Thanks to Recent Reforms, Merit Pay Coming to Some Wisconsin School Districts

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

A merit pay program that incentivizes teachers is about to get a test run at the local level. Two Wisconsin school districts are moving forward with a plan that would reward good teachers with salary bonuses in the 2012-2013 school year.

The Cedarburg and Hartland-Lakeside School Districts will be amongst the first to institute merit pay programs for educators in the Badger State. Bonuses will be tied to teacher evaluations – instructors that earn high marks from administrators will be eligible for extra compensation in the following school year. In Cedarburg, these additional payments range from $1,700 to $2,200.

The ability to institute bonus systems on a district-to-district basis is a new one in Wisconsin. In previous years, most plans would have been wiped out by collective bargaining between the school district and their local teachers’ union. Since Act 10 removed most of these bargaining scenarios, school boards now have more freedom to enact reforms like merit pay in their classrooms.

The district’s hope is that pay-for-performance bonuses will make the area more attractive to the state’s best teachers. An influx of new talent would not only bolster the teaching corps, but also raise the bar for the city’s existing teaching staff. However, previous studies suggest that merit pay programs can be a mixed bag, especially when they are enacted as the centerpiece of educational reform.

A recent study in Nashville’s public schools showed that teacher bonuses alone had no significant effect on student performance in the classroom. This report – the first ever scientific study on teacher merit pay in America – evaluated three years of tracked data across the metropolitan area’s middle school math teachers. Annual performance bonuses for qualifying educators were either $5,000, $10,000, or $15,000.

While there was a significant benefit for fifth graders between years two and three of the program, the experiment’s overall results showed no significant effect linking student test scores to teachers that were participants in the merit pay program. This suggests that Cedarburg and Hartland-Lakeside’s programs may have trouble getting the desired results that they are aiming for out of this program.

Another interesting point about this Vanderbilt study is the participation rate for the voluntary program. Approximately 70 percent of the targeting teaching population that the study was offered to decided to take part. This differs from what we’re seeing in Wisconsin’s pilot districts, where local union leaders like Terry Grogan of the Oak Creek Education Association have expressed concerns. This may be tied to the fact that teachers here were participating in an experiment rather than a lasting reform effort.

Despite the lack of visible results in Nashville, a modest bonus system has been part of sweeping reform that has paid dividends in Florida. Over a decade ago, merit pay became part of a legislative program that enacted special needs scholarships for disabled students, transparent grading for schools, and an increased focus on reading in early childhood education. This reward program gave modest bonuses to teachers and schools based on students taking and passing Advanced Placement exams in order to earn college credit.

This program has seen considerable success, especially amongst minority students. The number of Hispanic and African-American students passing AP exams has more than tripled in the state over the past decade. However, the exact effect of this merit system is not fully known since these gains could be related to any of the other significant reforms that were passed in the same era.

These pilot programs in Cedarburg and Hartland-Lakeside will provide an interesting case study in the continuing debate over merit pay programs. They’ll add to the existing research that has helped fuel the discussion over whether or not performance bonuses have a place in public schools. However, studies suggest that the implementation of merit pay alone may not be enough to produce significant improvements in the classroom.

These districts are taking a brave step forward to change the environment in their schools. Will Cedarburg and Hartland-Lakeside be a breakthrough for merit pay? Will the expansion of teacher bonuses across a greater scope of subjects and classrooms have a greater positive effect for students? Or will they fall victim of the same issues that left little lasting reform in other test situations in America? It’s far too soon to tell now, but this won’t be the last that we hear about these districts in terms of educational reform in the near future.

It’s a whole new world in Wisconsin thanks to Act 10.