The Janesville School District shunned last week the idea of merit pay for teachers, embracing instead the pre-Act 10 pay structure known as “step and lane.”
Under the new system, the steps and lanes look different but essentially function the same—teachers get automatic raises for tenure and for training. An important difference, as Superintendent Steve Pophal noted, is that teachers are now required to obtain professional development credits related to their classroom work. The old system allowed teachers to claim salary hikes regardless of the credits’ relevance to the education field.
This new structure marks the end of the district’s brief, halfhearted experimentation with merit pay. The district subscribed to a pay-for-performance model for a few years under former Superintendent Karen Schulte. But when Pophal arrived last year, the school board formally—and all too happily—declared merit pay dead.
Under Pophal, the district dusted off and gussied up circa 2010 step-and-lane policies, and so we’re back to square one, far from linking teacher pay to classroom performance.
Though Act 10’s adoption in 2011 limited the ability of public-sector unions to bargain collectively and freed districts to innovate and pay teachers in novel new ways, the Janesville School District has failed to escape the gravitational pull of education’s pessimistic past. It claims merit pay is impractical, even counterproductive.
In interviews with The Gazette, Pophal and school board President Kevin Murray asserted the difficulty in objectively measuring performance, given the wide variety and complexity of tasks and challenges faced by teachers every day. If a workable pay-for-performance model exists, no school district in the nation has figured it out, they said.
Yet, ask any high school student who the best-performing and worst-performing teachers are, and they’ll likely rattle off a list.
And we have to believe school principals—the managers of their buildings—could list their best and worst teachers, too.
For whatever reason, merit pay has become as elusive as the holy grail. Even under Schulte’s merit pay system, the administration and school board couldn’t bring themselves to single out the best teachers. The complicated, paperwork-intensive scheme gave nearly 99 percent of teachers a pay boost, while the school board publicly fantasized that all the teachers deserved the raises.
One of the few redeeming aspects of the new pay structure adopted last week is it ties a tiny amount of teacher pay—$100—to the achievement of “building goals,” such a school improving math scores by 5 percent, and an additional $100 for the district achieving its goals.
We’ll have to see whether these carrots, too, turn into participation ribbons given to every teacher in every building, but certainly any nod to merit in this mostly meritless system is worth keeping.
That this new system offers a kernel of incentive is a hopeful sign, suggesting the school board, deep within its political subconscious, wants to reward good performance.
Though our call may fall on deaf ears, we encourage the school board not to give up on merit pay. It should continue to experiment—if only $100 at a time—and remain open to the idea that both the best and worst teachers deserve to be paid what they’re worth.