Real Merit Pay Really Works

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The Chattanooga, Tennessee, school district deserves national attention and appreciation for getting serious about improving its low performing schools. Like a lot of school districts that serve poor children, Chattanooga had difficulty attracting and retaining qualified teachers, as evidenced by consistently low student achievement. But through collaboration on the parts of Mayor Bob Corker, Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Jesse Register, and the local Benwood Foundation--and a whole lot of hard work and ingenuity--Chattanooga seems to have become a beacon for excellent educators.

Here's how they did it. First, the (relatively) easy part. About 100 of the district's weaker teachers in its nine most troubled schools (now referred to as "the Benwood Schools") were transferred to the district's better, suburban schools. Then the district identified the best teachers, something that is possible in Tennessee because of the state's system for fairly and accurately track student achievement gains (and losses) at the classroom level. Then came the hard part: persuading these great teachers to transfer into the low- performing Benwood schools. The district didn't just offer free health club memberships but a great pay and bonus program. The teachers that they wanted the most were offered a $5,000 bonus to transfer to a Benwood school. They also received a $10,000 loan towards a home purchase, free legal services provided by local attorneys, and another $2,000 bonus per teacher if an entire school performs well enough. Extra money was donated by local foundations for more assistant principals and instructional leaders.

Has it worked? Teacher vacancies have decreased from 30 last year to two this year, while passing rates on Tennessee's state tests have increased three times more than area suburban schools. Not to be overlooked, the high priority schools are losing the stigma of failure.

Of course, improvement isn't free. Five million dollars from the Benwood foundation has made this success possible. But also important was the use of district's federal funding not simply to computers and equipment but towards investing in people.