Houston Schools New Teacher Merit Pay Program - Will It Help or Hinder?

By Patricia Hawke for Schools K-12

Measurement of student achievement through rigorous statewide testing has been a standard in Texas for many years.  Houston schools implemented its first merit pay program for teachers in the year 2000.

Houston schools believe the old program had too low incentives and unanimously passed the new model in January, making it the largest merit pay program in the nation.  Officials believe the new program ties teacher rewards more closely to student improvement and to individual teacher efforts. Though no research has been done on the impact of such programs on improved student achievement, other programs have been tried in New York, Denver and Kentucky with varying success.

Houston business leaders, who have a stake in graduating future employees who are high achievers, support the new Houston schools’ $14.5 million program. 

Houston schools teacher incentives are based on three components:

  • The first component is based upon the amount of improvement of a school’s overall test scores, as compared with scores of 40 other schools across the state with similar demographics;
  • The second compares student progress on the Stanford 10 Achievement Test and its Spanish equivalent to students in similar Houston schools classrooms; and
  • The third component compares student progress on the statewide Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test to similar Houston schools classrooms.

About half of the 12,300 teachers in the Houston schools are eligible to receive rewards in all three categories, possibly earning a total of $3,000 each.  The 305 Houston schools principals are eligible to earn as much as $6,000 each, if they have the best achieving teachers. Each of the Houston schools’ 19 executive principals and five regional superintendents are eligible for as much as $25,000.

With 210,000 children, Houston schools is the largest district in the state, and its new program isn’t without opposition.

Teachers unions are typically against teacher merit pay programs, and the Houston Federation of Teachers is no exception. The union represents 40 percent of the Houston schools teachers and believes across-the-board raises and a higher starting wage for new teachers would be more successful in raising student achievement scores.  Houston schools start new teachers at $36,050 (lowest in the ten major districts in Texas), and the current Houston schools teachers’ wages are at the lowest end of the nation’s schools.

Many teachers have complained that the program bypasses arts teachers and others with subjects not covered by the testing process. The program excludes special education, preschool and kindergarten teachers, who are the backbone in improving academic achievement in children from low-income families. Additionally, many teachers believe that it forces them to teach to the testing requirements rather than focus on real academic achievement.

The new program also has opened old wounds and raised tensions over the previous merit pay program and its effect upon testing results, which laid the groundwork for a recently exposed cheating scandal. The Texas Education Agency investigated the Houston schools and other districts in 1999 due to suspicious testing results.  Houston schools admitted last year that evidence of cheating had been found at four schools and testing irregularities were found at seven others. Eventually, six teachers were fired and several principals were demoted or reprimanded, leaving the city frustrated and bruised by the merit pay program and its ensuing results.

Though the Houston schools’ new teacher merit pay program sounds good in theory, it seems that in practice it is expanding the same old problems encountered with the previous program.