Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced thirty-five new grants that it will make through the Teacher Incentive Fund. The $290 million in grants will go to school districts and non-profit organizations that won a competition to implement teacher compensation systems based on pay-for-performance principles. There were twenty-nine winners in the general competition, and another six in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) competition. The TIF program is certainly small compared to other federal programs, but it’s worth keeping an eye on because Congress and the Obama Administration have been boosting its funding as of late—signaling common ground in an otherwise partisan environment. But that doesn’t mean the program is free of glitches.
TIF is now in its fourth round of awards since its inception in 2006, has met resistance and obstacles along the way. Earlier this year, three districts – Chicago Public Schools, Milwaukee Public Schools, and New York City Public Schools – collectively returned about $46 million to the Department of Education, effectively ending their 2010 grants early because they failed to reach agreements with local teachers unions on how they would use the funds already awarded.
The Department says it has tweaked the program so that awardees will be in a better position to follow through on their applications. This year, districts were required to reach an agreement with the teachers unions before submitting their applications, rather than take advantage of a planning period after the grants are awarded. The change is an acknowledgement of the strained relations between the White House and teachers unions over the past term.
And TIF grants can now be used to do more than simply build teacher compensation systems. Districts can use the dollars to establish career ladders, in which teachers take on extra responsibilities and leadership roles for more pay in addition to salary increases due to years of experience and credentials. Additionally, the 2012 competition had a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) component; run as a separate competition, it ensures some of the grant money would be devoted specifically to compensation systems for STEM teachers.
In the last round of TIF grants, nearly $400 million in federal funding was divvied up across 62 applicants. Among those applicants were schools districts, state educational agencies, and non-profit organizations aligned with districts, all of whom were seeking to create or build capacity within teacher compensation systems.
A few large school districts made the cut in this round. Despite its previous failure, New York City won another TIF grant, this time around totaling nearly $53 million over five years. Los Angeles Unified School District won a $49 million, five-year grant to establish a performance-based pay system that includes career steps for teachers who take on leadership roles in their schools. The money will also go to increasing the ranks of STEM teachers in high-need schools.
And most of the winning districts already have at least a pilot teacher evaluation and compensation system, so their awards will be used to expand and enhance those existing systems. New Haven Public Schools in Connecticut will receive $53 million over five years to expand its existing teacher evaluation system. Denver Public Schools won a $28 million, five-year grant to develop its existing teacher evaluation and pay-for-performance systems. And District of Columbia Public Schools won a $62 million grant to improve its teachers’ ratings on the IMPACT evaluation scale in place since 2009. (The IMPACT system includes multiple annual observations as well as student performance data.)
And a number of charter schools made the cut, too. Green Dot Public Schools will receive almost $12 million over five years to develop a teacher, leader, and counselor evaluation system to act as the basis for a performance-based compensation system. And Ohio’s Breakthrough Charter Schools will receive a five-year, $10 million grant to implement a career ladder system and teacher evaluation system.
In spite of extra funding and muscle the White House has exercised to broaden the use of teacher compensation systems like those supported by the Teacher Incentive Fund, questions persist about their effectiveness. Many wonder whether student test scores can really calibrate the mark of a good teacher, or how teacher observation should factor into the programs to ensure a fair, reliable metric of teacher quality. Still, pay-for-performance has been a central tenet of the Obama administration’s focus on improving student achievement and opportunities – one repeated throughout numerous Department of Education programs, including Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, No Child Left Behind waivers, and, of course, the Teacher Incentive Fund.