Staff turnover and inexperienced teachers increasingly are seen as hindrances to improvement in poor, low-achieving schools. Some see extra money as the best way to attract and keep good teachers in these schools. Included: Descriptions of bonus pay plans.
Few phrases raise more suspicions among educators than "bonus pay." Many argue that paying teachers more money for where and what they teach is unfair, divisive, and arbitrary.
But with schools searching for new ways to boost performance among low-income, low-performing students, some districts have found that incentives to draw the best teachers and administrators to the worst schools are paying off. In one district, principals who transfer to struggling schools could earn up to an additional $60,000 over five years.
Some educators remain cautious, though, citing concerns about the effects of bonuses on teachers, principals, and school staffing.
One reason districts are looking at bonus pay more closely is research pointing to the impact teacher quality has on student achievement. Complementing that research are studies such as Teaching at Risk: A Call to Action, a report released in January 2004 by The Teaching Commission, which notes that poor and minority students, who often are the most academically needy, usually are assigned the least experienced and least capable teachers.
"Meanwhile, the most effective teachers -- those who lead, who successfully raise student achievement, and who have expertise in their subject matter -- are compensated via an antiquated, 80-year-old system that pays them the same as their least effective colleagues," according to a report summary. "A system that does not reward excellence cannot inspire it," the report adds.
The Denver (Colorado) Classroom Teachers Association recently became the first teachers' union in the U.S. to approve a pay-for-performance salary system, that includes bonuses for teachers who move to hard-to-staff schools.
Mandates in the federal No Child Left Behind Act for schools to close the achievement gap between high and low-performing students, and to have highly-qualified teachers in all classrooms by 2005-06, also are spurring districts to try new approaches.
For some, looking past the traditional pay system already has paid off. Now in its third year of offering bonuses to experienced teachers to transfer to struggling schools, the Hamilton County (Tennessee) school district, which includes urban Chattanooga, has seen student scores soar in their neediest schools.
"We have seen statistically significant changes; the urban schools are catching up," said superintendent of schools Jesse Register.
Gerry Dowler, who coordinates the national, state, and local teachers' unions in Tennessee, said Hamilton County is experiencing "startling results" in student achievement: reading and math scores jumped an average of 10 to 12 percent in a year in nine priority schools since the influx of new teachers.
Under the incentive program, high-performing teachers can receive an additional $5,000 a year for teaching in low-performing schools, and principals $10,000. Teachers qualify for the program based on the value-added data system Tennessee uses to evaluate teachers. The system involves reviewing student achievement at the beginning and end of the year, using a variety of factors, to determine a teacher's effect on student growth. Administrators review the data to identify teachers who make the greatest gains with students.
Entire school faculties also can receive bonuses if a school shows progress on state tests or students achieve at higher levels.
Twenty-four teachers applied for the incentive program over three years; the number who transferred was not available. Only one or two left their new schools, according to Dowler. The local union, the Hamilton County Education Association, helped develop the criteria for selecting teachers.
Before the incentives, between 70 to 80 percent of the staff turned over in priority schools every year. "We knew we would never reduce the achievement gap if we did not have stable staff," added Dowler. In the past, teachers in city schools got tenure and moved to the suburbs, leaving the inner city schools with hard-to-fill vacancies. Hamilton County merged with the Chattanooga district in 1997; while Hamilton County schools are suburban with a mostly white population, the Chattanooga schools are urban with a high minority enrollment.
"We know there is not one solution," Dowler told Education World. "We are willing to try different things, and see what gives us the biggest bang for our buck."
This could be the last year for the bonuses, though. Funding for the program came from community organizations, and will be gone after 2004-05.
Union president Samevelyn Rock agreed that "we had to come out of the box and think differently and try something new" to help disadvantaged students catch up. At the same time, Rock has some misgivings about bonuses. "We think all teachers deserve more pay," she said. "We want to see it across the board and based on criteria established for everyone."
The bonus pay is part of a series of reform efforts for the priority schools. The district's transfer policy was changed to require that teachers apply for transfers within the district beginning in February. That way, the district can start hiring teachers from outside the district sooner.
At the beginning of the 2002-03 school year, the district had 30 teaching vacancies, Register said. On opening day this year, the district had two. Usually, the vacancies were in urban schools, and the district had to scramble to fill them in the opening days of school, and often was forced to hire the least experienced teachers.
Administrators also reconstituted the priority schools, bringing in new leadership and curriculum. "We value good people in inner city districts; it's a complete package," Register told Education World. "The key component is having good teachers. This creates the message that these schools are important and need quality teachers."
Kevin Carey, a senior policy analyst with The Education Trust, applauded Hamilton County's efforts. "I think the Chattanooga program is very commendable," Carey told Education World. "It combines a lot of elements; it's not just a salary issue. They are paying more for being good and more for being in tough schools."
The results support the approach, he added. "Test scores improved and turnover bottomed out. It shows you can help these students if you have good teachers. If students are on the edge, they never will catch up without good teachers."
In Mobile County (Alabama), school officials are launching their own bonus program in September, and while administrators are confident it will boost achievement, teachers have a lot of questions.
"The first problem with it, it has not been fleshed out," said Danny Goodwin, one of the executive directors of the Mobile County Education Association. "There are no objectives, no performance goals set; they are still setting them as they go and as they start the transfer process."
Assistant superintendent Paul E. Tate Jr., though, is convinced incentives are necessary for school improvement. "We're very optimistic about its success," he told Education World. "We know we have to do something; children like this [from low-income areas] are being shortchanged."
