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Across the country, school districts experiment with superintendent merit pay

Bernadeia Johnson
MinnPost/Craig Lassig
Bernadeia Johnson

Bernadeia Johnson knows as well as anyone just how hard it is to accelerate learning in an urban school district. Before she took over as superintendent three months ago, Johnson was Minneapolis Public Schools’ chief academic officer.

In that capacity, she was the architect of a number of reforms designed to close the achievement gap, halt an ugly enrollment decline and right-size the district. The changes have brought gains, although incremental.

But now, three months into her superintendency, Johnson is personally wagering that the changes will bear bigger fruit. As we reported last week, if Johnson meets a series of performance goals over the next year, she will be entitled to a bonus of up to $30,000.

With the jury still out on tying teacher pay to student performance, a number of school boards across the country are instituting merit pay for superintendents. There’s no research showing the practice actually gets results, but it does ensure transparency all around.

Superintendents with experience in big urban districts are in short supply; they work grueling hours and often live or die based on board politics, not outcomes. Accordingly, they can command salary and benefits packages in the mid-six figures.

Skeptical voters, pressured teachers
Particularly with budget cutbacks and accountability dominating headlines, voters are skeptical they’re getting something of value in exchange for that sky-high pay. Meanwhile, the teachers who ultimately report to the superintendent are increasingly under pressure to agree to tie their compensation to test scores.

The practice of holding superintendents accountable through pay-for-performance agreements is most common in big districts. Superintendents’ contracts contain a merit pay provision in a third [PDF] of the 65 large urban districts that belong to the Council of the Great City Schools, compared to just 4 percent of 1,900 superintendents in districts of all sizes surveyed by the American Association of School Administrators.

Mike Casserly
Mike Casserly

The superintendents who have pay-for-performance arrangements typically have welcomed the arrangement, according to said Mike Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. Most prefer being evaluated on a series of objective benchmarks to trying to appease their elected minders.

“It gives them concrete benchmarks on which they will be evaluated, rather than whether they got along with the board,” he explained.

Recognition in Miami, but fired by board
In 2008, “irreconcilable differences” with board members led to the firing of Miami Superintendent Rudy Crew, despite successes that earned him the American Association of School Administrators’ recognition as superintendent of the year.

“Boards over the years have been much more specific about their goals and what kind of academic achievement they want to see,” said Casserly. “It’s been kind of a logical progression over the years [to] tie those goals to the superintendent’s evaluation.”

Still, there are some very real barriers to more widespread implementation.

“It’s still difficult to find the kind of experienced superintendents board members want for their positions,” said Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators“And performance is not always the reason a superintendent is kept on the job.”

Other factors affect achievement
Just as it does in the classroom, student achievement often hinges on factors outside the superintendent’s control. By way of example, Domenech cites the economy: “That’s obviously going to affect student performance.”

Dan Domenech
Dan Domenech

With enrollment plummeting and his budget cut to the bone, Johnson’s predecessor in Minneapolis, Bill Green, refused such an arrangement, according to MPS board member Chris Stewart.

Performance can be difficult to gauge. Most districts with administrator merit pay consider test scores and fiscal stability but not graduation rates, which are tougher to influence.

Praised for bringing stability to a troubled system, Baltimore’s Andres Alonso earns a base salary of $260,000 and has the potential to bring home another $30,000 for meeting goals. He can earn up to $12,000 for "demonstrated increases in the academic performance," up to $12,000 for management efficiencies and up to $6,000 for "implementation of creative and innovative" reforms.

Half of Johnson’s potential bonus hinges on MPS showing academic gains and making progress closing the achievement gap. Better district relationships are worth another 10 percent. The remaining 40 percent will be paid depending on progress on implementing a system of focused instruction, creation of a long-range financial plan and budget process, institution of accountability systems throughout the district and the installation of information management systems that allow data-driven decision-making.

Partial-pay option
A second rubric allows the board to award her partial pay in any category where she has made some progress but the board would like to see more, said MPS Board Chair Tom Madden.

“What gets measured gets done,” said Madden. “Bernadeia knows that and the board knows that.”

Merit pay for the superintendents in Casserly’s coalition ranges from $5,000 to $75,000 - amounts that can be hard for taxpayers and teachers to stomach in the face of widening achievement gaps and shortages of classroom-level resources.

Arlene Ackerman
Arlene Ackerman

Philadelphia’s Arlene Ackerman, who earns an annual base salary of $338,000, came under fire for receiving a bonus of $65,000 for the 2008-09 school year.

Formerly district chief in Minneapolis and then in Memphis, Carol Johnson is now superintendent in Boston. She’s eligible for a yearly performance bonus of up to $20,000 but has said she won’t take any bonuses or pay hikes above her current salary of $275,000 through June 30, 2012.

“I don’t think in a period where schools are cutting resources for children, any of us can expect to take raises,” Johnson told the Boston Herald.

Culture is critical
Do the performance clauses make it more likely a superintendent will deliver? There is evidence that a school’s culture is critical, and so strong leadership at every level has a huge impact on student outcomes.

The impact a strong principal can have has long been recognized, but according to a new study commissioned by the Wallace Foundation, superintendents and other executives matter, too.

“Leaders in higher-performing districts communicated explicit expectations for principal leadership and provided learning experiences in line with these expectations,” noted authors at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement and the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. “They also monitored principal follow-through and intervened with further support where needed.”

But both Casserly and Domenech caution that there is no hard research linking superintendent merit pay to better outcomes.

“I think it’s an open question,” said Casserly. “Superintendents work 24/7 anyway. I don’t know whether bonuses serve as incentives or not.”

With data still sketchy on pay-for-performance for teachers, the real value of holding a district’s top leader to objective criteria may be its impact on the district’s relationship with voters and other stakeholders.

“Frankly, I think with or without [merit] bonuses, it’s a good signal for any administration to be saying, first and foremost we are to be held accountable for outcomes,” said Casserly. “I think it sets a good tone for the people at the top of the system to hold themselves accountable.”

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Comments (2)

Was the piece written before the new data on the effects of merit pay for teachers to the classroom ? Merit pay is just another way to manipulate political power. This seems to be more of the same. If it happens in the world of business it must be good. But let's not talk about how CEO salaries are out of wack here compared to what happens in the rest of the world. But then again we live a country where the upper 1% control 25% of the wealth.

School superintendents are generally far and away the most well paid government employees in their communities. And in larger districts they have an incredible number of very well paid assistants (fake doctorates - no thesis) to do their work.

Apparently they don't work hard enough so some want to pay them more.

The implication is that they aren't working very hard. Most of them have pretty low golf handicaps, I would bet.