New teacher evaluations, bonus pay included in $16M project

Posted Sept. 02, 2011, at 7:55 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Eighteen Maine schools are participating in a $16 million federally funded pilot program designed to enhance training for teachers and to develop standards for evaluating them.

A controversial aspect of the Maine Schools for Excellence initiative involves plans to evaluate teachers and provide them bonus pay based on student performance.

In the private sector, it’s typical for an employee to be given a raise or a bonus for great work. Not so in the field of education.

“Doing this in education, it’s new. It’s a lot like the Wild West out there in education in this area,” said Scott Harrison, who is the pilot program’s director. “But I think a lot can be learned from what’s going on outside of education and we should bring that research to this process.”

The president of the Maine Education Association, however, said most professionals in the private sector have total control over their work, unlike “how students fill in bubbles [on standardized tests].” So using private sector evaluation systems in the field of education is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, according to Chris Galgay.

Further, he said, the whole idea is insulting.

“We’re not in favor of merit pay,” Galgay said. “People seem to think that offering a carrot is the way to make teachers work harder. To me, it’s insulting to think teachers aren’t giving 100 percent every day and that you have to add in incentives.”

The pilot project in Maine and at schools in Richmond, Va., is being operated in conjunction with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and funded by grants from the U.S. Department of Education’s Teacher Incentive Fund.

Participating school districts in Maine had to apply and also had to have more than half of their students enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program. The pilot program schools are Lewiston Public Schools, SAD 24 in the Van Buren area, RSU 12 in the Whitefield area, RSU 55 in the Hiram area, and RSU 74 in the Anson area. Combined, there are about 450 teachers serving 5,500 students in those districts.

Teachers, administrators, parents and others will work together to decide which specific criteria will be used to measure the performance and effectiveness of the teachers.

In a press release issued Wednesday, the Maine Department of Education listed several ways teachers might be evaluated, including students’ SAT scores, classroom assessments such as Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, classroom observations, portfolios of teacher accomplishments, and student attendance and graduation rates.

In Maine, how teachers are assessed and rewarded varies from school district to school district and largely depends on negotiations with teachers unions.

This school year will be the second year in the five-year program, but it will be the first year that teachers can earn incentives. Last year was reserved for planning only.

This year, the pilot program schools are expected to set schoolwide goals and to evaluate teachers as a group based on how the student body as a whole performs for the year. The teacher bonuses then will be shared among all the teachers in a specific school based on the entire school’s performance.

In subsequent years, however, evaluation systems will be developed so that individual teachers will be graded and earn bonuses based on their work in their classrooms and on their own students’ performances. There will be different standards for different grade levels and types of teachers. Most districts will have two standards on their assessment clipboard: the basic expectation of what teachers should already be achieving and then a more ambitious goal.

Pay incentives will be based on a sliding scale and will depend on how close to the high-bar goal the teacher gets.

The Maine Department of Education is distributing the federal funds to the pilot program schools based on the percentage of teachers in each school district. The incentives are capped under federal guidelines at $7,500 per teacher per year. Since the minimum salary for a new teacher in Maine is $30,000, a new teacher could earn an additional quarter of his or her salary in bonuses under the pilot program.

But the cap likely will be lowered by some of the districts, according to Scott Harrison, who is heading up the pilot project for the Maine Department of Education. It also could be supplemented by districts so teachers could earn more than $7,500 a year more for their success, Harrison said.

The program also will offer myriad professional development opportunities and will give teachers stipends for taking advantage of them. For example, if a teacher enrolls in Take One!, a course that moves teachers toward earning National Board certification, he or she will earn $500. If the teacher completes the certification, that bonus can be up to $2,500.

SAD 24 Superintendent Clayton Belanger is looking forward to offering bonuses to those teachers in the Van Buren area schools who deserve them.

“I don’t care if you give them a million dollars or no money — there are some teachers who will always do their best because they love teaching. I see some teachers in here Sundays getting ready for Monday. It chokes me up. I want to reward them,” he said.

