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Bring on the bonuschecks

Some Little Rock teachers embrace performance pay. Can Florida learn?

By RON MATUS
Published March 18, 2007


LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - At Wakefield Elementary, teachers will remember their first bonus the way some people remember Christmas. The staff gathered. The principal handed out envelopes. Everybody opened them at once.

And then, said one teacher, "You could just hear this sound: Ohhhhhhh."

The teachers already knew that Wakefield - 99 percent minority and one of the poorest schools in a poor school district - had surpassed everyone's expectations on a national test. But now they were holding the financial rewards they were promised but never quite believed would happen.

Under a pilot program that linked test scores to bonus money, every employee -from the principal to the cafeteria worker - was getting a fat check. But classroom teachers were getting the fattest:

$6,000 ... $8,000 ... $8,800.

One teacher bought furniture. One paid off 12 years of credit card debt. Another - a second-year teacher making $32,000 - began to dream about replacing her husband's 13-year-old Corolla with the single hubcap.

Two months later, two dozen of them were sitting before the Little Rock School Board, proudly wearing T-shirts with their school's Wildcat logo. Despite criticism from teachers at other schools and digs that they were "teaching to the test," the converts urged the board to expand the bonus program.

Do you know why other teachers are opposed? asked Wakefield teacher Wendy Ward.

"They don't get to do it."

- - -

To anyone following the teacher bonus battle in Florida, Little Rock is a trip to the Twilight Zone.

Florida's $147.5-million bonus plan - called Special Teachers Are Rewarded, or STAR - has sparked an open rebellion. Hastily passed by last year's Legislature at the urging of Gov. Jeb Bush, STAR mandates that the top 25 percent of teachers in each district be given 5 percent bonuses this summer.

Many teachers insist they don't want the money. They say that STAR pits teacher against teacher, and that it's unfair to judge a teacher's worth by student test scores. Opposition has been so intense that a number of school boards, including those in Pinellas and Pasco counties, rejected STAR in recent weeks and turned their backs on millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, key lawmakers are putting the finishing touches on a new plan that is more flexible than STAR, but a far cry from the Little Rock plan.

For teachers and students, the stakes are huge.

Supporters all along the political spectrum believe performance pay can drive teachers to work harder and/or smarter and, at the same time, keep good teachers from quitting. But performance pay is also likely to spotlight teacher quality in a way that will not be flattering to some teachers, or to a system that continues to protect them.

It's a monumental shift. Any honest debate has to acknowledge thorny questions about the collaborative nature of teaching, the strengths and weaknesses of standardized testing, the value of teacher unions.

Still, the reception in Little Rock suggests that winning teacher support for performance pay isn't impossible.

Given the right system, they might even like it.

- - -

The Little Rock story begins three years ago, with a principal and a publisher.

Arkansas, like Florida, was cracking the accountability whip on schools like Meadowcliff Elementary. Nestled in a working-class neighborhood where trains still whistle nearby, Meadowcliff is high-poverty and 86 percent minority. Just about any measure of academic achievement would find that its kids are struggling.

And yet, they're improving, too. The school's no-nonsense principal, Karen Carter, has a motorcycle-shop crucifix dangling from her ear and deep gratitude for the way her employees have rolled up their sleeves. When test scores began to rise, she turned to the Public Education Foundation of Little Rock, hoping to score money for her teachers. "I wanted to reward them," Carter said.

A month later, foundation officials put her in contact with Walter Hussman Jr., publisher of the state's biggest newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Hussman is legendary in the newspaper industry for challenging a much bigger paper in Little Rock, owned by the giant Gannett Co., and, after a brutal circulation war, emerging victorious with its assets and name. In recent years, he has turned some of his focus and personal fortune to education, and become a fan of school accountability systems like Florida's.

Carter's request offered Hussman an opportunity. He had a system in mind for teacher bonuses and was willing to pay for it. Carter offered one main condition.

My school works as a team, she told him. So if gains are made, every employee must share in the reward.

Every single one.

- - -

Under the Little Rock system, there is no cap on the number of teachers who can earn a bonus. Instead, there is a tiered system of rewards.

Small gains, small bonus.

Big gains, big bonus.

