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Pay for Performance: What Went Wrong in Cincinnati?

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Years of planning, discussions, and negotiations yielded a new, complex teacher evaluation and compensation system in Cincinnati, Ohio. In 2001, the plan was one step away from full implementation. But that last step was the critical one; union approval. And the union could not have voted "no" more loudly. Education World takes a look at the plan and the reasons behind the defeat. Included: Details of the Cincinnati teacher compensation plan.

Pay for Performance After two years of trials and scrutiny from within and from teachers' unions across the U.S., the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers was just a vote away from adopting a pay structure rarely seen in education circles.

District officials had launched an intricate teacher evaluation system, with the goal of linking it to salary increases after a trial period. All that was needed to complete the link was a final "yes" vote from the union.

What came instead was a thunderous "no."

The union rejected the Cincinnati salary plan in May 2002 by 96.3 percent, 1,892 to 73. Now the future of the evaluation system is in limbo.

"This was a completely new and very expensive [evaluation] system," Kathleen Ware, former associate superintendent of the Cincinnati Public Schools, told Education World. "It costs about $6,000 per teacher. If it is not linked to compensation, we may have to reconsider it." (See School Systems and Teachers Unions Mull Over Performance Pay.)

At the time of the vote, district officials were quick to voice their disappointment. "Teacher quality is the most important element in the quality of education received by each child, and the public is weary of paying teachers of vastly different skill levels the same amount of money," said former superintendent Steven J. Adamowski in a prepared statement. "I hope the community will join all of us who are committed to professionalism in teaching -- teachers included -- in demanding a constructive proposal from the CFT leadership. Our students deserve more than a 'no.'"

School officials questioned why the plan was rejected, saying teachers designed it and teachers did the majority of the evaluations.

At the same time, the outcome was not a surprise, according to a prepared statement. "We believe the union leadership orchestrated an uninformed 'no' vote by failing to provide information to teachers in our schools and by withholding from them a proposal that would have modified the plan in a manner designed to address teacher concerns raised by a poll in March," the statement said.

The union contract expired December 31, 2002, and in December, union and district officials agreed to a one-year extension of the current contract; negotiations for a new contract are not due to resume until the fall. Both sides hinted in fall 2002 that performance pay could resurface, packaged differently. "The [defeated] compensation plan wont be resurrected by the union," CFT president Sue Taylor told Education World. "We gave the administration fair warning it would be defeated. Once such a large group votes to defeat it, we cant bring it back."

THE CINCINNATI PLAN

The Cincinnati Teacher Evaluation and Compensation System, developed for Cincinnati teachers, has been studied and copied by other states and districts. Teachers' levels of education still played a role in determining salary levels, but so did the category into which teachers were placed based on their evaluations.

Five classroom observations, two done by building principals and three by teachers, were part of the evaluations, as were teacher portfolios. Evaluators use standardized criteria. Teachers unhappy with their scores from administrators could appeal to a panel of teachers and administrators.

"Teachers could reach the top of the pay scale within four years, if their performance warranted it, as opposed to waiting 25 years," Ware said.

Research also indicated a correlation between strong teacher evaluations and student performance, she added. "We have data that shows that if teachers scored high on their evaluations, students showed improvement on state tests."

Allan Odden, principle investigator of the teacher compensation project for the Consortium on Policy Research in Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studied the system and the teacher response. "Some teachers said they had concerns about the evaluations," Odden said. "But then many who had gone through the evaluation said they thought their scores were accurate."

WHAT WENT WRONG?

Those inside the Cincinnati system and outside analysts cited several reasons for the crushing defeat. The tight timetable for approval and implementation of the plan may not have left enough time to address teacher concerns -- such as the possible loss of pay for some veteran teachers if they had lower evaluation scores. Teachers also were not convinced about the objectivity of the evaluations.