Under the plan, all staff members at five of the district's lowest-performing schools will have to re-apply for their jobs for the 2004-05 school year. While the district has 12 schools on its priority list, money is only available for staff bonuses in five schools, Tate said. The district is using $1.8 million in federal Title I money for the program.
Teachers who apply to one of those five schools will be eligible for up to $8,000 in annual bonuses over five years; a $4,000 "signing bonus" at the beginning of the year, and another $4,000 if they meet certain criteria at the end of the year. Principals could receive up to $12,000 in annual bonuses and assistant principals $9,000, using the same formula. Staff members are required to commit to their new schools for five years.
Tenured staff members will be permitted to apply for positions in the reconstituted schools, and if they are not accepted, they are guaranteed jobs in other schools. The plan also prevents any principal from bringing more than 10 percent of his current faculty to another school, to avoid draining all the talent from one building.
"These schools are inner city with low socio-economic conditions," Tate said. "They needed incentives to make them more attractive to teachers. First- and second-year teachers mostly have staffed them. After they get tenure, they can request a transfer, and they do. Virtually every year, we assign the least experienced teachers to these schools. This is an effort to return experienced teachers to these schools. It's unfair to the children to always have first- and second-year teachers."
While agreeing that low-performing students need more assistance, Goodwin said he is not convinced of the effectiveness of pay incentives.
"It's hard to take a position on something we don't know much about," Goodwin said. "This is such an unproven way to go. We are not in favor of a limited bonus program."
Teachers do not know the eligibility criteria for applying to transfer and how their work will be assessed if they do transfer. "We don't know how they will get bonuses at the end of the year. We wonder about the teachers who worked hard in other schools, but don't have the opportunity to apply," Goodwin said. "This [program] suggests students are not doing well because of the teacher. There is nothing wrong with the kids or the program at the schools; it's socio-economic factors. It's not the teachers' fault. The blame has to be spread among everyone."
According to Tate, student achievement will make up 50 to 60 percent of the teacher evaluations at the end of the year. Test data will be the primary criteria for gauging student achievement, although the formula still is being developed.
A committee of students, parents, teachers, and community members will help decide which teachers are selected to transfer, he said. Principals will be selected by another committee.
"An integral part of our strategic plan for the district was to improve teacher quality and quality of learning and to do that, we need to pay more," Tate said. "Teachers are involved in the process. What was done in the past has not worked. We are confident this will work, but at the same time, we recognize that we are blazing into new territory."
Goodwin, though, said other interventions such as smaller classes, better curriculum, and more paraprofessional help in classes are broader approaches. "I fear dire consequences [under the incentive program,]" Goodwin said. "I just don't think this limited a program will have much affect. I just don't think anything that is not well thought-out works well."
More schools are buying into bonuses, however. Florida is piloting a bonus program in four school districts this year, in an effort to draw teachers to needier schools, said Jim Warford, chancellor of the Florida Department of Education. "We are aggressively pursuing that concept [of bonus pay]," Warford told Education World. "The goal is to make the program state-wide."
The state sets the criteria for determining who is a high-performing teacher, mostly based on student achievement, he said.
The issue is no longer whether bonuses, or differentiated compensation, should be used, but how, according to Warford. "If we are serious about education reform, one thing that must be on the table is compensation," he said. "We need to investigate every aspect of differentiated pay for teachers." Pay differentials are critical not only for quality, but in hard to fill disciplines such as physics and mathematics. "Until we have meaningful incentives in those areas, we won't see change," he added. "We do need to pay all teachers more, but we also need to pay outstanding teachers more."
The Education Trust's Carey agreed. "If it's tougher work, people should be paid more. That's how it works in other fields."
The National Education Association (NEA), the country's largest teachers' union, also is watching bonus trends, and is cautiously supportive.
"Low-achieving schools are a critical enough problem that they need the best teachers in those schools," said Melinda Anderson, a senior press officer for the NEA. "The NEA supports incentives designed in cooperation between local associations and school districts that would help attract quality veteran teachers from within a district to an under-performing school, or keep high-caliber veterans in such a school.
"The objective is to give the students in those schools the benefit of these teachers' skills and vast experience in the classroom," she continued. "We know that one of the major challenges in low-achieving schools is that too many of these schools employ rookie staff, many of whom are teaching on 'emergency' licenses and certificates. Providing these children with quality teachers is an essential first step toward helping these schools raise student achievement."
More is needed than dedicated teachers, she added. "Incentives to work in low-performing schools are not the sole answer -- too often, it's large class sizes, poor working conditions, and a lack of support from administrators that drives teachers away from high-poverty rural and inner-city schools," she said. "Teachers can turn it around with help but they can't do it by themselves.
"Most critically, schools that serve poor and minority children need more financial assistance. A study of 49 states by The Education Trust found that school districts with high numbers of low-income and minority students receive substantially less state and local money per pupil than school districts with few poor and minority children. Money matters, and how it's spent is equally important, like on teacher training.
But the disparity in teacher quality in the U.S. right now is so severe, that some redistribution is necessary, Carey said. "Low-income, minority, and low-performing students are consistently assigned poor quality teachers. That seems to be a significant source of the achievement gap."
Those willing to help those students succeed need to be recognized and compensated, he added. "We know where the schools are and where the students are [who need more help]. We have to get serious about improving instruction, and that means paying people more."