Think, Know, Prove: Merit Pay–Some Considerations

Think, Know, Prove is an occasional Friday feature, where a topic with both mystery and importance is posted for community discussion. The title is a shortened version of the Investigative Mantra: What do we think, what do we know, what can we prove? and everything from wild speculation to resource referencing fact is welcome here.

Our current contract went into effect on July 16, 2013 and includes a little provision in Article VI, Section C, as you might recall, called “Student Success Pay.” This was, shall we say, a controversial aspect of the contract. Our Union leadership at the time made the case that we should like it because, “Hey, free money!” (I’m paraphrasing). And now, one month short of halfway through our contract, I’m not sure that anyone is any closer to understanding this provision than when it was proposed. Two important considerations jump out–one is principle and one is practical. We’ll take the easier of the two first.

Issue of Principle: Let’s assume that we can work out the practical questions (below) and that as a result, merit pay is sprinkled upon the Local 1600 membership. Do we take it? And by we, I mean the faculty both around the district and at Harold Washington, not to mention the advisors and professionals. Do we put our objections where our mouths are (were?)? Those of us who had them anyway? I mean, I guess the easy path would be to cash the check and accept it as part of the new world order and say, “Hey, free money!” Everyone who had personal cognitive dissonance could make a donation to a scholarship or whatever on their own, I suppose. That would be one way to go. A different way to go would be something like this–to take a stand like the teachers in Lee, Massachusetts who refused to accept it and explained why in a letter to the newspaper. Is it worth talking about? I doubt it would fly district wide (remember that we were the only college that voted against the contract), but we could do it as a college, or at least make an option available for those who want to protest the idea of it? Does anyone have thoughts on this?

Issue of Practicalities: The section of the contract about “Student Success Pay” is a paragraph that only a lawyer could love because, reading it, they’d know that they are going to rack up some billable hours unraveling the mess that got written into the contract. Was everyone tired? Drunk? I’d love to know. Anyway, read along with me; see if you can make sense of it. Here we go, paragraph by paragraph:

The Board and the Union agree to form a Joint Committee to address all issues related to the implementation of the Student Success Pay component, including, but not limited to, prevention of grade inflation and determination of additional ways to measure individual merit.

So far so good, though, already some things jump out. A Joint Committee? Wonder who is on it, or if it’s been formed yet. Also interesting is the mention of grade inflation. Anyone whose been reading or hearing about Faculty Council meetings knows that this popped up on their radar last spring when our Admins told HWFC that they were looking at grade distributions and trying to identify abnormal patterns. The DO wouldn’t want us padding students’ grades in order to get more money, obviously. (They seem to have a little less compunction about adjusting or outright dropping degree requirements, but that’s a story for another week). I’m not sure what the end of that sentence means at all–apparently the joint committee has responsibility to “address all issues related to the implementation of the Student Success Pay component including, but not limited to..determination of additional ways to measure individual merit.” Additional to what? In addition to grades? The context seems to suggest that, but maybe they mean individual merit of instructors? They lost me already, and it’s only the first sentence! Oh well, on to the second, also the second paragraph:

The Illinois Community College Board and legislation enacted by the Illinois legislature, as described in Public Act 097-0320, will tie a portion of City Colleges’ funding to its 13 performance on state metrics, including degree completion, transfer rate, performance of “remedial” students, and momentum. As a result of this state-level effort, CCC and the union have agreed to form a corresponding bonus structure for its faculty. For each of fiscal years 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018, all 1600 faculty members will be eligible as a group for bonus pay based on measures of aggregate student achievement for CCC. The total possible size of the pool is set for each year at 1% of total salaries paid to 1600 faculty members in the previous fiscal year.

