What is PPS’ Worldview on Incentives?

A news article described the achievements of several schools in the Pittsburgh School District under one of the incentive programs created under the current bargaining agreement between the District and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. As our 2010 report on pay for performance noted, the Students and Teachers Achieving Results, or STAR, incentive program would allow for teacher bonuses of up to $6,000 and staff (represented by the PFT) bonuses of up to $2,000 if the school falls within the top 15% of all Pennsylvania schools on student achievement. The contract stated that if eight schools did not get in the top 15% the threshold would be lowered to the top 25% of all schools so that the goal of a minimum of eight would be met. The article noted that ten schools were named STAR schools by the District.

When the District applied for money from the Gates Foundation with its proposal titled "Empowering Effective Teachers in the Pittsburgh Public Schools" it posited the following: "the plan will correlate teacher compensation with demonstrated student achievement…this is an important step for Pittsburgh, as nearly all of PPS teacher compensation is driven by salary schedule, which is based on factors that research demonstrates are not linked to student achievement: teachers’ educational achievement and years of service".

On the PPS’ Empowering Effective Teachers website page it states "For too long, teachers have gone unrecognized for their individual strengths and contributions to student learning. School districts have been unable to measure differences in teacher effectiveness or use this information to help teachers improve. Until now."

What of the teachers at one school that achieved the bonuses? One said "The monetary incentive isn‘t what I‘m coming here for every day" (but probably was not turned down). Another said "It doesn‘t take just one player to win the game. It‘s the team working together". (as often as teachers say that students need to come to school ready to learn, will the bonus money be shared with parents?) Note that while the STAR bonuses go to only the schools that achieve, there is no differentiation between teachers within the schools that might have done more for the achievement. The teacher who might have greater "individual strengths"-in the words of the EET webpage-gets the same bonus as another at the school. That’s what comes as a result of the District wanting pay for performance but deferring to the teachers’ union since implementing the vision was subject to collective bargaining (as noted in the Gates Foundation proposal).

The PFT president pointed out in the article that teachers who did not get the STAR bonus could "earn an extra $10,000 yearly by working a longer school week and year, assuming more responsibilities as they climb the career ladder." In other words, the teachers that read the article or heard the news through the grapevine should not feel slighted, they can earn money by taking on other duties as they go up the salary scale, which is what the PPS said was one of the factors that does not do anything for student achievement based on what was written in the EET proposal.

But the topper came from the Superintendent who said "We don‘t want teachers in competition with each other because when that happens, kids lose in that kind of culture, and other undesirable things happen…teachers can start jockeying for particular children." So much for individual strengths and differences in teacher effectiveness-based on this statement the Superintendent feels teachers will "cherry pick" students to boost their bonuses. That sounds like the argument public school defenders make about charter or private school enrollment, not about their own teachers. Note again this is not the head of the teachers union-this is the chief executive officer of the District saying that. It has long been understood that principals assign students to classes; but more to the point, does the Superintendent actually believe this?

Bonuses: It’s the Principal of the Thing

Pittsburgh Schools just handed out $342,250 to 67 principals in bonuses, which presumably means every principal in the system got a bonus. Here’s the thing. The Allegheny Institute is all in favor of bonuses for exceptional or even well above average performance. But what is happening in the Pittsburgh Schools is little more than a feel good exercise.

First of all, the money used to pay the bonuses comes from a Federal grant that is supposed to be used for teacher incentive, i.e., presumably to reward better teaching. However, since the teachers’ union will never agree that some teachers are better than others and deserve extra compensation, the school district is awarding the money to principals. Granted, there are variations in the performance of principals. But if they do not have authority to hire, fire, evaluate their teachers or set their pay, and curriculum and testing is set by the District, what are they doing that is adding substantially to the academic performance of the students? Cheerleading, motivational talks? All well and good but at some point the ability and authority to choose and incentivize teachers should be what separates the excellent principals from the run of the mill principals.

When the Federal program expires after this school year, the financially strapped district is unlikely to continue the program. Does that mean we can expect a big drop off in the performance of principals who will no longer be incentivized to work extra hard to get a larger share of the bonus pie? If performance remains the same, have the bonuses accomplished anything?

District enrollment continues to shrink as people with school age children move away or find non-public school alternatives. And there can be little doubt that principals have somewhat thankless jobs given all the constraints they must work with and administrative burdens imposed by the massive, politically correct education bureaucracy. But a bonus program that rewards every principal is suspect. If everyone gets a bonus, does that mean not a single principal in the entire system needs to be replaced by someone who can do a better job? If everyone gets a bonus, that almost certainly means the criteria used to determine bonuses is not very demanding.

Bonuses can be useful if done right. If the District chooses to continue the program it should establish a bonus system that is well thought out, sets very high and meaningful education attainment goals for the students and is judged impartially by a team from outside District administration. Make the rewards for the top bonus recipients substantial and no awards would be given to any principal not achieving well above a satisfactory level of performance.

Education Chief Fails on Performance Pay

The U.S. Secretary of Education wants districts across the country to cast their gaze upon the Pittsburgh Public Schools to see what successful collaboration between administration and a teachers’ union looks like. According to a printed report the Secretary will be coming to Pittsburgh next week "…to meet on Wednesday with Pittsburgh school officials and Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers representatives to talk about how the two groups collaborated" on the current contract which included some aspects of performance pay.

