Indiana merit-pay bill: Still waiting for details

Forget vouchers and charter schools for the moment. Senate Bill 1, a merit-pay bill that establishes new procedures for evaluating, compensating, hiring and firing teachers, is arguably the most far-reaching education legislation being considered this year by the Indiana General Assembly.

But what exactly will it do? Maybe we’ll have a more complete picture Monday, when the House Education Committee considers the bill and long-promised amendments may be made public.

We know the bill is a big deal because of the effort that’s going into passing it. Stand for Children, an organization based in Oregon, was brought to Indiana to lobby for SB 1. Aiming Higher, which advocates for Gov. Mitch Daniels’ initiatives, is running TV ads supporting it. The ads urge viewers to ““Tell legislators to pass reforms to pay teachers for their excellence and results, not seniority.”

Paying for excellence and results sounds obvious. But it gets messy when you try to define excellence and implement a fair system to measure and encourage it. And recent studies of merit pay in Tennessee and New York have raised questions about whether it will produce better results. The biggest challenge may be scaling up the resources and personnel to implement this system in 2012.

The SB 1 centerpiece is a mandate for annual evaluations that place teachers in one of four categories: highly effective, effective, improvement necessary and ineffective. Teachers in the two lower categories wouldn’t get raises. If rated ineffective or improvement necessary multiple times, they could be fired.

The bill says that “objective measures of student achievement and growth” must “significantly inform the evaluation.” That means results or improvement on ISTEP-Plus tests for teachers who teach subjects that are covered by the exams, and other measures for teachers who don’t.

Teacher raises would be based on some combination of evaluation results, leadership responsibilities (such as being a department chair or peer evaluator), helping meet the needs of students in the school corporation, and years of experience – but experience could count for no more than 33 percent.

Here’s a Department of Education example of how this might work. The department is also lining up schools to pilot new evaluations in 2011-12, before they’re implemented universally in 2012-13.

But there are gaps between the department’s rosy view of SB 1 and the text of the bill, which hasn’t been revised since it was passed by the Senate on Feb. 22.

The language of the legislation is confusing and possibly self-contradictory. Can years of experience really be considered in decisions about teacher raises? Might the bill require pay cuts for teachers with master’s degrees? Amendments are needed to clear up the confusion.

And while Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett and other DOE officials say school corporations will be able to design their own teacher-evaluation metrics, the bill says the State Board of Education will set the rules and decide whether local systems measure up. “Dr. Bennett and others continue to claim that the processes will be local but none of the proponents have been willing to change the language (or at least show us proposed language) to guarantee that will happen,” Mark Shoup of the Indiana State Teachers Association wrote last week in a legislative update.

At the same time, it seems likely the bill could be amended to explicitly bar “last in, first out” policies under which the newest teachers are the first to go in times of layoffs. This is a big issue for Stand for Children and Aiming Higher, which have been trotting out young teachers to complain about it.

Other changes may be in the works – and maybe some surprises. Lauren Auld, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, told School Matters last week that the language of amendments wouldn’t made available until they are introduced in committee, presumably on Monday.

The Education Committee meets at 10:30 a.m. in room 404 of the Statehouse. That’s the Ways and Means Committee room, in case anyone wants to see if there’s live video.

3 thoughts on “Indiana merit-pay bill: Still waiting for details

  1. It’s great that Indiana is working to address the problems inherent in a traditional salary schedule based solely on years of experience and degrees attained. Both of those factors have been demonstrated to be very poor indicators (if indicators at all) of student achievement. And while student achievement isn’t the only thing we should be measuring, the reality that these factors appear to hardly contribute to achievement is concerning to say the least.

    Yes, any solution proposed will have problems, some of which will only become apparent as the system is implemented. Yes, it’s a political process and we have no idea what the final bill will look like. However, this is a hopeful sign that Indiana is taking its commitment to students seriously by raising the bar for teachers.

    • Sara, thanks again for commenting and for acknowledging that it’s a complex business. I do think it’s great that Indiana is having this debate. I’d like to see more discussion of what the problems of the traditional salary schedule are — and also the benefits, because I think there arguably are some.

  2. I think before anyone makes a decision to base a pay scale on merit, something needs to be done about the failing Standardized testing. I for one am attending college to become a teacher and am surrounded by students who are struggling due to poor education standards in the high schools they came from, and yes a few of them even unable to read.
    How can we debate a pay scale when the curriculum being forced into class rooms are failing. NCLB failed its simple as that.. Left behind my rear, they’re being shoved ahead unprepared for the world.

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