They do things a bit differently at the Calgary Girls’ School (CGS). In addition to being a single-gender school for girls, CGS is a charter school, meaning that, although funded within the public system, it operates with a special purpose and is independent from the local school board, one of only a dozen or so of its kind in all of Canada. But perhaps its most distinguishing feature is the fact that CGS is quite possibly the only school in Canada that offers teachers material rewards for being great at their jobs.
The bonus money, known in educational circles as “merit pay,” isn’t big. If a teacher at CGS meets her personal objectives and helps the school achieve its overall goals, she receives a $1,000 bonus, which in turn must be spent on professional development (such as an out-of-town conference). And the lessons learned are then shared with other teachers and staffers. “The teachers have totally embraced it,” says Ches Cowley, the school’s superintendent. “We’ve had excellent results on province-wide tests, and a huge part of that is the commitment of our teachers. I’m not saying that merit pay causes them to work harder, but I don’t think it has hurt. I think it makes the teachers feel valued, because it supports their professional development so extensively.” The school, which includes many students with identified learning challenges and a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, constantly runs at its maximum population of 600 students, and turns away some 200 additional applicants every year. While the immediate payout goes to teachers, students are the ultimate beneficiaries. “It’s nice to support teachers in doing what they love, because then they will bring that back to our girls,” says Patti Paccagnan, chair of the school’s parent council, whose daughter, Julia, 12, is in Grade 7 at CGS. “Teachers need to be rewarded, because some go beyond. If they feel supported, and there’s a reward for doing that, how can that not be good?”
The concept of merit pay — that offering teachers additional pay, promotions or bonuses will encourage them to work harder or be more innovative — has been around for decades. Traditionally more popular in the United States, it has been implemented in fits and starts in various different places. Many programs have shown promise. In Denver, Colorado, student scores on statewide reading, writing and science tests improved dramatically after the city’s school board adopted a merit-pay system. A pilot in Little Rock studied by the University of Arkansas found that merit-paid teachers raised the standardized test scores of the average student by almost seven percentage points. And one of the most extensive studies to date — performed in India by the World Bank and Harvard University — found that students of teachers who were offered financial incentives performed significantly better on math and language tests. Such success has prompted President Barack Obama to get on board, supporting — to the chagrin of America’s national teacher’s union — financial rewards for teachers who go above and beyond.
Central to the concept of merit pay is, of course, rewarding teachers who work hard, and motivating those who are less inclined to do so. “If you could reward the top 20 percent of teachers who are most effective, and get rid of the bottom 20 percent who are least effective, you could have an enormous, positive impact on your educational system,” notes Paul E. Peterson, director of the program on education policy and governance at Harvard University. Doretta Wilson, executive director of the Society for Quality Education, an Ontario education policy think tank, agrees. “Every study that we’ve looked at has shown us that it’s the quality of the teaching that makes the difference in student achievement,” she observes. “Being a good teacher really is a skill that has to be mastered. Teaching reading is rocket science.”
Talk to enough parents and you start to get the feeling that many, if not most, feel some sense of disappointment with the system, feelings that are often directly related to experiences with mediocre educators. With two kids through the school system and another one almost there, Dan Gleeson can certainly remember a few. “When they had a bad teacher, my kids would complain — the teacher wasn’t engaged, the teacher was boring and didn’t appear well prepared. The kids dreaded it,” remembers Gleeson, father of Matthew, 23, Sarah, 21, and Melissa, 16, who lives in Peterborough, Ont. “The learning wasn’t there. They weren’t interested.”
In some cases, the difference between a good teacher and a bad one can be stark. When Teresa McDonald’s* son Robert* was in Grade 9, he was enrolled in an applied science class. “Every day, the teacher would say to them, “You’re all going to fail, you’re all dumb, you’re not going to make it,” remembers the Toronto mom. Not surprisingly, Robert began failing tests and displaying a resentful attitude. Teresa sought advice from the teacher, and received nothing useful. “She would throw up a movie in class, and then would call upon the students to complete their homework assignments, which they couldn’t.” Finally, with Robert’s grade in the 30 percent range, she pulled him out, moving him up to an academic science class. With the instruction of a better teacher and Teresa’s tutoring, Robert was acing tests in weeks, and finished the course with a grade in the high 70s. She’s a supporter of merit pay. “If you reward the really good teachers, even the ones who aren’t good will try and improve.”
Some administrators complain that their hands are tied by the system when it comes to insisting upon extra effort in the classroom. And this, notes one principal, can be quite frustrating, particularly when she knows that some teachers in her school are clearly settling for mediocrity. “Most teachers would tell you that they know a colleague or two that are mailing it in.”
In Canada, teachers are generally compensated according to a fairly basic grid: their pay is increased according to the number of years they’ve spent in the classroom (topping out at the 10- or 11-year mark), plus the education they bring with them (master’s and doctoral degrees usually garner a bump in pay); in some provinces, professional development courses can also help teachers climb up the ladder. While not perfect, this system more or less makes sense, says Dennis Theobald, spokesman for the Alberta Teachers’ Association and a former classroom teacher. “You simply do get better over time — as you become more experienced, you do tend to become better at your job,” says Theobald.
