Chicago Mayor Initiates Principal Merit Pay

Published August 31, 2011

Performance evaluations and merit pay have changed school systems across the nation, but Chicago is the first district to initiate them for hiring and firing principals.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) recently secured $5 million in private donations to fund principal bonuses as part of overhauling Chicago Public Schools. Emanuel has made principal recruitment, training, and evaluation focal points of school reform, developing the Chicago Leadership Collaborative to support the overhaul, which begins this fall.

“The Chicago Leadership Collaborative is just getting off the ground, so it’s a great opportunity for them to do this well, to do this right, to be the first people in the country who find a district-run system that spurs improvement,” said Collin Hitt, an education specialist at the Illinois Policy Institute.

A critical move for improving the nation’s third-largest school district, the focus on administration has sprung from achievements at several of the city’s charter schools, Hitt said.

“Some of the most stunning successes in Chicago over the past ten years have been at charter schools, public schools independently run and governed and reward-based,” Hitt said. “You cannot have a successful school without having an energetic, focused principal. That is a success the charter schools have learned, and that is now a common culture.”

Funding for Merit Pay
Illinois legislators have considered merit pay for years, but have not tried it “in earnest,” Hitt said.

Though philanthropic donations from Emanuel’s political supporters have secured enough funding to kick-start the principal bonus program, Illinois must now rely on federal grants to implement the state’s teacher evaluation system passed in May in Senate Bill 7.

The Illinois House of Representatives recently cancelled SB7 funds for training administrators in the teacher evaluation standards. The bill, which goes into effect this January, outlined a statewide system for rating teacher performance, making promoting successful teachers and firing poor teachers a priority.

With funding on hold, the law may take longer to go into effect while principal funding moves forward.

Determining How to Evaluate
The president of the Chicago school administrators union, Clarice Berry, has partnered with CPS Chief Executive Jean-Claude Brizard to determine how to create the administrator evaluations.

Important in principal evaluations will be “school-wide growth metrics for student achievement, attendance rates, and culture and climate measures, among other factors,” said Maggie DiNovi, New Leaders for New Schools Chicago Program executive director. “Any system that attracts and retains strong leaders will benefit Chicago Public School children.”

Fifty-five percent of Chicago’s fourth graders cannot read, according to 2009 data from the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress. Thirty-eight percent of its fourth graders performed below the basic level on math on that test, as did 49 percent of eighth graders. Forty percent of Chicago eighth graders performed below a basic level of reading.

“The administration has to motivate and inspire an entire team,” said Eric Lerum, national policy director for StudentsFirst, a nonprofit that supports teacher evaluations. “If student achievement goes up, parent involvement goes up, matriculation goes up, dropout rates go down … that’s what you’re shooting for. Their pay should be based on their ability.”

Lerum said incentives for principals should work similarly to teacher merit pay, so that educators who get the best results are rewarded for their achievement.

Potential Structural Challenges
“The program could fail if the district doesn’t take on other challenges in regard to the hiring and firing and replacement of principals,” Hitt said. “You will hear critics say merit-pay initiatives have been tried in some other places and not worked. That means we don’t want to structure Chicago pilot performance pay like that in places where it hasn’t worked.”

School boards are at least one barrier in replacing an underperforming principal, Hitt said, because of their ability to veto change and the politics inherent to the system.

“It’s an opportunity—this is privately funded,” Hitt said. “If it does not create sufficient results, then it can be folded at no taxpayer expense. But if it creates successful recurrence, then it gives us a model of how we can spend taxpayer money more wisely.”

Image of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel by Daniel O’Neill.