Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Results mixed in first year of Texas' teacher merit

Results mixed in first year of Texas' teacher merit
pay plan

Exclusive: Study finds bonuses didn't sway most to
alter methods

By TERRENCE STUTZ / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN ˆ The first year of Texas' $100 million
experiment in school reform ˆ involving an estimated
52,000 teachers in the largest merit pay plan in the
nation ˆ produced mixed results and didn't motivate
most teachers to change their classroom techniques.

An independent study funded by the state showed that
the Texas Educator Excellence Grant program drew a
favorable response from teachers in the 1,148 schools
where bonuses were awarded, but the study also said
massive turnover of schools in the plan each year will
make it difficult to achieve success over the long

In addition, according to researchers, school
districts gave bonuses far less than the $3,000 to
$10,000 range recommended by the Legislature. Trying
to spread the money among more teachers, districts
gave average maximum bonuses of $2,263.

Hundreds of campuses in North Texas are participating
in the program, including 90 in the Dallas school
district this year. The plan was created under the
school finance reform law passed by the Legislature in

The 161-page study on the merit pay program was
conducted by the National Center on Performance
Incentives under a contract with the Texas Education
Agency. Researchers who worked on the study were from
Vanderbilt University, the University of Missouri and
the RAND Corp., a nonprofit think tank.

State education officials said Thursday they were
pleased with the first year of the grant program and
the findings of the study, though they are
implementing changes to address some of the
shortcomings identified. Teacher leaders, on the other
hand, said the study affirms problems that they
predicted would befall the program.

"We think the program is accomplishing what the
Legislature intended," said Jerel Booker, TEA director
of education initiatives and performance.

"One of the primary goals was to retain good teachers
in our schools, and at least 70 percent of these
teachers said they have a strong desire to participate
in the program."

Mr. Booker said teacher retention is particularly
important for the 1,148 schools that were in the plan
last year because all serve a large percentage of
economically disadvantaged children ˆ one of the
requirements for eligibility.

Richard Kouri of the Texas State Teachers Association
said the study highlights problems that hampered
previous efforts to set up merit pay for public school
teachers. The association and other teacher
organizations have opposed the state's merit pay plan,
contending all teachers should get raises because
salaries in Texas are low compared with other states.

Pointing to one finding that 85 percent of the
teachers in the program said it did not affect their
work in the classroom, Mr. Kouri said: "What did the
$100 million accomplish? These teachers were already
doing a good job."

He also cited a major flaw in the program that was
identified by the study, that 60 percent of the
schools in the program last year were dropped from the
plan this year because they failed to meet performance
and demographic targets.

"The way it is designed now, a majority of teachers
can't count on merit pay being available at their
schools for more than one year," he said.

The high turnover of schools in the program, according
to the study, "can weaken the incentives by lowering
the probability of a teacher's school being eligible
for [the grant program] in multiple years."

In addition, teachers may be discouraged from adopting
new teaching approaches ˆ which require investments of
time and training ˆ if they believe their school's
program will be gone after one year, researchers

Mr. Booker said one of the reasons for the high
turnover of schools is the limited amount of funding
in the program, which provides only enough money for
about 1,100 schools a year. He said the situation
should be eased somewhat when the state kicks off a
second incentive pay plan ˆ open to all public schools
ˆ next year.

State grants in the Texas Educator Excellence Grant
program are targeted at schools with a high percentage
of low-income students. To qualify, schools also have
to earn a performance rating of "exemplary" or
"recognized" ˆ the top two grades in the state's
accountability system ˆ or rank in the top quarter of
schools in math or reading improvements on the state's
standardized test, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge
and Skills.

Each school must develop a plan for distributing the
bonuses, subject to approval by the Texas Education
Agency. Teachers are supposed to be involved in
formulating the plans, which in most schools last year
were based on student performance, teacher
collaboration and teacher initiative.

In the Dallas school district, 90 campuses were
invited into the program this year ˆ 12 more schools
than last year. In all, those schools will receive
about $9.5 million for incentive pay, including
$300,000 for Skyline High School ˆ the largest grant
of any campus in the district.

On the positive side, a survey of teachers in the
program found fairly broad support for performance
incentives in general and for the Texas Educator
Excellence Grant program specifically.

Researchers also said that "many of the reservations
against performance incentives were not realized" in
the Texas program, including critics' predictions that
merit pay would lead to less teacher collaboration and
diminished instruction.

"Most teachers responded favorably to their school's
[grant] program and also indicated generally positive
relations with colleagues and between teachers and
students," the study said.

Mr. Booker of the TEA said school districts are being
encouraged this year to target the money to their
highest performing teachers rather than spreading it
out with small bonuses for a large number of teachers.

Student test scores at the schools were not evaluated
by researchers but will be next year, according to
state officials.

Among other districts in the Dallas area with a large
number of schools that were tapped to participate this
year are Fort Worth (25 schools), Arlington (19),
Richardson (13) and three districts with seven schools
each ˆ Garland, Grand Prairie and Irving. Mesquite has
four schools on the list, and three other districts
have three each ˆ Carrollton-Farmers Branch,
Duncanville and Lewisville.

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