Austin delving deeper into performance pay for teachers
Houston educators urge Austin to tread with care; Denver's program a national model.
By Raven L. Hill
Saturday, March 03, 2007
As Austin school district officials craft a new compensation plan for teachers and officials, they are keeping a watchful eye on what worked in other school systems.
And what did not.
Starting in the fall, trustees plan to set aside $4.3 million annually to pay for performance-based bonuses as a way to recruit, retain and reward quality educators. Austin officials want to offer bonuses districtwide in the 2008-09 school year.
Austin is joining districts across the country that are exploring ways to better pay teachers and principals — and finding that more money doesn't always equal a better system.
Most efforts have historically failed for three reasons, experts say: They focused on financial incentives alone, lacked a systemic approach and were punitive in design.
The Austin school district has put discussions of strategic compensation in the broader context of the district's mission to raise student achievement, from providing better opportunities for professional development to more effective supervision and support.
"The efforts that have shown some of the most promise were those that realized you had to make many changes," said William Slotnik, founder and executive director of the Boston-based Community Training and Assistance Center, which is helping Austin with its plan. "You want to have a school system where all the pieces fit together."
In education, raises are often based on seniority or advanced degrees. An Austin teacher with a graduate degree is paid about $800 more on average. Salaries rise $200 with each additional year of experience. Though the district offers stipends in high-demand areas such as bilingual education and special education, it does not provide bonuses for reaching target education goals.
Denver's nationally recognized ProComp plan includes bonuses for teachers and principals who've completed continuing education courses, received satisfactory performance evaluations, met student growth objectives and work in "hard to staff" schools or specialized areas.
Austin started looking at performance pay about three years ago when it established a task force composed of educators, experts and parents. Now, the district sees the initiative as a key part of its efforts to better serve students. Ed Fuller, a University of Texas researcher who served as a facilitator, said the committee's subsequent reports and recommendations helped shore up "a foundation of understanding" about the district's perceived strengths and weaknesses.
"You have to look at the system holistically to make sure this particular policy effort fits in with the other work of the school district," Fuller said.
Austin is currently interviewing about 5,600 teachers and 400 campus administrators to see what they think of the idea.
The compensation initiative is being guided by a task force and steering committee of teachers, principals, and community and business representatives. The plan is to start paying performance bonuses at pilot schools in 2007-08 and expand to all schools the following year.
Jim Harrington, a former elementary school teacher and task force member who retired after 17 years in Austin schools, said he's encouraged that teachers will be better served in the future.
"The traditional pay system worked real well in the old traditional school system," Harrington said. "It's given me hope that we're moving toward more student achievement and teachers being adequately compensated."
Austin's measured approach is markedly different from that taken by Houston school district officials, whose $14 million performance pay plan tied teacher bonuses to student progress on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, the national Stanford 10 exam and the Spanish-equivalent Aprenda.
When the first round of bonus checks went out earlier this year, many of Houston's more than 15,000 teachers were furious, especially after the bonuses were made public.
They didn't understand how a school's Teacher of the Year wouldn't receive a bonus check or why teachers in subject areas such as reading, math or science wouldn't get the largest checks.
"We had teachers screaming at each other when the bonuses came out," said Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. "We had one who walked off the job. What I would suggest to the Austin teachers and (Superintendent) Pat Forgione: Don't copy the Houston plan or your teachers will hate you."
Austin has laid the right groundwork, said Louis Malfaro, president of Education Austin, which represents more than 4,000 teachers and staff.
"In Houston, this was done to the teachers, not done with them, and done over their objections," Malfaro said. "Here in Austin, we have an opportunity to test some things, both to understand what teachers' goals and aspirations are, but also their fears and misgivings. When you're talking about people's pay, it's a politically charged area."
Austin officials plan to seek additional money for the bonuses from state and federal sources. Blackshear and Oak Springs elementaries and 20 other Austin campuses received state funds for incentive plans. Blackshear and Oak Springs devised plans that rewarded teachers based on passing rates, leadership and professionalism among other areas.
The Denver plan
•Teachers get bonuses of $342 to $3,070 depending on nine variables that include earning graduate degrees and professional development credits, satisfactory performance evaluations and student performance on the state achievement test.
•The $25 million plan was approved by voters in November 2005. Current teachers had seven years to decide whether to participate. Those hired after January 2006 were automatically enrolled.
•About 1,700 of more than 4,000 staff members had joined the plan by November.
The Houston plan
•Teachers can earn up to $7,000 in bonus pay based on student performance on standardized tests.
•The plan's goal was to focus on growth in student learning and make incentives more 'financially meaningful' to teachers.
•Started in January, the plan was roundly criticized by the Houston Federation of Teachers for being divisive and confusing.
Sources: Denver and Houston school districts, media reports
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