"There were many reasons why [it was defeated]," Taylor told Education World. "The union did a survey in April, and teachers didn't think the evaluation system was as objective as it needed to be. There was a lack of confidence that it was being applied objectively across the board.

"It was premature [to vote on it]," she continued. "The evaluation was new, complex, and rigorous. The union made the offer in June 2001 to hold the vote at a later date. We knew then there was no confidence in the system."

In a prepared statement at the time of the vote, Taylor said the outcome was not a condemnation of performance pay, but a rejection of the current plan. The teachers felt the evaluation system and professional development program had not been adequately aligned with the compensation plan.

Pay for Performance

Education World examines the timely and often sensitive topic of pay for performance in this four-part series. Read the other three installments:

Pay for Performance: What Are The Issues?
The pros and cons of some of these pay-for-performance/skills systems.

Performance Pay Can Work -- Heres How
Examples of pay-for-performance plans that are working.

More States Brave Teacher-Pay Debate
Public, political sentiment prompt tries at performance pay.

Doubts about the evaluations' fairness and the potential loss of pay for some teachers were obstacles plan advocates could not overcome, analysts told Education World.

But Cincinnati administrators offered to allow current teachers to return to the traditional salary schedule if their salary ever decreased under the new plan, according to former associate superintendent Ware, and to exempt first-year teachers from the rigorous evaluation system. Union leaders never brought that proposal to the membership, Ware maintained.

"I'm not sure the teachers completely understood the plan," Ware said. "We lost time negotiating because teachers felt the board had breached a cooperative agreement [on another issue]."

"The major reason for the defeat was in the implementation," the CPRE's Odden said. "There was not enough communication. Some issues were unresolved. People were scared; if they got a lower score, they could have lost money. I would not recommend that.

"The evaluation system is valid; it doesn't have technical flaws," Odden continued. "It was transition and implementation issues."

TRANSITION DIFFICULTIES

Eileen Kellor, a researcher with CPRE, said that while she could not comment on the Cincinnati plan specifically, "in general it is hard to transition a pay system that includes a potential loss of pay for some people. Some plans are building in hold-harmless clauses so the plans are less dramatic for current employees. They would either phase them in or exempt current people."

Marc Wallace Jr. of the Center for Workforce Effectiveness, said failure to attend to details hurt the plan's chances. "The main reasons it was rejected were in the way it was reeled it out and implemented; small mistakes were not addressed," he said. "There was the potential for experienced teachers to lose pay. That's a breach of an informal contract."

"Administrators should have worked on problems with the evaluations," added Robert Weil, deputy director of the American Federation of Teachers, of which Cincinnati's teachers union is an affiliate. "That should have been done before the teachers' vote. There was a sense that the evaluations needed time to be more consistent.

"Teachers have to be very confident with an evaluation system before it is tied to compensation. I think 99 percent of people faced with the same choice would have voted the same way."

Ware, though, said district officials were not convinced of the need for more time. "We did not see a reason to delay further. That would have thrown the issue into the negotiations' arena," she said. "We did not see the value in doing that."

FUNDING FEARS

Union members' fears that tough economic times could mean the diversion of performance pay funds to balance the district budget also made the plan a tough sell. "They were not convinced the school district had the resources to fund the system," Taylor added. The plan also had more incentives for beginning teachers than those in the second half of their careers, she said. "They [union members] didn't feel comfortable leaving it as a legacy for future teachers."

Union members' growing distrust of the school board and administration, which began over a separate issue, further eroded support for the plan, according to Taylor.

WHAT NEXT?

So what is next for Cincinnati? While no one wants to a craft a whole new system, overcoming the enormous teacher dissatisfaction with the first plan will make it difficult to revisit the topic, said the AFT's Weir.

"Organizations tend to have long memories of mistakes. I think Sue [the union president] really has a tough hill to climb," Weir said. "At the same time, Cincinnati has some really good stuff in the system -- they just need to work out some issues."

 

Article by Ellen R. Delisio