Those are the teachers who won’t have any difficulty meeting the new system’s goals, he said.

But Galgay says the Maine Education Association has major concerns about using standardized student tests to evaluate teacher performance. He said those tests are designed to assess students — not teachers. Often teachers use the standardized test scores to identify weak spots in their students’ education and then address those needs in the classroom, he said.

“They were never designed to evaluate a teacher. Yet that’s what they’re using,” he said, referring to the pilot program. “These people are so anxious to find something to assess teachers with, they’re grabbing anything. There is no student assessment that should be used to judge teacher performance.”

So what should be used to judge teacher performance? Galgay says progress. Maybe not every child can be a B-student, but every student can progress academically within the school year.

State Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, who is chairman of the Legislature’s education committee, agrees with this logic.

“If you get a student who is three or four grades below their grade level in reading and in a year you bring them up two full grades, they still fail their grade-level test — but they’ve improved,” he said.

Langley suggested that if schools participating in the pilot program are going to track how a teacher performs, they should compare that teacher’s assessments over a period of several years. If one teacher’s classroom consistently does well over a few years, that might be an indicator of an excellent teacher — this would weed out problems of having an anomaly of a classroom with particularly challenging students in it one year.

The Maine Education Association also fears that using student data to evaluate teachers might punish those who take on challenging students.

“If your pay will be determined on the accomplishments of your students, how are you going to attract the most effective teachers to go into the most challenging classrooms?” Galgay said.

Galgay said each school district will need to figure out how to account for situations such as this as they work to establish their teacher evaluation standards and systems over the next four years of the pilot program.

Under the provisions for being in the program and accepting the federal funding, participating schools are required to continue the evaluation systems they establish after the federal money runs out in 2015.

Some educators are concerned that once the federal funding is gone, school districts will reduce the salaries of some teachers in order to keep paying the bonuses of more successful teachers.

Harrison hopes that school districts will find additional money for the teacher incentives without having to cut any salaries.

“A zero sum game where the only way to earn incentives is at the expense of everyone else — that’s a model for disaster,” he said. “It’s incumbent on the districts to ensure funding to ensure continuity of this model we’re creating and not suddenly switch to a zero sum game.”

But the MEA’s Galgay said finding that funding will be impossible with school budgets as tight as they are. SAD 24 Superintendent Belanger agreed that paying some teachers more might mean having to pay other teachers less once federal funds run out. But the Van Buren school district is working on finding more grant money to keep the program alive after 2015, he said.

What’s more important than the teacher bonuses is creating sustainable evaluation systems for Maine schools, according to Maine Department of Education spokesperson David Connerty-Marin. Once these schools test out their teacher evaluation systems, the department will post the ones that work the best to its website for other schools to look at as a model.

“This is about setting standards for teachers like we have for students and then helping those teachers meet those standards,” he said.

Participating Schools:

Lewiston Public Schools (given $1,356,610 this school year.)

Farwell Elementary School, Pre-K-6

Geiger Elementary School, Pre-K-6

Lewiston Middle School, 7-8

Longley Elementary School, Pre-K-6

McMahon Elementary School, Pre-K-6

Montello Elementary School, Pre-K-6

Maine School Administrative District 24 (Given $110,850 this school year)

Van Buren Elementary School, Pre-K-8

Regional School Unit 12 (Given $547,860 this year)

Somerville Elementary School, K-5

Whitefield Elementary School, K-8

Wiscasset Primary School, K-4

Wiscasset Middle School, 5-8

Regional School Unit 55 (Given $440,020 this school year)

Baldwin Consolidated School, K-4

Cornish Elementary School, K-4

Sacopee Valley Middle School, Hiram, 5-8

South Hiram Elementary School, K-4

Regional School Unit 74 (Given $245,680 this school year)

Carrabec Community School, North Anson, K-8

Garret Schenck School, Anson, Pre-K-4

Solon Elementary School, Pre-K-5

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