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Maine School System Tries New Merit Pay Strategy
11/13/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

The politically challenging work of drawing up rules to guide new teacher and principal evaluations in Maine continued today, with a hearing in Augusta at the Department of Education. A 2012 law requires all school districts to toughen their systems for grading educators' job performance. Earlier this year, state lawmakers failed to agree on a set of rules to carry out the law. But the lack of clarity from Augusta hasn't stopped one local district - and its teachers' union - from trying a controversial experiment, as part of its move toward tougher evaluations. Jay Field reports.

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RSU 22 Tries New Merit Pay Strategy Listen

Regional School Unit 22 is made up of six schools serving the communities of Hampden, Newburgh, Winterport and Frankfort. A year ago, Tri-22 Teachers Association, the local union, signed a new three-year contract with the district. The deal contained a special clause, something called a "reopener."

Michele Metzler, Tri-22's co-president, says it allows the two sides to reopen negotiations in the first year of the contract, in an effort to get more of what each wants in the final two.

"Starting in the spring, we began to negotiate about the salary and benefits," says Metzler, who teaches social studies at Hampden Academy.

Metzler knew that to get a better deal, the local union would have to play ball on something many members oppose. "The board and the district really wanted a component, at the very least, of merit pay," she says. "This is something that they see sort of coming our way in education in general."

The school board and district leaders, in turns out, had been fighting unsuccessfully to get a merit pay provision into its contracts with the union for much of the last decade.

Rick Lyons is superintendent in RSU 22. "This is a topic that's very foreign to the public education sector," he says.

Merit pay, broadly defined, is a bonus, given to teachers when their kids perform at a certain level on standardized tests, or hit other academic benchmarks. Supporters argue it's a way to drive student achievement, reward the top teachers and bring the profession in line with others that tie compensation to results delivered on the job.

But critics, including many rank-and-file teachers and education unions, say it fosters harmful competition and sends teachers the wrong message.

"What we want is, we want teachers to be working collaboratively, together," says Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the statewide teachers union, the Maine Education Association. "When you start giving merit pay, that's not something that builds collaboration amongst the staff - anything that's going to pit one teacher against another teacher for money."

Studies consistently show that a multitude of factors besides quality of instruction - poverty, for example, and family dynamics - can influence how well, or poorly, students do both in the classroom and on standardized tests.

But that hasn't deterred top elected officials in Augusta and Washington from pushing the concept of performance pay, as part of broader efforts to overhaul teacher evaluation. The 2012 law, requiring districts in Maine to come up with their own tough new systems, says that those reviews should play a role in determining what teachers get paid.

"The notion that the state is going require performanced-based compensation, to some degree, was kind of the gatekeeper that really brought it to fruition in the most recent negotiating session," Lyons says.

Since 2010, dozens of Maine schools have been experimenting with their own models, as part of a federal grant program. Rick Lyons says the contract between RSU 22 and Tri-22 is the only collective bargaining agreement in Maine - that he knows of - that offers bonuses as part of teachers' annual performance reviews.

But Lyons says the deal does not tackle the most controversial aspect of merit pay. "If you look at the state model, they're looking at student outcomes being a part of that. The debate, right now, is what percentage," he says. "The model that we've constructed, at this point in time, does not precisely integrate student outcomes."

For now at least, more weight in RSU 22 will be given to lesson planning and teaching strategies. Teachers who create stimulating learning environments, and who undertake professional development, will also be rewarded. Bonuses range from $400 to $1,000 and supplement the step-based salary scale, which remains in place.

"There are teachers who are very leary of this," says Michele Metzler, the union co-president. Metzler says RSU 22 is already trying out a new evaluation system. She says teachers are still struggling to come to grips with it. Many question how they can be fairly evaluated for a merit raise, with roughly a third of the school year already in the books.


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