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Where is Your Pay Plan Heading?

By Mary Ellen Flannery and Alain Jehlen

What do you think about merit pay?

Hate it! Of course!

Unless, perhaps, you don’t…unless, perhaps, it means a series of pay incentives to encourage you to teach in the poorest schools, or a system of rewards for professional development that gets you thinking about curriculum, planning parent outreach events, or conducting classroom research.

Then it gets complicated, no?


Merit pay: The older term for rewarding teachers, often based on subjective evaluations by principals. The potential for favoritism gave this term a bad reputation among educators.Pay-for-test scores:

Rewarding teachers on the basis of student test scores or growth in test scores.

Pay-for-performance: An alternative word for “merit pay,” which often includes rewards for either subjective evaluations or student test scores.

Single salary schedule: A traditional table that relies on the number of years’ experience and education credentials to determine pay.

Shortage areas: Disciplines or specialties for which there may be few qualified applicants, such as math, science, reading, English for language learners, special education, and some foreign languages.

Hard-to-staff schools: Schools that have reputations for posing extra hard challenges to teachers and typically few applicants for jobs. Often, these are schools with high percentages of poor, minority students.

Talk about hot button issues, talk about the elephant in the room, merit pay is like a pachyderm on fire these days. Republicans, Democrats, governors, legislators, presidential candidates, and school board members all are advocating for changes in teacher pay. Turn on talk radio. Flip to the opinion pages in your newspaper. This is an issue that simply can’t be ignored.

Already, according to NEA research, at least 36 states plus the District of Columbia have some sort of “alternative compensation” systems in place. And more are certainly on their way. That’s why it’s important for all NEA members to arm themselves with information and resources on the subject. Know what to embrace. Know what to avoid. And know, above all else, that your voice should be heard before anybody changes your pay.

“Information is power,” says NEA President Reg Weaver. “While we can be open to alternatives, we should always oppose politically motivated, quick fixes designed to weaken the voice of teachers and the effectiveness of education employees.

“If they want to talk about changing the way we’re paid, they need to do that with us, not to us.”


When the new superintendent of Cambridge, Massachusetts, schools first came to town, he found a school committee quite interested in merit pay. So, to illustrate how it might work (or not), the superintendent, Thomas Fowler-Finn, showed his principals and curriculum coordinators a 15-minute video of a teacher at work. He then asked them to rate her performance from 1 to 10.

“I got a couple of 2s, a 3, several 4s and 5s—the entire spectrum, right up to a 10,” he says. With that, they decided those kinds of ratings wouldn’t make a very solid basis for paying people.

Like the gentleman from Cambridge concluded, traveling the road of “merit pay” or “alternative pay” can be dangerous. (See our glossary on page 41 for a quick vocabulary lesson.) There are plenty of potholes out there that can swallow an educator’s paycheck. But basically, according to NEA’s compensation experts, there are three things to avoid:

  • Pay based on subjective evaluations. Instead, NEA believes evaluations should be used to improve the practice of teaching and student learning.
  • Pay based on student test scores. Students, parents, and teachers would be a lot better served if scores were used to help teachers improve their practice, school curriculum, or other learning conditions.
  • Extra pay for teachers in hard-to-fill subjects. This kind of idea leads to trouble and the thinking that some types of teachers are more valuable than others, NEA believes.

To Okaloosa County, Florida, fifth-grade teacher Karen Peek, the whole idea of pay for performance is an insult. “I love my work and I do the best job possible every day. You could offer me $2 million and I couldn’t do it better. Give me a raise—that would be great—but don’t imply that I am holding back and not doing the best I can now.”


Thinking about ways to get more money to educators isn’t such a bad thing. Yes, of course, you love the children; it’s a noble profession; and you are making the world a better place. But you can’t get paid a decent wage for that? Nearly half of new teachers leave the classroom during the first five years of teaching—and, although the reasons are varied, low pay is certainly one of them.

NEA supports at least a $40,000 salary for all teachers, and it celebrates the wins of its affiliates who have climbed even higher. (Since 2006, an increasing number of New Jersey school districts have adopted $50K as their base salary. Go Jersey!) It also supports compensation systems that encourage the kinds of things that actually improve teaching and student learning—like skills, knowledge, and experience. Those systems might include:

  • Additional pay for National Board Certification or advanced degrees.
  • Additional pay for taking on the role of mentor to newer colleagues, or for gaining new knowledge through professional development or experiences.
  • Incentives to attract caring and qualified teachers to hard-to-staff schools. (Local teachers would know best how to provide those incentives or how much money it might take to be effective.)

“Through our plan, we’re developing a learning community,” says Maureen Gunderson of Le Center, Minnesota, where bonuses are earned mostly from working with colleagues to improve practice.

But what works in rural Minnesota might not work in Jersey City or Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and vice versa. While there are basic principles that hold true everywhere—for example, pay based on test scores is a bad idea on both coasts and all the places in between—you’ll know what’s best for you and your colleagues.

Whatever it is, NEA and your state affiliate can help you get it. Go to for more information. And read on for examples of the pluses and minuses of far-ranging plans from Portland, Maine, to Houston, Texas.


When former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signed into a law a merit-pay plan called STAR (Special Teachers Are Rewarded), who knew that the spotlight would be shined on thousands of teachers who simply said no to the test-driven bonuses? Last year, it was repealed by the Florida Legislature and replaced with a new model.

The old STAR system was funded with $147.5 million by the state Legislature to provide 25 percent of the state’s teachers with 5 percent bonuses. Each district was supposed to negotiate its own plan with local Associations, but the state required them to be based on test scores. In many districts, teachers just walked away.

