Kansas City School District tries out pay-for-performance

Saturday, June 18, 2011 | 5:04 p.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — The Kansas City School District is working out the details of a pay-for-performance teacher and principal compensation program.

Until recently, just a handful of schools and districts around the country have used such strategies. But that is beginning to change as the federal government wields billions of dollars in grants to lure states and school districts to try the idea.

The nearly 17,000 Kansas City School District is getting a $13.6 million share of the federal grant money. In the upcoming academic year, staff at 10 elementary schools can receive incentives totaling up to $12,000 each on top of their base pay.

"The impetus behind it was if we impact teacher achievement that it would reciprocally impact student achievement," said Leo Brown, a district administrator who oversees the pay-for-performance program.

The first batch of 10 elementary schools was picked because 75 percent of their staffs voted to participate. Brown said other schools were close to the 75-percent threshold and hopes 10 more of them will join the pay-for-performance program the following school year.

Factors that will play a role in the incentives likely will include test scores, teacher evaluations and the growth students make. Details are still being worked out with the help of an advisory team made up of teachers and principals.

The push for performance pay programs dates to 1950, but has mostly failed because districts and states didn't get buy-in from teachers and couldn't come up with objective ways to measure performance.

School districts in most states calculate pay based on seniority and level of education. For example, teachers who get master's degrees generally get a pay bump.

Brown said the Kansas City School District involved the teacher's union early on in writing the performance pay grant.

The union has pushed for a model that will take into account things like the attendance rate of students whose test scores play a role in determining merit payments. It also has advocated for building-level incentives to ensure there is a way to reward teachers whose students don't take state tests because they are too young or are enrolled in untested elective courses.

"Do we think that pay for performance improves student performance?" said Andrea Flinders, president of the local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. "No we do not. But at the same time if it is going to put more money in some of our teacher's hands that's not a bad thing. We thought it was better to have some input into it, and I think it made a difference in how this plan looks rather if we just left the district to do it on its own."

The federal government is monitoring how the merit pay affects student performance.

Some researchers have found student achievement improves when teachers get performance bonuses. Others have found no correlation.

Brown was hopeful the effort would help and said the district hopes to find a different funding source so it can continue offering merit pay after the five-year grant ends.

"It's a win-win," he said. "It's beneficial for the student of course. It's beneficial for the district as a whole."

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