News Story

Teacher Of The Year’s District Plays Games With Merit Pay

Without performance-based compensation, the state’s best get no more than the rest

On her Twitter account, second-grade teacher Laura Chang posted a picture of how she decorates a student restroom. The image shows 10 math equations written in large print on papers taped to the bathroom wall.

“The view from my student bathroom, especially for those kiddos who like to spend a little bit of extra time in there. Every second counts,” read the words accompanying this image in Chang’s tweet.

Chang works for Vicksburg Community Schools and is the 2018-19 Michigan Teacher of the Year, as announced by the Michigan Department of Education.

While she is championed as a model teacher in the media and by her colleagues, her salary in 2016-17 was $67,925, the latest year for which the state of Michigan has released data. Chang actually earned $1,211 less than she did in the previous year, very likely because she took on fewer extra in-school activities to earn extra money.

Vicksburg Community Schools in Kalamazoo County is like many Michigan districts when it comes to rewarding the best educators. The district stated it has a merit pay system — which is required by a state law enacted in 2010 — but a closer look reveals that the district has not changed how it compensates its educators.

The district uses a pay schedule whose method is replicated by virtually every school district in Michigan. Teachers are compensated based on their years of service and number of college credits earned. The district’s teachers union contract has as many as 26 seniority-based pay categories, or steps, through which employees advance. Generally, teachers advance one step each year.

Vicksburg Community Schools stated that as part of its merit pay system, teachers must be rated either “highly effective” or “effective” to advance one step. Those two ratings are at the top of a four-tier rating system prescribed by the state. The other two ratings are “minimally effective” and “ineffective.” School districts typically rate their own teachers using an approach in which the actual progress of students on state assessments accounts for less than half the rating.

And the past two years, every Vicksburg teacher was rated highly effective or effective. This means that everyone received what the district deems a merit pay bonus, but which was actually just the seniority-based pay hike specified in the district’s union contract. Chang's step increase would be about $400, depending on the amount of college credits she has accrued.

“We don’t just assume that everyone is ‘effective’, we work to make it so,” Vicksburg Superintendent Charlie Glaes said in an email.

Glaes said people who apply for teaching positions at this district are extensively screened and then have extensive performance-based interviews.

“Once hired, we require all teachers new to Vicksburg to go through two courses (with possible 3 and 4 graduate credits available) in their first two years here. We also support new teachers with extensive and thoroughly defined mentoring and coaching supports (the latter available to all teachers), and add more coaching support where we see performance problems,” Glaes said. “We believe that our teacher evaluation system is quite rigorous, and that our teachers are fully focused on improvement. Finally, if a teacher is not cutting it, we let him/her go and replace with a stronger candidate.”

Glaes said the district considered merit pay to be “another unfunded mandate” from the state. Glaes said teachers are paid a very competitive salary in his district.

“To divert compensation dollars necessary for attracting and retaining quality applicants in order to pay larger stipends for some did not make sense,” Glaes said. “Instead, we provide many leadership opportunities for our outstanding teachers, and that seems to work. We do not have difficulty, like Detroit, in hanging on to our outstanding veterans; we have very low turnover. Rather than spend substantial dollars in merit pay, which has little research support, we have chosen to invest in measures, such as coaching, which pay off in increasing teacher effectiveness and student achievement.”

Chang was asked if she supported merit pay and responded in an email: “Rather than focusing on standardized test scores and how those scores affect teacher evaluations and pay, I believe there is great merit in every Michigan student having quality teachers who are committed to helping them to be passionate for learning throughout their lives and empowered to stand up for one another in a classroom community. I think there is great merit in attracting and retaining high-quality teachers, as that is such an important issue in Michigan right now. I believe every teacher merits having access to relevant professional development opportunities in order to meet the diverse needs of their students.”