create a merit-based pay system for teachers, it's Bishop and the teachers' union he represents.
When the Speaker announced the ongoing hearings last month, Bishop told UTW, "To think the teachers aren't already working hard and to dangle a few hundred dollars in our noses, thinking that's going to motivate us to work hard than we already are is laughable."
"We won't even discuss merit pay until lawmakers fulfill their commitment to get us to the regional average," he added.
One year remains in a five-year plan to gradually raise Oklahoma teachers' average salary to the regional average, he pointed out.
That's not how the Speaker sees it, though, apparently.
When he announced the ongoing hearings, he said, "Oklahoma's teachers have seen record pay increases over the past three years and we've lived up to the promise to increase their pay."
In the past, some lawmakers have stated that the "regional average" is a "moving target," and that Oklahoma's relatively low cost of living offsets teachers' lower on-average pay, as it does for the overall lower per capita income seen in other professions in the state.
How that particular battle resolves itself remains to be seen, but Bishop seemed a little more upbeat regarding last week's hearing.
"There were a lot of positive ideas that came out of it," he said.
Bishop said professional development as a measure of "merit" was one such "positive idea."
Also, he said another noteworthy discussion item from the hearing was a merit pay system in-use by the state of Minnesota.
Under the "Education Minnesota" program, school districts and local schools negotiate among themselves how "merit" is measured and rewarded.
Minnesota appropriates $75 million a year for the program.
However, Bishop noted that, although the program is open for everyone's participation, only 41 of the state's 350 school districts choose to take part, which might be a statement on the merit of a performance-based pay system.
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