But the grid does not make any distinctions between good and bad teachers, and critics feel that’s a fundamental flaw. “You’re rewarding longevity rather than expertise,” notes Peter Cowley, director of school performance studies for the Fraser Institute, a Vancouver-based think tank. The Institute releases annual report cards comparing schools within several provinces based on their performance on standardized tests, and runs an outstanding school staff competition. “The incentives that are offered to teachers are not incentives for improvement. And without those, you may not get the same level of enthusiasm that you might otherwise expect,” says Cowley. “These are lessons that have been learned by virtually every other sector, except education and health.”
And while Theobald points out that teachers tend to be motivated by non-monetary values, such as the joy of seeing their students succeed (something echoed by a number of the teachers interviewed), some educators admit that it would be nice to get a little recognition for going above and beyond, and that having a bonus or reward might help them go the extra mile more often. Within the current grid system, “You can be very, very mediocre at what you do, or you can be fabulous, and it really doesn’t matter,” observes Mary Scott*, a former primary and intermediate teacher and union steward (who has since left the profession for reasons unrelated to merit pay). And for those who get involved in extracurricular sports and clubs, “It would be nice to see teachers compensated for the activities, or at least receive some appreciation — even if it’s a nominal amount.”
But teachers and others in education remain skeptical that a fair and workable system of merit pay assessment could be created, and this is perhaps the most significant stumbling block for the concept’s proponents. Teaching is, of course, much more subjective than work in many other fields. “Teaching is an art. It is not something where you can say, “well, you’ve put through so many widgets a day.’ I’ve been in the evaluative position many times, and it’s not an easy thing,” says Anthony Thomas*, who over the past 40 years has served as a teacher, vice-principal and principal. A number of American experiments with merit pay have linked compensation with standardized test scores, something that Thomas feels is foolhardy. “Standardized tests really and truly only measure a small portion of what a student has learned over the course of the year,” he says. And if you just want to bump up your students’ scores, you can simply teach to the test all year — to the detriment of everything else.
But Cowley isn’t willing to believe that this is a problem that’s simply too difficult to solve. “I’m not saying that some aspects of education aren’t harder to measure than others. But my goodness, if we sat down for an afternoon with a cup of coffee or maybe a beer, I’m convinced that we’d be able to come up with some measures, even if they weren’t perfect,” he says.
In fact, sitting down for an afternoon is exactly what a number of teachers at the Calgary Girls’ School did to create their system of merit pay. “We took a day and went to the principal’s house and threw around some ideas, and said, “these are the things we’re worried about’ and worked out how to get around them, and we came up with a decision,” remembers Oliver Fisher, a Grade 8 humanities teacher who has been at CGS from its genesis six years ago.
Although the example of CGS — a relatively small school with a well-defined mandate and a close-knit staff — would be difficult to replicate on a national scale (or across an entire school board), lessons can be learned from its success.
And while Theobald scoffs at the CGS example, calling it a “milquetoast merit-pay system,” it is, in many ways, a communitarian, Canadian-style take on something that has shown success in the U.S. Recognizing that merit pay could lead to a negatively competitive work environment, CGS staff designed a system based on individual goals set in consultation with the principal. “It’s become less of a competition, and more of a situation where you’re trying to better yourself as a professional,” says Fisher.
Talk to enough teachers, and you’ll find that they tend to be a suspicious bunch when it comes to evaluation. So putting some of the control into their own hands, even though the principal makes the final call, is key, Fisher advises. “The fact that people have input into the decisions is, I think, important.” And while the reward of $1,000 for school-related items is not extravagant, it is much appreciated, and an enticement to push harder. Fisher has received the bonus a number of times, and has spent it on research trips to Los Angeles, Detroit and New York, journeys that were taken with colleagues. “There are any number of ways teachers can enjoy that money and still better the school community,” says Fisher. “We take these trips, and it’s good to bring that information back to our staff, and at the same time we get out and have a bit of a holiday.”
Parent council chair Paccagnan is very happy with the system. “This clearly supports the students, and it helps improve teaching for our children. I think whatever we can do to support our teachers is very important,” she says. And while both Fisher and Paccagnan are concerned that bureaucracy and unions could frustrate the implementation of a similar program in other Canadian schools, they both feel that it’s a worthwhile endeavour. “I think this could really make a difference in the quality of education,” says Paccagnan.
Fisher believes that the CGS example could be replicated in larger boards and that most teachers would like to be rewarded for continually striving for professional excellence. “But for somebody who is stuck in their ways and doesn’t want to change, I could see how that could be a problem,” he says. “But I would also question, as an educator, are these the kind of teachers that we want?” He adds, “Whether it’s $500 or $1,000 or $2,000, you’re rewarded for hard work. But just as important is the cyclical feedback into the teaching community or the immediate school, where they’re bettering themselves as a teacher, and if they’re doing that, then the school is going to be better, and the kids are going to do better. It’s that continual growth.”
Contributing editor Tim Johnson, whose family includes many teachers, sparked a passionate discussion at a recent gathering by bringing up the topic of merit pay.
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