Focus

A Start-up of Performance-Based Pay

by MICHAEL W. JOLIN

Long and difficult union contract negotiations often force me to ask myself a question many other superintendents probably ask themselves: Why do I do this job?

It was 2:30 a.m. on a cold December morning in 2008, and we were completing contract negotiations that had begun at 5 p.m. the day before. We were clearly at an impasse in our state-mediated negotiations on performance-based pay. The administrators’ union was highly skeptical of the union concept, especially based on advice the union had received from its state union leadership. On the other hand, our board of education members were adamant they were going to make progress on the topic or not sign the new contract for the administrators. I was in the middle.

Michael JolinMichael W. Jolin



I could see the benefits of the school board’s proposal to try to link compensation to improving student performance, yet at the same time I understood the administrators’ reluctance. They were aware of existing research that pointed to difficulties related to including performance bonuses when calculating base compensation for retirement purposes. They also were cognizant of the possible negative competition it could cause among their ranks. Of course, they also were skeptical of whatever measurement tools we would use to identify improved performance.

Basic Commitment
That early morning we came to a compromise, and it was simple. We would agree to maintain the status quo for another year and to study the problem by meeting on a biweekly basis. We also committed to some basic concepts to guide our further negotiations. These were to keep it collegial, keep it simple and base our work on best research practices.

We all were skeptical about the collegial part because our prior year’s negotiations had been quite contentious, and not a great deal of trust existed on either side.

As I helped guide the research process, I was fortunate to connect with Kenneth Wong, chair of the education department at Brown University, who has long held an interest in the concept of performance-based pay. He agreed to help us with the services of a graduate assistant, who would do much of the research. We shared the cost of her time at a much lower price than we would have had to pay for an external consultant.

Wong and his assistant generated a review of the literature on performance-based pay tailored to the Thompson Public Schools in particular, as well as to other small districts around the country. Some of the key suggestions they provided were these:

•  Goals must be comprehensible, attainable and measurable;

•  Goals should assess multiple criteria that reflect the many roles of administrators;

•  Each component should be weighted so as to clearly align with the goals of the district;

•  Compensation for one individual should be in clear proportion to another individual in the same system;

•  Compensation must be enough to motivate changes in behavior but not so much to make the program unsustainable.

Lagging Compensation
As we continued our negotiations, the board negotiator confided in me he could see a change in the tone of our negotiations in comparison to the prior, combative year.

Through our negotiations, we began to agree that the connection of student performance to administrator compensation should not be based solely on standardized student test scores. Agreement on this issue required significant compromise on the board’s part. This compromise, however, was made more amenable by the board’s desire to find a politically favorable mechanism to increase Thompson administrators’ salaries. They lagged, in general, $5,000 to $15,000 behind regional averages.

The recognition of the need to improve administrators’ salaries also related to the board’s knowledge of the difficulties in retaining and recruiting quality principals and directors.

In this regard, our recent search for a special education director cost more than $6,000 in advertising fees and yielded only two qualified candidates. Of the more than 100 Thompson teachers on staff, none applied for this position, in part because the daily compensation rate of the director position was only $50 higher than the top-step teacher’s salary.

Bonus Criteria
Last September, the Thompson Board of Education, the Thompson Association of School Administrators and I finally agreed on contract language to implement a performance-based pay system for principals and other administrators.

Administrators now can earn a bonus of as much as $2,100 per year if they meet certain goals for improving the district’s schools. The criteria includes, but aren’t limited to, raising test scores.

More specifically, bonuses may be earned on a point system, with 50 percent of the bonus determined by the administrator’s evaluation by the superintendent and the other 50 percent on the attainment of agreed-upon goals selected from each school’s improvement plan. A goal from the elementary school plan, for example, involves increasing reading standardized test scores by 5 percent for 2011. If the administrator attains 80 percent of this goal, he or she receives 80 percent of the bonus.

The school board has agreed to tailor my compensation in a similar way. My attainment of a performance increase will be tied to the aggregate success of our administrators.

While we recognize the bonuses offered are not substantial and that the metrics for determining who will receive them are being tried for the first time, we do believe we have made progress on the issue. Time and further analysis will determine our success. 

Michael Jolin is superintendent in Thompson, Conn. E-mail: mjolin@thompsonpublicschools.org