Was Rejected Contract's Performance Pay Really Performance Pay?

Performance pay linked to annual evaluations was often cited by Hawaii teachers as one of the key reasons for rejecting a proposed 6-year contract with the state.

Performance pay and annual evaluations were critical to the state because without them it couldn't live up to the commitments it made to win a $75 million Race to the Top grant from the federal Department of Education.

But what's ironic is that the performance pay schedule in the rejected contract set the bar low and may even have missed the point of performance-based pay altogether, a national expert told Civil Beat.

"It sounds like Hawaii's putting its toe in the water but isn't really trying to make waves by really differentiating between who's effective and who's not," said Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council on Teacher Quality.

Hawaii's application promised that the state would "provide incentives to encourage teacher effectiveness and achieve a more equitable distribution of effective and exemplary teachers in schools throughout the State."

The state needed to show significant progress toward a salary schedule that rewarded teachers for effectively helping their students learn.

But would the system as proposed have done that?

In the contract rejected Thursday, Hawaii promised teachers a 1 percent salary increase for every annual evaluation from 2014 to 2017 in which they received an "effective" rating or better. The annual evaluation had not been developed before the vote, but the tentative agreement with the teachers union stated that half of it would have been based on "teacher practice indicators" and half on teachers' contribution to student learning and growth.

But Jacobs questioned the merits of the approach.

"If it's supposed to be something that everybody gets, why don't you just call it their salary, because that's what it is," Jacobs said.

In most performance pay systems, pay raises are used as an incentive and reward for excellence. However, in the system proposed by Hawaii, all teachers with an effective or higher rating would have received exactly the same raise.

That smacks of being almost identical to a step increase, especially given that it wasn't known how many teachers could receive a rating of "highly effective" or "effective," or the two lower ratings, "marginal" and "unsatisfactory."

Former Hawaii State Teachers Association Executive Director Joan Husted said she didn't think the state or the union did a good job of explaining why they believed the proposed salary schedule was performance-based.

"I don't think it's a true performance-based salary schedule," Husted said. "It's got performance elements in it, because you have to have a satisfactory evaluation, but teachers in Hawaii have always had to have a satisfactory evaluation in order to move up the pay schedule."

Husted said the union and state already came up with a better performance-pay model as many as 15 years ago, called "Model O." In 1997, negotiators signed a memorandum of understanding that classified teachers as "instructors," "teachers," "senior teachers" and "distinguished teachers." Each classification group would have received "very different salary amounts," she said, with distinguished teachers making around $100,000 per year.

But negotiators were unable work out all the rubrics for determining how teachers were classified, and the talks broke down in 2007. The state didn't believe that teachers in the "distinguished" category should stay there, and HSTA believed that they should unless the state demonstrated that their performance was declining, Husted said.

National Perspective

Other early attempts at performance pay around the country have failed to differentiate between teachers who are "phenomenal" in helping children learn and teachers who are just "so-so," Jacobs said.

"We have not been willing to really differentiate among teachers," she told Civil Beat. "We have tried desperately to treat everybody the same except for some really bright lines." For example, she said teachers would get a raise for a masters degree.

"If everybody ends up getting it," she said of the raise as proposed by Hawaii, "it doesn't serve that purpose either.

"I think that it is a step in the right direction, but they still have a long way to go," Jacobs said.

"A 1 percent isn't nothing. I don't think there's anything wrong with rewarding teachers for an effective rating, and I don't think there's anything wrong with just a one-time reward for the highest performers, either. But I wonder if there's an even more significant reward for those teachers, otherwise it does seem like the bar is set pretty low."

Jacobs said she's not sure that best practices for performance pay are known yet.

Hawaii Department of Education officials and members of the Board of Education declined to discuss details of the contract.

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