Quick Hit Matthew Blake Tuesday August 23rd, 2011, 12:54pm

An Education Policy That May Lack Merit

Rahm Emanuel declared last week that Chicago would launch a “first of its kind” principal performance incentive pay plan. Emanuel’s announcement was financially made possible by literally four sets of the mayor’s biggest donors and without the consultation of Chicago Principals and Administrators Association President Clarice Berry.

But let’s not argue over process. Simply put, merit pay is not proven to work.

CPS spokeswoman Ana Vargas says that $5 million in private donations to Emanuel will set up the Chicago Leadership Collaborative and that the collaborative will “work with the Chicago Principal and Administrators Association to develop different metrics in determining which principals receive performance incentive pay.” Any plan would not affect CPPA’s current contract with CPS, Vargas says, and performance incentives will instead provide a $5,000 to $10,000 annual bonus for principals who go, “above and beyond.”

But the dialogue between Emanuel and CPPA on performance incentive pay has so far been non-existent. CPPA President Barry was “blind-sided” by the press conference announcement, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. The people who did know for certain about the announcement – besides Emanuel and new CPS head Jean-Claude Brizard – would be the contributors that gave $5 million.

Two million dollars alone comes from Republican venture capitalist Bruce Rauner, of Chicago’s GTCR private equity firm, and Rauner’s wife, Diana. It was Rauner who brought Jonah Edelman, head of the Oregon-based Stand for Children, to Illinois to push for a state education reform bill. Rauner and Edelman successfully lobbied for an education law that requires 75 percent approval of Chicago Teachers Union members to strike and allows Chicago’s mayor to bargain with the union over setting longer school days.

Edelman later bragged on video that he steamrolled the CTU. Rauner, meanwhile, might parlay his success in business and education reform into a Republican bid for governor.

One million dollars each comes from Groupon executive chairman Eric Lefkosky and his wife, Liz as well as Paul Finnegan, co-founder of Madison Dearborn Partners, and his wife, Mary. Penny Pritzker and her husband, Chicago Park Board President Bryan Traubert, also gave $1 million. Always a major player in Chicago politics, Pritzker is now a member of the Chicago school board.

The donors share Emanuel’s affinity for merit pay – which suggests the principal performance incentive plan could expand to include teachers. But the research around both principal and teacher merit pay is “quite thin,” according to Susan Burns, a senior staff member at the Vanderbilt University National Center on Performance Incentives. There is little either way that says principal merit pay makes a difference – but two recent studies come down hard on teacher merit pay.

One done by the Vanderbilt center found that a pilot program in Nashville failed to raise student test scores. And a four-year study done by the RAND Corporation on a program in New York City, found merit pay had, “no positive effects on student achievement at any grade level.”

Jackson Potter, a spokesman for CTU, says that the union opposes merit pay due to these studies and also because the “union conceptually finds merit pay too individualistic – schools are a place where staff has to collaborate.”

So it seems unlikely that Emanuel and the Chicago Leadership Collaborative will have an easy time brokering merit pay deals with the principal – and perhaps – teachers union. And even if the mayor does, it will be for a policy that may do nothing to improve student achievement.

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