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Virtual School Compensates Teachers Based on Student Performance

By Cait Etherington
November 20, 2017

South Carolina’s Horry County Schools’ virtual program is now offering merit pay to its online teachers based on how many of their students actually complete a course. The system may sound shocking but in fact, it is consistent with a model of education that has been in place in many U.S. states since the 1990s that ties school funding to student performance levels. In this case, of course, the direct impact is not on school budgets but rather an individual teachers’ take-home pay.

How Much Merit Pay Do Teachers Gain?

To be clear, the bonus being offered by Horry County Schools does not add up to a significant amount of money but neither does the board’s base pay for online teachers. As reported in EdSurge last week, “Each semester, teachers get a base pay of $500 for each enrolled student in a course and an additional $120 for each one who finishes. For example, a class with five students who all finish would net the teacher $3100.” However, even if a student fails, a teacher can still get a bonus, “provided that they show that they have done everything they can to support the learner.” In an interview with EdSurge, Edi Cox, the Executive Director of Horry County Schools’ virtual program, explained, “This system was put in place to almost force our online teachers to document what they are doing. If the teacher drops the ball, they don’t get paid for that student.”

Cox emphasizes that the bonus not only is quelling student attrition but also helping to lower teacher attrition rates in the county’s virtual school program: “What it has done is helped us keep our teachers because that base fee was not in place before. That’s now a guarantee, so it has given us some consistency that we may not have had before.”

Widespread Concerns About Merit-based Compensation for Teachers

While the Horry County model of compensation may increase accountability, educators express a range of concerns about such programs. Bill Raabe, former NEA’s director of Collective Bargaining and Member Benefits, once argued, “We all must be wary of any system that creates a climate where students are viewed as part of the pay equation, rather than young people who deserve a high quality education that prepares them for their future.” Raabe is not alone in his opposition, and there is even evidence that such programs simply don’t work.

Back in 2007, New York City attempted to tie teacher merit pay to student performance. Four years later, ChalkBeat reported, “New York City’s heralded $75 million experiment in teacher incentive pay — deemed ‘transcendent’ when it was announced in 2007 — did not increase student achievement at all, a new study by the Harvard economist Roland Fryer concludes.” In fact, the author of the study concluded, “If anything, student achievement declined.”

Other Virtual Schools Have Also Adopted Merit Pay for Student Success

Due to the fact that virtual schools are often competency-based and enable board’s to track both student and teacher progress more carefully, it is no surprise that basing compensation on student performance has emerged as an especially popular model in virtual schools. Florida Virtual Schools adopted the practice in 2010 but later abandoned it when it was found to not be in compliance with state-wide guidelines on teacher compensation.

While merit pay remains controversial amongst the vast majority of educators, it is important to note that there is widespread support for merit pay, even merit based on student outcomes, and this holds true across the political spectrum. Data compiled in the 10th Education Next poll, published in 2016, found that “Asked their opinion on ‘basing part of the salaries of teachers on how much their students learn,’ 60% of the public express support for the idea in 2016. That percentage has remained relatively constant since 2008. Sixty-three percent of Republicans favor merit pay, as compared to 57% of Democrats.” By contrast, the poll found, “Teachers remain largely united in opposition to merit pay, with just 20% expressing support.”

Although merit pay based on student success remains controversial, it seems likely that as more learning happens online where competency-based and student-centered learning models are often favored, the debate about linking teacher compensation to student success will continue to unfold.