In 2007, STAR was replaced by MAP (Merit Award Program) . Teachers hoped it would be better because it does allow districts to look at improvement rates, but bonuses must be based on very complicated actuarial tables developed by a state contractor. And it still doesn’t appear as if the state will consider other activities.

In Escambia County, for example, a proposed plan added incentives for community involvement, professional development, and leadership. The state rejected it—and now it appears as if fewer than 10 Florida districts will sign on.


Last October, the mayor, schools chief, and union leaders in the nation’s biggest school system announced they had bargained a pay-for-performance plan about which they could all be enthusiastic.

  • The program does not replace the existing salary schedule. It adds bonuses.
  • Schools qualify for bonuses if students meet targets for raising test scores.
  • The bonus goes to the whole school, not individuals. A committee—the principal, a principal’s designee, and two representatives elected by union members—decides how to divvy up the money among the staff.
  • The school’s total bonus equals $3,000 times the number of union-represented educators.
  • The program is voluntary in the sense that schools only take part if 55 percent of union members and the principal vote to opt in.
  • Government officials also agreed to support pension improvements for all teachers.

“This shuts the door on the individual merit pay plans that I abhor,” says United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.


The ski area around Vail, Colorado, is a leading example of the Milken Family Foundation’s Teacher Advancement Program (TAP). Milken says teachers should vote on joining TAP, but here, according to Jason Glass, the district’s new human resources director, “It was forced on the teachers, and we’re still healing that.” A teacher-administrator committee is working on changes.

  • The system replaced the salary schedule.
  • A tax increase helped pay for it.
  • About half of a teacher’s annual raise depends on evaluations by principals and master teachers. Glass says there’s a subjective element, despite efforts to get all evaluators on the same page.
  • The rest of the raise depends partly on the school’s test scores and partly on the score growth for a teacher’s own students.
  • The score calculations use a secret formula devised by researcher William Sanders.

“The complexity is daunting to folks,” says Glass. “They’re not sure how their raise is calculated. We have to make it more clear.” But he’s committed to making pay-for-performance work. Union leader Todd Huck says the district has trouble finding enough respected, experienced teachers willing to evaluate their peers, even though master teachers are paid extra.


When respected “Teachers of the Year” didn’t get bonus checks last year, many had to wonder just how the Houston Independent School District decided to allocate more than $14 million in merit pay. The ones who guessed test scores (and only test scores) were right. About 7,400 staff members got checks, ranging from a few hundred dollars to $7,000—and, when the Houston Chronicle published the names and amounts, there was an uproar. Many felt unfairly left out. Later, the Associated Press reported that, because of a computer error, nearly 100 teachers were asked to return amounts up to $2,790.


In 2005, Denver became the first big-city school system to buy into pay-for-performance with a complex system called “ProComp.” Teacher approval was contingent on voters passing a $25 million tax increase, enough for an average of $6,000 per teacher.

  • The plan was bargained, not imposed, after a union-management pilot project.
  • It is optional for teachers already in the system, mandatory for new hires.
  • It replaces the old salary schedule. There are no seniority steps.
  • The extra money goes to individuals, but there’s no limit on how many teachers can get raises at a school, so colleagues are not competing.
  • The biggest raises are for graduate degrees and extra courses. Teachers can also qualify for more money by getting good evaluations from principals, by working in schools or fields in which there is a shortage of candidates, and for helping their students meet test score goals.
  • Test score goals are not one-size-fits-all. They are negotiated, case-by-case, between teachers and principals.


In 1999, this small Wisconsin district led the way for effective salary reform with a collective bargaining agreement designed to attract and retain great teachers. Instead of the traditional “bachelor’s” and “master’s” lanes, Manitowoc teachers move up when they complete certain activities, like earning academy credits or National Board Certification. Since then, their turnover rate has fallen by half, and a quarter of their teachers take academy classes every year. Said nationally certified third-grade teacher Sandra Maedke: “We do have a great pay plan incentive here in Manitowoc. That, of course, cannot be the only incentive for taking on such an intensive and rigorous challenge as the National Boards—but it helps.”


Just a few years ago, Chattanooga’s urban schools weren’t where many teachers wanted to be. (Sixty-four open jobs were advertised in one year—one applicant applied.) But a vibrant partnership, kicked off by a grant from the NEA Foundation, between the nine schools and the Hamilton County Education Association has brought new energy. To recruit and retain great teachers, their negotiated contract now includes a system of bonuses, which include $5,000 recruitment bonuses for teachers with a record of improving test scores; $5,000 retention bonuses for high-performing teachers; and $1,000 team bonuses for all school employees at a school with high scores.


The Portland (Maine) Education Association recently transformed its experience-based salary scale into a new system that puts a premium on teacher-directed professional learning and experience.

Instead of advancing in pay through the years, teachers earn more by obtaining professional development of their choosing. Such things might include conducting classroom research, handling a parent involvement program, developing curriculum, presenting at a conference, grant-writing, and more. “It allows incredible opportunities to tailor your own professional development,” says chief negotiator Gary Vines, a high school guidance counselor.

AND IT’S WORKING. During the past 18 months, the 675 members have submitted more than 60,000 hours of learning. That’s more money for them—and better learning opportunities for kids, too. “The best indicator of student learning is teacher learning,” Vines says.

Read more about these new pay plans, and find out how you can get involved in the fight for professional pay for teachers and a living wage for all education support professionals, at .

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