As our 2010 report pointed out pay for performance moves compensation away from aspects like educational achievement and length of service and more toward student achievement. But how much of that exists in the Pittsburgh schools currently? Much of the incentives are voluntary and school based. That means current teachers aren’t so much on a pay for performance model; if they want to volunteer to take on additional duties they can earn more. And a school that does meet performance targets has to distribute any incentive/bonus money equally.

The longest and most widespread performance program in the Pittsburgh schools is for principals, who, it must be noted, are not unionized and do not collectively bargain. Even newly hired teachers don’t really link with the pay for performance concept until after their fourth year in the District.

Finally, the Secretary should know that throughout the process-the collaborative process in his view-that the District knew the teachers’ union would hold the cards on how pervasive an incentive program would be. In its request for funding to the Gates Foundation, the District noted "although PPS and PFT leadership support the initiatives contained in this proposal, the PFT membership will be the final voice on collective bargaining issues". That meant any pay for performance model would have to be palatable for the teachers’ union and that the District would not go to the mat to defend a significant move away from the salary step model.

Timing Poor as Aspen Hits a Wall

In a case of remarkably unfortunate timing, the Aspen Institute just released a report praising the cooperation of administrators and the teachers’ union of Pittsburgh schools in devising strategies for improving education. A key element in the plan, developed using Gates Foundation funding, is an academy to train new teachers. Unfortunately for the academy, budgetary pressures have forced the school district to cancel the program. New teachers may face layoffs after moving to the city.

And what does the new superintendent tell the Gates people? The teacher training was to be a centerpiece of efforts to improve education in the City. After years of new programs designed by legions of "education" experts over multiple decades, the academic performance in many Pittsburgh schools has descended to levels that can only be described as dreadful.

What a shame the Gates Foundation has so much money to waste on yet another doomed to fail experiment. Too bad it did not offer $40 million in scholarships for students to get out of the failing schools into a chance for a good education instead of funding more experimenting with public schools-the money pit of government run programs. A serious exodus of students to non-public schools might actually create incentives to improve in the public schools. But even if it does not, at least the scholarship users would get a better shot at a good education.

And true to form, the Aspen education expert was quoted as lamenting any cuts in state funding for public education. Perhaps his study did not uncover, or chose to ignore, the outrageous per student spending in Pittsburgh or the huge run up in non-teaching employees during the last decade. Devotees and defenders of public education just cannot bring themselves to admit the fundamental flaws inherent in government run monopolies.

A “Super”-Intendent

With apologies to the recent documentary on public schools, if the results of a community meeting are any indication of the resume the next chief of the Pittsburgh Public Schools needs to have, the City will indeed be "waiting for Superman". And for a long time at that.

To wit, some of the responses included "experience in the classroom", "[from] an urban school district", "fiscally responsible", "reduce the racial academic achievement gap", "someone who knows how to manage change", "build student and neighborhood morale by bringing all sectors of the community-like parents, colleges, businesses and service groups-together for the benefit of students", and "promote teacher excellence".

Consider that the next superintendent has labor peace (the teachers’ contract runs through 2015) and the Pittsburgh Promise program (which was sold as a way to improve academic performance and slow enrollment declines).

A consultant participating in the meeting said that the board needs to define their goals and move forward from that point. First and foremost has to be the trends facing enrollment, performance, and spending. How will the next superintendent confront the fact that the District spends $20k per pupil yet performance by 11th graders is woefully substandard? What will the next superintendent do to reverse enrollment trends that project further declines through the end of the decade?

Pay for Performance: How Will it Play Out in Pittsburgh’s Schools?


Student achievement improves, and, as a result, so too does the pay of the principal, the teachers, and other school employees responsible for the improvement.  That is a brief definition of a pay for performance system.  It differs from the traditional salary step system in which an employee’s pay is based on how much education they have attained or how long they have worked for the particular district.  Pay for performance is the subject of our most recent report. 


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The New Teachers’ Contract

Articles in yesterday’s papers delivered the news that there is a tentative five-year contract between the Pittsburgh Public Schools and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers on the table. If ratified, the deal would extend through June of 2015 and, if current trends hold (enrollment falling by 3% annually, and average growth in expenditures of 3% annually), the District will be spending about $662 million and serving 23k students by the time the contract expires.

It appears as though employees will see no changes in health care insurance benefits in the years of the contract and will enjoy annual salary bumps, with those at the top of the salary schedule getting $1,500 each year of the agreement. Not bad considering the rising cost of health care and the massive pension spike that is headed our way.

And what of pay for performance? The possibility of tying teacher pay to student achievement, though a remote possibility given union opposition to the idea, was raised first in November of 2008 when the school board outlined goals for the 08-09 school year. One board member said "people need to see the reward because it gives them the incentive to do more" while the head of the PFT said many performance pay models were "tremendous failures".

The award of $40 million by the Gates Foundation this past fall certainly gave the idea momentum, and the District at that time had a few years of experience with a performance pay model for all of the school system’s principals (around 70) who no longer get salary step raises but are instead "compensated based on their performance" according to the website of the office that oversees the program.

So the District and the teachers appear to have settled on a "voluntary" arrangement for teachers instead of a widespread adoption of performance pay. Consider that principals are not unionized and their pay system did not have to be collectively bargained, whereas the teachers are and it does. If there is a five year contract with only minimal movement to performance pay for teachers then it appears the union, not surprisingly, won on this issue.