COLUMBIA — The Columbia School Board put a plan to pay teachers based on merit on hold early Thursday.
The plan would "develop and implement" a merit pay system by 2014-15. Merit pay means teachers' salaries would be based on student academic performance rather than the currently salary schedule, which pays teachers based on their level of education and years of experience with the district.
As a result of the meeting, the merit pay portion of the plan was modified to read: "The district will study, develop and consider implementing an appropriate model."
The plan was conceived in October 2009 by the Highly Qualified Staff Committee, which is part of the district's five-year Comprehensive School Improvement Plan and led by Michelle Pruitt, a board member, and Mary Laffey, the head of human resources for the district .
Merit pay is being talked about, and sometimes used, in districts across the country. Columbia is looking at the issue now so it can be ahead of the curve in the event merit pay becomes an accepted system nationally, Christine King, a board member, said.
"I'd rather us be in the driver's seat," she said.
Merit pay took up about a third of the board's three-hour morning meeting. Pruitt made a case for the system, saying the committee found it relevant to attracting and keeping highly qualified teachers.
Pruitt included results of a survey of Columbia public school teachers conducted by the Columbia Missouri National Education Association. Surveyed teachers seemed to favor merit pay, but other members found the results unconvincing because too few responded.
In an interview later, Pruitt said the board's overall goals are always about what will best support student achievement. "We need to take it slow," she said.
At the meeting, board President Jan Mees said she "wholeheartedly" disagreed with implementing a merit pay system.
King was on the fence about the plan, saying there are too many factors involved to make the system fair to teachers and to hold them accountable for student performance.
King, who worked for years in the private sector, however, also acknowledged a key argument in favor of merit pay: “In every other facet of employment, you’re based on performance whether it’s under your control or not.”
David Bond, a representative of the Missouri State Teachers Association, listened to the board discussion and briefly addressed members. Explaining his remarks later, Bond said he sees teaching as an art, the quality of which should not be measured by student scores.
"I think there’s a lot of overemphasis on data," Bond said. "What happens in a classroom is very personal."
King estimated it will take two or three years to gather enough research and involve enough teachers to reach a decision.
"It’s still in the infant stage,” she said. "If nothing else, maybe it makes us more aware of teachers’ skill sets and what qualifies as an effective teacher."