When Sydney Chaffee became Massachusetts’ first national teacher of the year this spring, she received plenty of praise from the charter school where she worked, Codman Academy in Dorchester.
What she didn’t get from her school was a financial windfall.
At a time when many policy makers and education advocates are pushing performance-based pay plans as a way to motivate teachers to do more for their students, almost all of Boston’s 16 independent charter schools, including Codman, have rejected bonuses for a job well done.
Instead, most charter schools, which were designed to be laboratories of education innovation, rely on something more typical of unionized workplaces: a standard pay scale or simple cost-of-living pay increases.
Across the country, there is an ongoing debate among charter schools about the best approach to teacher compensation, amid growing skepticism that connecting pay to performance actually improves student achievement.
But most charter-school management organizations, which run a good chunk of charter schools nationwide, now use traditional pay scales, according to research by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.
“I thought we would see more in the way of performance-based pay because so many of these schools are big on outcomes,” said Robin Lake, the center’s director.
But she added, “I think people in general like a fair system. We’ve been in a lot of charters where people want to know that there is some predictability and that people are being treated fairly. Most of them are non-unionized schools, but are falling back on more traditional models of work rules.”
Policy makers have long viewed independent charter schools, which are public institutions that employ non-unionized teachers, as fertile ground to experiment with merit-based pay. They hoped charter schools would develop new approaches to compensation, such as rewarding teachers whose students do well on standardized tests.
If successful, such systems could then be replicated in traditional school systems, where teachers unions have opposed pay that is dependent on performance.
But charter leaders who are wary of a strict merit-based system cite many of the same reasons that union leaders do: Merit-based pay can be divisive — creating a culture of one-upmanship — instead of fostering the teamwork necessary to move a whole school forward.
Even the handful of charter schools that consider some degree of performance, such as student test scores or job reviews, are reluctant to call their approach merit-based. Instead, they describe it as a “blended” or “hybrid” system.
If Boston charter schools give out any kind of bonus to teachers, it’s usually for recommending a successful job candidate or for having worked a certain number of years.
Chaffee said she was not offended by not receiving a bonus from her school for winning the teacher of the year. (The award itself included a trip to the White House and a year of national travel, but no cash reward.)
“It’s not about money for me, and I don’t know any teacher who would tell you they are in the job for the money,” said Chaffee, who is a mentor teacher — a category created at Codman to help nurture younger talent. To be considered, teachers present a portfolio of their work, including student test scores, that demonstrates they have brought students to high levels of achievement.
Samuel Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a watchdog funded by businesses and nonprofits that have been pushing performance-based pay, said the absence of widespread adoption by charter schools could make it more difficult to persuade traditional schools to dole out bonuses and merit increases to their teachers.
But he said the state’s experiment with injecting performance measures into the pay scales of school systems it has taken over, such as Lawrence, could keep the movement going.
“I think there are some teachers, whatever they are paid, who will work just as hard to be effective, but I think for other teachers, it is an added incentive to do more,” he said.
While some studies suggest that performance-based pay works, a growing body of other research indicates that bonuses and merit raises have had little impact on student achievement or have been difficult to implement primarily because every subject doesn’t have a standardized test.
A study by RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization based in Santa Monica, Calif., found that giving bonuses to teachers in high-needs schools in New York City did not increase student achievement. Teachers were eligible for bonuses depending on whether their students’ standardized test scores increased at a high enough rate.
Although teachers told researchers the “bonus was desirable, the program did not change their teaching practices,” according to the study, which was released in 2011. RAND drew similar conclusions when studying teacher bonuses in Texas and Nashville.
Laura Hamilton, an associate director of RAND Education, a division of the corporation, said there is a growing understanding that pay for performance won’t change teaching. She said what holds greater potential is thoughtful performance evaluations.
“A lot of the original enthusiasm for performance-based pay as a way to change teaching, in and of itself, has diminished,” Hamilton said.
Pay has long been a sensitive issue in charter schools, which struggle to offer wages that are competitive with traditional, unionized school systems.
In Boston, the average salary for charter school teachers is roughly $55,000, according to a Globe review of payroll data. By contrast, the average teacher salary in the Boston Public Schools exceeds $90,000, according to the School Department.
Charter school leaders say they don’t have enough money to pay teachers more because too much funding is tied up in facility costs. (Charter schools do not qualify for state school construction money.)
Another reason for the disparity: Charter school teachers tend to be younger and less experienced than Boston Public School teachers.
When charter schools began opening in Boston in the mid-1990s, teacher pay was often a mystery among staff because compensation systems were not etched in stone, an arrangement that benefited good negotiators. But teachers would inevitably learn that some were making more than others, creating hurt feelings, charter school leaders and teachers said.
Some charter schools, like Brooke, which has campuses in Dorchester, Mattapan, Roslindale, and East Boston, tried out bonuses.
At Brooke, the bonuses, paid for under a special federal grant program, ranged between $2,500 and $10,000 and were based on a combination of schoolwide and classroom MCAS scores and teacher attendance. But Brooke was never enamored of the bonuses and saw some teachers defect to better-paying positions in traditional schools. A few years ago, the school scrapped the bonuses and created a pay-scale-like system that includes some performance measures and in some cases can result in generous pay raises as high as 16 percent annually.
That pay scale includes three categories of teachers. The top category is a master teacher, which is reserved for teachers who have demonstrated success in boosting student performance and working in a team. They also take on some additional responsibilities, including mentoring and planning teacher training, and receive the largest pay raises.
Jon Clark, codirector at Brooke, said the new system is better than bonuses.
“We have many teachers who have been with us a long time and earning more than they would at a district school,” Clark said. “We really think it makes sense to concentrate resources on teachers who are sticking with the profession and are highly effective. Hopefully we will get more there over time.”