As CPS prepares to pull the plug on its current merit pay program, known as Chicago TAP, the district has received a $34 million federal grant to launch a new merit pay program that would affect over 1,100 teachers at 25 schools.

As CPS prepares to pull the plug on its current merit pay program, known as Chicago TAP, the district has received a $34 million federal grant to launch a new merit pay effort that would affect over 1,100 teachers at 25 schools.

While few specifics about the program are available, it appears to be wider-reaching that TAP. In addition to paying teachers based on observation ratings and student performance, which TAP did, the new program will offer extra money for teachers who work in hard-to-staff schools and subject areas. It will also “focus on using evaluation ratings in promotion, tenure, dismissal, and career growth roles,” according to the grant’s abstract. In addition to value-added ISAT data (which has been TAP’s mainstay), the new program will factor in scores on the Scantron interim assessments that students take several times a year.

Chicago Public Schools will also chip in $6 million over the life of the grant, and the Chicago Public Education Fund will back the program with an additional $700,000. As with TAP, at least three-quarters of teachers at a given school will have to approve participation in the new program, says Janet Knupp, founding president and CEO of the Chicago Public Education Fund.

The announcement comes in the wake of two recent blows to the concept of merit pay as a way to improve education. Earlier this week, a major study conducted by the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University found that merit pay does not affect student achievement. And this spring, a study of Chicago TAP found that it had no effects on student achievement or teacher turnover.

TAP’s supporters, however, noted that the study covered just a year and a half of the program and did not account for differences in implementation.

Even so, “the elements of TAP were exactly right on,” Knupp says. And many of those elements – like special career roles for master teachers, professional development that master teachers deliver through team meetings and coaching, and more frequent teacher observations – will be carried over. (According to the grant’s abstract, the program includes “a comprehensive professional development plan that differentiates training according to participants’ roles and responsibilities.”)

But some TAP schools suffered from an inability to faithfully implement the program – perhaps leading to the study results, which showed that the program did not have any effects on teacher turnover or student achievement.

“Testing for principal capacity was something we paid much more attention to with this grant proposal,” says Kathleen St. Louis, director of program investments for the fund. “Based on [Chief Area Officer] assessments, we looked at the professional capacity of the principals that are leading these schools so we have a better indicator of where we will be able to implement with fidelity.”

The new program will likely be more expensive than TAP, which used just $27.5 million in federal money to fund a merit pay program at 40 schools. “We’re trying to do a lot more with this,” says Jason Cascarino, director of strategy and operations at Chicago Public Education Fund. “We want to learn from this and… [figure out] how to scale this up to a district level.”

It isn’t clear yet how much money teachers or principals could be eligible for – or how much of their pay would be determined by each factor. But principal evaluations and pay will be based at least partly on the same “success factors” that Chicago Public Schools now uses to screen its principal candidates.

It also hasn’t been determined whether the student achievement component will be based on schoolwide, grade-level, or classroom-level test scores – or some combination. (The district tried to use classroom-level test score data with TAP, but has run into technical problems in matching teachers and students.)

Knupp says that many of the program’s details will be determined in conjunction with the Chicago Teachers Union and input from other stakeholders. “We of course have a union administration to work with,” she says.

Chicago Teachers Union spokeswoman Liz Brown says that the union is in favor of the career ladder model the grant uses, where more experienced teachers can earn increased responsibilities and pay.

But CTU isn’t open to the idea of using teacher evaluation data for tenure and dismissal decisions – or giving merit pay based on individual teachers’ test scores. (Using grade-level or schoolwide test scores is something that “we’d have to talk about,” Brown says.)

What’s more, she says, parents and students should be included in the process of helping design any new merit pay program.

“The very first thing is that the union and educators have to sit down [with the district] and define teacher quality before we learn how to measure it,” Brown says. “This grant is over a 5-year period, but that would be the first step.” 

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