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Pittsburgh schools evaluate success of pay-for-performance

| Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015, 10:09 a.m.

Melissa Friez did not pursue a career in education for the money.

The former teacher, now principal of Pittsburgh Allderdice High School and assistant superintendent of grades 9 to 12, said her commitment to education is unwavering, regardless of pay.

“I would do my job and work just as hard, with or without a pay-for-performance,” she said. “If you're doing it for money, you're not doing it for anyone but yourself.”

Although Friez hopes all educators prioritize their students' education, she says recognizing teachers for their progress is valuable. In 2010, the Pittsburgh school board implemented a pay-for-performance incentive that awards bonuses to teachers whose students perform well on tests.

The teachers' contract expired in June, forcing the district and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers to decide whether the incentive program should be renewed. Contract negotiations are under way.

Most districts across the country follow the traditional salary-step model, which bases teacher pay on seniority, not evaluations of performance.

The contract for Pittsburgh teachers includes a salary schedule in which teachers hired after June 2010 are eligible for raises after three years of positive evaluation.

Tara Tucci, director of performance management for city schools, said teachers are evaluated through principals' observations, student feedback and achievement measured by standardized test scores, grades and attendance rates, among other factors.

“We pull those three lenses together to reach an overall performance level for a teacher,” Tucci said.

The contract includes an incentive program — Students and Teachers Achieving Results, or STAR. Under STAR, Pittsburgh Public Schools that rank within the top 15 percent in growth among Pennsylvania schools receive a bonus that's distributed among union staff members.

“If you're doing a better job, you should be compensated differently,” said Eric Montarti, senior policy analyst with the Allegheny Institute, a libertarian policy group based in Castle Shannon. “We're handing out more money, but if we're getting better results, then it is money well spent.”

A 2009 grant awarded to the district from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave Pittsburgh Public Schools $40 million that funded a larger initiative of which STAR is a part, called Empowering Effective Teachers.

With the grant, Tucci said, the district has awarded $5.3 million in teacher recognition bonuses, which increased salaries. During the 2013-14 school year, the average salary for a teacher in Pittsburgh was $73,483, nearly $16,000 more than the $57,500 state average, according to the state Department of Education.

In the same year, schools in the district posted School Performance Profile scores ranging from 43.8 to 88.8 on a 100-point scale. A score of 70 generally is considered satisfactory, state education officials said.

District spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said assessing the incentive model's effectiveness is complicated because other things affect student achievement.

“When we implemented these programs, they were part of a larger effort,” she said. “You can't look at compensation in isolation.”

A study conducted by Vanderbilt University's Peabody College of Education from 2007 to 2009 found that student performance did not vary between teachers who received salary bonuses across the three-year span and those who received bonuses in just one year.

Citing the study, Wythe Keever of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, said the model is ineffective, no matter the setting.

“Pay-for-performance simply does not work in education,” he said. “Our association believes merit pay is a distraction from real solutions.”

Katishi Maake was a Trib Total Media summer intern.

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