Most teachers in the pilot don't mind. "In any building, you have some teachers that work harder than others," said Dee Ann Morgan, an instructional coach at Meadowcliff.

Supporters say the system offers every teacher the opportunity to make as much as the next. And it encourages them to share good teaching tips, not hoard them.

The amount of money at stake is another big difference. Under STAR, the average Florida teacher, earning $42,000 a year, can earn up to $2,100 in bonus money. In Little Rock, last year's bonuses ranged from $3,700 to $9,200, with an average of $6,800.

Hussman said he wanted bonuses big enough to "get people's attention."

Between Meadowcliff and Wakefield, 34 teachers divvied up $230,000, while 64 other staffers - whose rewards are also based on tiered test scores, but averaged schoolwide - split $200,000.

The Little Rock plan made some tough calls up front. Secretaries and custodians can't make as much as classroom teachers. Nor can coaches and music teachers. Carter makes no apologies: "In the big picture, the teacher's truly responsible for that classroom." She said there have been no complaints.

But outside the pilot schools, there is plenty of grumbling.

Hussman's money was key to getting the ball rolling. But when the pilot expanded to Wakefield last year, Hussman said he'd pick up the tab for the second school if the district paid for the next round at Meadowcliff. The district agreed.

This year, three more schools joined. And again, private money - including Hussman and the Walton Foundation of Wal-Mart fame - is paying for the startup while district money is replacing private money at the existing schools.

The union is not happy. Bonuses for a handful of teachers means less money for the rest, said Granger Ledbetter, executive director of the Little Rock Classroom Teachers Association. The situation will only get worse, he said, if supporters push for expansion.

Ledbetter said there's no doubt the pilot teachers like the extra money.

"But does it help student outcomes? Does it improve teaching?" he said. "No, not that I can see."

- - -

Teachers at Meadowcliff and Wakefield say he's wrong.

Knowing there's a bonus at stake, one teacher said, makes some think twice about taking a day off, or sitting behind their desks instead of engaging students. "It helped me focus," agreed Wakefield teacher Kim Romain.

Other teachers consider the bonus a reward rather than an incentive. But students still benefit, they said, because getting rewarded makes it easier for teachers to keep giving their all.

"I feel appreciated because of the bonus," said Wakefield teacher Elisabeth Jimmerson, 24, who earned an $8,000 thank you. "And I'm more likely to stay in this environment longer as a result of being appreciated."

Students appear to be benefiting, said University of Arkansas researcher Gary Ritter. On average, students in the pilot schools increased their scores 6 to 7 percentage points more on a national math test than their peers at similar Little Rock schools, said Ritter, who traveled to Florida in January to present his findings to a House committee. That big a jump in one year, Ritter said, is significant.

A teacher survey led by Ritter found other results. Teachers in the bonus program were far more likely than those not in the program to say performance pay increased collaboration. And they didn't object nearly as much to the use of test scores as a measure of their effectiveness.

"The hypothesis is, they're supposed to hate" performance pay, Ritter said. "But they don't."

Everyone agrees more data is needed. But the Little Rock results echo a recent University of Florida study that found students performed 1 to 2 percentage points higher on standardized tests in schools that offer performance pay.

That study surveyed hundreds of schools nationwide, but UF economist and co-author David Figlio cautioned it did not determine which performance pay plans worked best. To figure that out, he said, more experiments like Little Rock's are needed.

In the meantime, Florida lawmakers say they like what they hear from Arkansas. But nobody is pushing for a similar system.

"I don't think there's an exclusive formula to success," said Rep. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, who chairs the House committee that invited Ritter to speak.

- - -

In Little Rock, a showdown may be looming.

Residents elected three new school board members last fall. And it's possible, some observers say, that the new, union-friendly majority might consider quashing or curtailing the bonus program.

It's also likely that a roomful of teachers will urge them not to. Union rules in Little Rock require that before a school begins an alternative pay program, a majority of teachers in that school must approve. So last summer, teachers at five schools cast ballots to either stay in the bonus program or join it.

Despite union opposition, all five schools approved it, with the percentage of teachers voting yes coming in at 100, 90, 79, 79 and 66 percent.

Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com Comments can also be posted on the Times education blog, The Gradebook, at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.