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Not all teachers ready to embrace TAP plan

Scott N. Miller

Lori Sebastian is a happy TAP-per. Donna Soenksen most assuredly is not. Between them lies a wide gulf of opinion about the Eagle County School District’s Teacher Advancement Program, or TAP.

Since it was first implemented in five schools in the 2002-03 school year, the program – now in 10 of the district’s 16 schools – has encountered strong resistance from some teachers who have expressed concern about issues ranging from the loss of automatic raises to cuts in classroom time with students.

While no one expects to get rich teaching, the way TAP is tied into the district’s pay structure has been an unwelcome change for some veteran teachers. “A major concern, of many people, is having pay tied to the evaluation process, especially when a new evaluation tool is introduced at the same time” says Soenksen, a first grade teacher at Minturn’s Meadow Mountain Elementary School.

That new evaluation format offers teachers up to $2,500 in bonuses, depending on their performance in two areas. Half the pot is tied to student results on standardized tests and half is tied to formal evaluation of a teacher’s skills and knowledge. However much is earned through that system is paid out as a year-end bonus.

That amount is then added to a teacher’s base salary for the next school year.

The lowest bonus payout last year was $400. The average was about $725.

Supporters say the new system allows teachers to move more quickly up the salary scale. Opponents say student achievement is something teachers have little control over and are wary of the loss of automatic raises from year to year.

Teacher evaluations are conducted six times during the school year – twice by the principal and twice each by the school’s “mentor” and “master” teachers, who are faculty members charged with improving teachers’ performance.

And teacher performance is the bottom line of TAP. “This is about putting well-trained teachers in front of kids every day,” says Pam Holmes Boyd, spokeswoman for the district. “All the studies indicate that what improves education is teachers.”

‘Bring it on’

For all the education industry jargon about the program, perhaps the most important element of TAP is on-the-job training. Groups of teachers meet at least a couple of times a week in “collaborative” groups, during which mentor and master teachers can introduce new teaching techniques or discuss how new strategies are working in the classroom.

At a recent session for teachers at Avon Elementary School, a member of the district technology department took teachers through a new method of entering kids’ performance on reading tests into a database that can be accessed by other instructors as the students move from grade to grade.

While teachers are in these sessions, kids are in art, music or gym classes.

Some teachers relatively new to the profession say the collaborative sessions are a valuable way to learn more about education.

“I love it,” says Sebastian, a third-grade teacher at Avon Elementary School. Sebastian is in her first year in the Eagle County School District and her sixth in teaching. The TAP program, she says, offers “A real opportunity for professional development.”

With the collaborative sessions, “There’s someone supporting instruction for the district’s expectations,” Sebastian says. The fact pay is now tied to performance and student achievement is also a plus, she said.

“If you’re a leader, you’ll get paid. I love being a teacher and a leader,” she said. “If somebody says you’re going to get paid for your performance, then bring it on.”

Michelle Rewold isn’t so sure. A five-year district veteran and fourth-grade teacher, Rewold says she’s willing to accept a role as a “senior” teacher rather than try to move up the TAP ladder. The group meetings and training is valuable, Rewold says.

“I’m opposed to evaluating my peers, especially when money’s involved,” she says. “That’s why I’m going to remain a senior teacher.”

Compliance and comfort

Administrators and teachers agree bringing TAP into a school is a major, difficult step. But Avon Elementary Principal Barbara Collins says this year, the school’s second in the program, is better than last.

“Change is hard,” Collins says. “But these teachers have agreed to work into this.”

“People are more used to it,” Rewold says. “We’re more familiar with expectations. But I think a lot of people are resolved to be compliant. (TAP) isn’t going anywhere and we need to do this even if we don’t agree with it.”

First-grade instructor Kathleen Bond went through the first year of TAP at Avon as a senior teacher. This year, she took on the responsibilities of a mentor teacher.

“Last year to this year has been a good change,” Bond says. While some teachers at Avon may be “compliant” rather than fully supportive, “It’s such a big change, that until people are able to sit back and see what they’re getting out of it, they probably won’t be comfortable with it.”

Bond, though, seems to have decided how she feels about the program. “I know my instruction is a lot more focused,” she says. “And I really feel like for the first time I’m truly being evaluated as a professional.”

That word – “professional” – comes up when Soenksen talks about her objections to TAP. “I’ve been frustrated with the top-down aspect of TAP,” she says. “We’re highly educated professionals, and it seems there’s a vast body of knowledge TAP doesn’t want to ‘tap’ into. I and many other teachers, have felt de-valued by it.”

While Soenksen isn’t the only district teacher grumbling about TAP, instructors have stayed on, at least from the first to the second year of the program. Collins says the only teachers who left Avon between last year and this one are those who weren’t asked to return. District-wide, teacher turnover was at its lowest level ever between the 2002-03 and 2003-04 school years, says Boyd.

“As part of our exit process for teachers leaving the district, they’re provided an opportunity to detail why they’re leaving. To my knowledge, one person who left the district cited TAP as the main reason,” Boyd says.

Stress release

At least some of the staff discontent has been heard in the administrative offices. Boyd said complaints about the massive amounts of paperwork generated by six evaluations over a school year will result in just four evaluations for teachers next year.

In all, the district has come up with numerous changes to the program that will be implemented in the rest of the district’s schools – including the high schools – next year.

At Meadow Mountain, some of those changes have been implemented on the fly. Principal Kim Walter was the master teacher at Minturn Middle School last year, it’s first in TAP. Moving into both a new job and a school in its first year of TAP has been a challenge, Walter says. Now, with about two months left in the school year, Soenksen says, at least some of the anxiety she and others feel is starting to ease a bit. The reason, she said, is that Walter has started to listen.

“There’s been a huge stress release in the last few weeks,” Soenksen says. “It’s given me hope that the evolution will be positive.”

While TAP will likely continue to evolve, it isn’t going away.

“Looking at the data, every educational journal is reporting that doing staff development in house, and more accountability at the classroom door, is the way to go,” Walter says. If not TAP, programs like it are going to become more common in schools across the country, she adds,

“It takes more time for some people than others to get on board with this,” Walter says. “People need more time to understand it.”

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TAP-ping through the district

The Eagle County School District is in the second year of a three-year program to implement the Teacher Advancement Program at the district’s 15 schools, not counting the Eagle County Charter Academy.

Starting the program in the 2001-02 school year were: Gypsum Elementary, Red Hill Elementary, Avon Elementary, Minturn Middle and Red Canyon High School.

This school year, the first-year schools are: Meadow Mountain Elementary, Red Sandstone Elementary, Edwards Elementary, Gypsum Creek Middle and Eagle Valley Middle.

Next year, Battle Mountain and Eagle Valley high schools will join the program as will Berry Creek Middle School, Eagle Valley Elementary and Brush Creek Elementary.

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Testing, testing

There are a number of ways student achievement is measured these days.

In the “report cards” handed out by the state as part of the Colorado Student Assessment Program, two of the district’s five schools that started TAP in 2002-03 showed “significant improvement” over the previous year.

In another “test,” a report from the Northwest Evaluation Association that measures student performance at the beginning and end of a school year, the district’s first five TAP schools outperformed the other schools in the district.

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