deepening the dialogue

Improving Teacher Quality Through Teacher Incentive Funds

Stacey Gauthier, a co-principal of Renaissance Charter High School, and Marc Waxman, a principal of a charter school in Denver, are corresponding about school policy. Read their entire exchange.

Dear Marc,

You asked whether paying more to teachers is one possible long-term solution to improving teacher quality. Paying more money to teachers is not enough by itself, but it can be one part of an overall school-wide improvement plan that would have a positive impact on teacher effectiveness. The federal Teacher Incentive Fund is a program that supports efforts to develop and implement performance-based compensation systems so that teachers and administrators are rewarded financially for increases in student achievement.

A first-year teacher in NYC with a master’s degree is paid around $50,000 and currently has a very competitive health and pension benefits’ package. I added the word currently because many of us fear that these benefits are threatened as costs become unmanageable. We continue to see these packages being diminished piece by piece. I know we are in a recession and this gives us adequate cause to tackle our spending challenges, but this has not stopped us from bailing out failing companies or ensuring that Wall Street gets its bonuses. I understand the need to do both of these things and support the notion of the trickle-down effect. But, as you mentioned, education is an investment in our society that serves a purpose greater than the individual successes achieved. I find it ironic that at the same time we are pushing for massive educational reforms we seem to be attacking some of the very benefits that attract people into the profession and make them want to stay.

I am not a fan of getting short-term dynamic teachers into the system who will do their three-year stint and leave. Imagine this type of setup in medicine, law or scientific research?  I am a fan of getting dynamic, highly qualified individuals into teaching who consider their profession as a calling, a mission or in the words of Joseph Campbell — a heroic journey. I am not a fan of watering down teacher training programs as a way to get more people into the profession. I am a fan of reevaluating what skill sets and expertise teachers must have to meet the needs of our time and creating programs and residencies that support their professional growth. I am a fan of increasing salaries so that all teachers work an 11-month school year where one month is devoted to strategic planning. One of the biggest obstacles to creating, implementing, evaluating and reworking school-wide initiatives is the lack of planning time. At Renaissance, we have built-in compensated time during the school day and after-school, but it is not sufficient to meet the ever-increasing accountability benchmarks. Finally, and while there is so much more to say, successful teachers share in the leadership of the school. This can include a broad spectrum of responsibilities, but a sense of ownership is probably the most important step in creating sustainable individual accountability.

Where does the teacher incentive fund fit in? While it is not a magic pill, it brings in a substantial amount of money during the length of the grant. Federal grants provide seed funding with the expectations that this will promote an ongoing funding of the initiative through other venues, but this part is often problematic. A second potential downside is that if the programs are implemented incorrectly they have the potential to do more harm than good. They can breed negative competition, shut down collaboration, narrow the teaching focus to a test prep mentality, and present more work  to schools that are already bureaucratically overburdened. However, a well-balanced plan can be a way to support the professional growth of teachers, reward teachers for student growth and incentivize the community as a whole toward meeting school-wide goals. The consortium we are a part of has at the heart of its plan the components of a school-wide improvement model — an ingredient missing in plans that only look at student test scores.

At Renaissance, our plan consists of three unique components all designed by a team of representative teachers, paraprofessionals, the UFT chapter leader and administrators.  Team composition is a key factor in developing and getting plan buy-in. The first part of our plan gives extra pay to teachers who plan instruction using data, develop curriculum and engage in activities that support their professional growth. It comprises 25 percent of the total incentive, and while voluntary, we have over 98 percent participation. The second and third parts consist of grade cluster growth goals and school-wide goals which are directly tied to our charter accountability measures. These accountability measures are part of our school’s performance agreement with the Board of Regents. They comprise 51 percent and 24 percent of the incentives respectively. Teachers can earn additional funds by undertaking other leadership activities in the school including creating model lessons and coordinating school-wide initiatives.

I like this model because it does three main things. It gets and keeps everyone talking about continual improvement, provides a framework and resources for teachers and administrators to be successful, and rewards these efforts with dollars. It has certainly not always been easy as we worked through the early years. But the positive outcomes have strongly outweighed any challenges. And to end on a very direct note — we need to do all these things mentioned above anyway, so why not be compensated for them?

Would love to hear your ideas on the large net I’ve thrown out here.


First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.