Spotlight

Rhetoric to Reality: Our District’s Focus on Individual Merit

by RANDY MOHUNDRO

The idea of performance pay was not a new idea for the De Leon, Texas, Independent School District when I was hired as superintendent in 2005.

When I was in contract negotiations with members of the school board and the district’s attorney, the idea of linking a portion of my compensation to the level of student perform-ance on state assessments was on their minds. I felt it would be unfair for me to benefit from the work of classroom teachers when they did not receive any benefit. It was from there that the district started down the road of developing a performance pay system for professional staff.

Randy MohundroRandy Mohundro


Our first attempt was the result of a state grant that called for a system to be developed by the campus staff. They took more of a conventional approach with a plan for perform-ance pay to be distributed uniformly to all staff members, including support workers. The impact of the program on improving student achievement was negligible at best.

Following that experience, I realized a more radical approach was necessary. After discussions with the school board, I agreed to a system tying individual performance of each student to the amount of money that a teacher would receive.

Avoiding a Blanket
While the dialogue of performance pay makes for great political rhetoric, the reality of making performance pay work so that it has an impact on individual students is much more difficult. Using ratings that are assigned by either state or federal agencies, in regard to student performance, means it’s highly likely individual students will be discounted by teachers. Students who are struggling academically represent negatives to a teacher who knows that time is a limited resource. Thus, we eliminated from consideration a system using ratings.

Clearly what was needed was a system that looked at the performance of each individual student. The system had to provide compensation to a teacher for the time and effort given to each student, not just to a blanket score or rating for an entire class or grade level.

Also, it became evident we needed to push all parties to have students excel at higher levels of performance. “Meeting Minimum Expectations” is the state’s passing standard and “Commended Performance” is awarded to a student who scores 85 percent or higher in a course.

The program that materialized for the district was structured to pay teachers a certain dollar amount for each student based on their perform-ance on the annual state student assessment in the current year compared to their showing during the year prior. Compensation would be paid to a teacher for each student who passed, commended, or had failed the test the previous year but passed it during the current year.

The dollar amounts were meager the first year, with the board allocating $25,000 in local money for the program. Dollar amounts were set for three levels of performance — passing, $7.50; commended, $20; and passing the current year after failing the previous year, $35. Another unique feature of the program was that the dollar amounts could be stacked, allowing a teacher to count the same student in multiple categories.

Greatest Reward
The school board acted favorably on this approach. However, they expressed interest in putting value on students who did not pass the test yet showed growth toward meeting the state passing standard. This led to the creation of two new categories. Students who failed the current year but had growth of 15 to 30 percent over their previous year’s performance were valued at $8. Those who showed growth exceeding 30 percent were valued at $12.

Teachers’ performance pay that first year was meager, with awards ranging from $217 to $2,002. In the second year, we took advantage of two state grants, raising the pot from $25,000 to more than $100,000 for the district. Payouts for teachers ranged from $580 to $5,223.

The program is data-intensive and student-focused. It allows every student who walks into a teacher’s classroom to have value, literally. In particular, it makes those students in need of the greatest intervention serve as students with the greatest potential for the highest reward. It also rewards teachers in their ability to take individual children from where they may be on the first day of school and to see how far they can help them progress during the school year.

When I am asked if this incentive program, which is midway through its third year, is making a difference, I can honestly say yes. Teachers are now much more attuned to the performance of each student from the very first day of school. They now want to know what this student did previously, before deciding what they can do to make a difference in the life of that student.

Randy Mohundro is superintendent of De Leon -Independent School District in De Leon, Texas. E-mail: rmohundro@deleon.esc14.net