Houston District OKs Teacher Merit Pay Plan

Published March 1, 2006

During its January 12 meeting, the Houston Independent School District’s (HISD) nine-member school board unanimously approved a merit pay “Teacher Performance Plan,” which the board touted as a “pay plan based on how well students learn.”

Effective immediately, Houston teachers will receive bonuses when students make progress on state and national achievement tests compared with students in similar classrooms and schools around Houston and Texas. Teachers could receive bonuses as early as this December.

“For the first time ever, we are able to pay our best teachers more money, as it should be,” said HISD Superintendent Dr. Abelardo Saavedra. “Teachers who work hard and whose students show academic improvement will be rewarded for their dedication to excellence.”

Saavedra said HISD, which employs nearly 12,300 teachers who teach more than 210,000 students, is the largest school district in the country to adopt such a plan.

Plan Outlined

In a January 13 statement, Saavedra explained the “earning potential in the performance pay plan could be as high as $3,000 for core teachers and as high as $1,500 for non-core teachers.” The plan has three levels, each of which would offer a maximum of $1,000 to teachers whose students perform well. The first two levels–called “strands”–are open to all teachers, Saavedra said. About half of the teachers in the district would be eligible to compete in the third strand, depending on the grades and subjects they teach. Non-core teachers, such as art and music instructors, will have an opportunity to earn up to $1,500 in bonuses this year, HISD spokesperson Terry Abbott said.

In a resolution dated December 29, the Greater Houston Partnership (GHP), the area’s chamber of commerce, outlined the pay plan. Patrick Oxford, chairman of the GHP education advisory committee, said the group supports the new plan and has encouraged the district for 13 years to adopt a program to reward teacher achievement.

Oxford said in the resolution the average pay for a Houston teacher is $41,947; the new pay plan provides for bonuses on top of the base pay, just as the private sector offers merit bonuses or pay increases for exceptional performance.

Makes Learning Top Priority

“The plan takes into account the individual school’s rankings (exemplary, recognized, or acceptable) and the amount of student improvement in his or her classroom,” Oxford wrote in the resolution, explaining the plan will keep good teachers teaching instead of leaving the classroom for competing private jobs.

The district has “allocated $14.5 million for the first year, and $8 million will be added each year for the next five years,” Oxford said. GHP staff will be available at no cost to the district to help implement the plan.

Oxford said any performance pay program must be part of a comprehensive effort to improve the district as a whole. The Houston school board developed the Board Monitoring System, adopted in September 2005, for that purpose. The monitoring system provides a mechanism for administrators to formally report progress or lack of progress to the school board at least annually.

“The monitoring system is ambitious and holds school trustees and administrators accountable to the community for strategies and results,” explained Jim Windham, a Houston education consultant who supported the pay program. “Public accountability is a necessary first step for growth in student achievement. Every district should have similar monitoring systems in place.”

Speaking for Teachers

Ensuring improved student learning is a priority in Houston–no easy task, considering that “82 percent of HISD students live at or near the poverty level, a proven factor negatively affecting student learning,” Windham said. “However, the board and entire HISD staff are determined to succeed.”

Developers of the teacher performance pay plan acknowledge “financial incentives linked to testing could give teachers greater incentive to misrepresent student testing performance,” Oxford said. He added the plan may not “completely measure teaching ability” and “could be seen as unfair to weak teachers.”

Houston Federation of Teachers (HFT) President Gayle Fallon said the new plan is not what teachers want–they want a higher base pay. When pressed, however, Fallon said the HFT did not formally survey its members to prove they don’t like the bonus plan.

Abbott pointed out the HFT does not speak for all HISD teachers–it represents only 40 percent of them, he said. Approximately 7,300 others belong to the Houston Congress of Teachers or the Houston Classroom Teachers’ Association–“neither of which came out in opposition to the pay for performance program”–and many don’t belong to any organization at all, Abbott said.

Connie Sadowski ([email protected]) is director of the Education Options Resource Center at the Austin CEO Foundation.

For more information …

For more information about the Houston Independent School District’s merit pay plan, visit http://www.hisd.org.