Ok, so, according to this, all 1600 faculty members (so not professionals and advisors?) are eligible for bonus pay for each of the last four years of the contract. Fiscal Year 14 started when the contract started in July of 2013 and ran through the end of June 2014. FY15, the first year of eligibility for bonus pay ended last July. We are currently in FY16. Interesting, no? The total pool of bonus pay is 1% of total salaries paid to 1600 faculty members the previous year, so the pool for FY15 was 1% of last year’s faculty pay. I looked in last year’s budget, but I couldn’t find a number for that anywhere (nor for bonus pay!). There were salary numbers (by college), but not by job. I don’t even know how to estimate it. We have 120 or so FT faculty at HWC, but 600 or so employees, so the college salary number is not terribly helpful, even as an estimate. If I recall correctly, there are something like 640 faculty across the system; does that sound right? During our last strike, there was a lot of jabber about “the average” faculty salary being $70,000, but we had more senior faculty then than we do now, so for that reason (and others) I don’t really trust it. Still, in a pinch, let’s say 640 X 70,000 x 1%, which makes a pool of $448,000, which means about $700 per person if we maxed out and hit every target (again, assuming that all of those guesstimates are actually correct (which they aren’t)). Ok, what are these “measures of aggregate student achievement for CCC?” Great question.

There are seven corresponding targets, indicated by the first column in the table below:

FY14 FY15 FY16 FY17 FY18
Students who completed a degree or certificate 9,815 10,070 10,562 11,024 11,895
Students who transfer to a four-year institution within two years 16% 17% 19% 20% 21%
Remedial students who advance to college-level work  30.2% 30.5% 31.2% 31.8% 33.1%
Full-time students who earn 30 credits within their first year 8.1% 8.2% 8.6% 8.9% 9.6%
Part-time students who earn 15 credits within their first year 20.0% 20.4% 21.3% 22.2% 23.9%
Percent of students employed in the occupational area of their training 60% 61% 64% 69% 71%
Median earnings of CCC graduates who are employed in the occupational area of their training $31,824 $32,461 $34,262 $36,149 $38,129
*Fall 2011 to Fall 2012
**Class of 2011, employed in FY12


So this one is going to take some doing. Remember that in FY14 there is no bonus pay, and so those are initial targets that (as you’ll see in the following paragraphs) are the adjustable baseline. The first measure is no surprise and straightforward enough. The second is interesting though, for its ambiguity. The second Reinvention goal is specific about increasing the number of students who transfer upon completion of their CCC degree, but there’s nothing here about completers. So, is it 16% of all students? Probably not, right? Data is still pretty spotty for non-IPEDs transfers, I think, and even if they weren’t, we’d make those numbers already wouldn’t we? So let’s assume they mean “completers.” Third is a kind of hybrid of the third and fourth Reinvention goals. Reinvention promised “drastically improved outcomes for remedial students” and increased numbers of students progressing from ABE/GED/Adult Ed to College level work. Here we have “Remedial students who advance to college-level work.” But what does that mean? Every registration we put students into English 100 and Math 98 and Humanities 105 or an Art class or College Success (the latter three of which ARE “college-level work.” So…do we focus on the “advance” part? But what does that mean? Getting into Math 118 or being eligible for English 101? Or were they confused about their own goals and mixed what they shouldn’t? It’s clearer why they need a committee isn’t it?

The fourth and fifth are, mercifully, pretty straightforward, even if problematic, and I’m sure the sixth one means something to someone, but I’m not even going to try. Ok, I’ll try. So I think they’ll track (or try?) the various Culinary Arts students and Taxi Certificate earners and Child Development Certificate recipients and Radiologists and then average the salaries of the ones who get jobs doing what they trained to do (do the ones who didn’t get jobs get added in with a $0, even if they got a job in another field?). Something like that.

And then, wonderfully, there are two asterisks and explanations below the table with no matching asterisks IN the table. Delightful! And then come the last three paragraphs, and the next one is a doozy:

The total possible bonus pool will be allocated evenly across all the metrics. The percentage paid out for each area will be the percentage difference between the target for that fiscal year and the baseline. For each year, the baseline will be the higher of: (a) the previous year’s performance or (b) the number which appears for the previous fiscal year in the table above. The total payout for that area will thus be the even split of the total pool multiplied by the percentage progress. If a previous year’s performance exceeds the following year’s target, the payout will be 100% for both years, as long as performance remains above the target.

I’m there for the first sentence. I’m tracking. And then, things get kooky. Maybe it’s just because I’m worse at math word problems than I used to be, but I had a really hard time figuring out how this all worked. So, each year has a target–the number in the table. “The percentage paid out for each area will be the percentage difference between the target for that fiscal year and the baseline.” I know (or think I do) what they mean by “target” and “baseline” is defined in the next sentence. “For each year, the baseline will be the higher of: a) the previous year’s performance or b) the number which appears for the previous fiscal year in the table above.” Ok, so let’s do a hypothetical example for degrees in FY 15. The Target is 10,070. The baseline would then be the higher of the previous year’s performance or the number in the previous fiscal year. So, if we missed our target in 2014, we’d still use that number as our baseline. Let’s say we gave out 10,000 degrees and certificates in FY14. That number is higher than the number in the table for 2014, so that would be our baseline. That would give us the following equation for merit pay in this category in 2015:

FY15: Target 10,070

Baseline: 10,000

Percentage Difference (10,000/10,070) = 99.3%

So, does that mean, we’d earn 99.3% of the bonus pool? Because we made that much progress toward the goal for 2015? That would be weird since we’re using the number for 2014 as our baseline for 2015 bonus pay. It would also be weird because even if we never hit a target, we’d be “earning bonus pay” on the basis of the previous year’s target becoming the new baseline (if it’s higher than the actual achievement numbers) and the new target number becoming the new target. So, it seems like a worst case scenario for bonus pay on the degrees number would be 97.5% of 1/7th of the bonus pool. Could that be right? Maybe that’s why Perry loved this structure. It’s not only free money, it’s guaranteed money.

Consider the next two sentences: “The total payout for that area will thus be the even split of the total pool multiplied by the percentage progress. If a previous year’s performance exceeds the following year’s target, the payout will be 100% for both years, as long as the performance remains above the target.”

Let’s imagine a scenario where we gave out 10,700 degrees and certificates in 2014. That would be our new baseline (it’s higher than the number published in the table as the FY14 target. It’s also higher than the number for the FY15 target. So, that would mean:

FY15 Target: 10,070

Fy15 Baseline: 10,700

Percentage Difference (106.25%), so, that would mean 100% in FY15. That last sentence seems unnecessary, but it maybe I’m missing something. We are definitely missing the last two paragraphs, which read as follows:

For the FY14 baseline, CCC will make a one-time adjustment to the baseline if FY14
performance is lower than indicated in the table above. The revision will reduce all numbers for
that metric from FY14 to FY18 by a corresponding percentage.

Each faculty member will receive a full share of each metric’s bonus pool if they were
employed for the entirety of the previous fiscal year or a half share if they were employed for
half the fiscal year.

The last paragraph is clear enough. The second to last seems to suggest that the targets can only be adjusted downward (and all would be depending on the FY14 performance). And so it looks like we are all owed a not insignificant sum of money for “student success” in Fiscal Year 2015 that, to my knowledge we haven’t been paid and that at least some people (at least me) feel rather squirrelly about taking for a host of reasons, not the least of which is principle of the matter–taking nearly half a million dollars because of either speculative projections or student success from a system that just raised tuition on the very students whose labor and efforts would end up in our bank accounts seems grotesque. Not to mention the merits of the argument made by the teachers in Lee (under admittedly somewhat different circumstances):

Merit pay is an insult to our professionalism and a divisive tool designed to incite dissension among us in hopes of weakening our union, which is not only a political organization, but also a professional one, intended to protect the interests of both educators and students.

What do you think? What do you know? What can you prove?



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