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Overhaul ahead for teacher pay in Eagle County?

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” The school district still believes in paying teachers based on their performance, but could soon approve a major overhaul of what many call a controversial and flawed pay system that for years has frustrated and confused teachers.

The Teacher Advancement Program, the sweeping education reform started in 2002, ties a teacher’s salary to formal evaluations and how well their students score on standardized tests. The better they perform, the more money they get.

Most teachers say they like being rewarded for performing well and like having regular discussions about their strengths and weaknesses and finding ways to improve their teaching.

But in practice, TAP, as the program is known, has been unfair, inconsistent, hard to understand, and a constant worry for many teachers, says Jason Glass, the human resources director for the district. When pay becomes a preoccupation and morale goes down, education suffers, school leaders have said.

Interim superintendent John Pacheco formed a committee of teachers, administrators principals, maintenance workers and community members to study the problems, find solutions and keep whatever it is that works.

The committee is now proposing a new pay-for-performance system it says is more fair, more transparent and promotes teamwork, all the while staying committed to holding teachers accountable for their performance in the classroom.

If the school board adopts the committee’s recommendations, here’s what would change, and why the district thinks the changes would help:

The change: The biggest difference would be how test scores are used to affect a teacher’s pay. Under the proposed program, teachers will no longer be tied to the scores of only a small group of students they might see in class ” they’ll be tied instead to the overall performance of their school and the district.

Their performance bonus, which would come in a lump sum at the end of a year, would be calculated using an “index” of test results, including the scores from their school’s NWEA and CSAP results, districtwide NWEA and CSAP results and ACT results. Basically, their pay would be determined by how well thousands of students do in the district, as opposed to a couple dozen.

Why?: Many students switch teachers during the day, especially in high school, or they’ll spend much of their day working with a specialist or teacher’s aid. There are P.E., art, shop and music teachers, who affect a child’s education ” but how much of that can be reflected in test scores?

High school students could get a new set of teachers every trimester. The youngest students in the district don’t even take the CSAP.

All these things makes it very hard to attribute the success or poor performance of any one student to any one teacher, and makes paying teachers based on those scores especially complicated and unreliable. There are about seven different formulas for paying certified teachers ” and that just leads to confusion and inconsistency, Glass said.

By paying teachers based on the overall performance of a school and the entire district, teachers still know the better they do, the better the school will do, the better the district will do, and the better they’ll be paid. Teachers will be more inclined to both do their best and work as a team ” they’re all being paid together, Glass said.

“I think it helps create that ‘all for one’ mentality’ ” that we are all here to educate students,” said Meredith Deem, a reading teacher at Edwards Elementary who served on the committee.

Also, taking this approach lessens the impact of how inconsistent children can be while taking tests. When a teacher’s pay is tied to a handful of students, they have to worry about whether their students got a good night’s rest, had a good breakfast, are distracted by problems at home, what they’re learning from other teachers, are much better at one test than the other or never do well at multiple choice tests ” things that really have nothing to do with how well a teacher is teaching.

The change: A teacher’s performance-compensation would be based on a percentage of their contracted salary as opposed to a fixed amount.

Currently, teachers are eligible for up to $2,600 in performance pay to be added onto their salary. Under the new system a teacher would be eligible for 8 percent of their contract salary for performance pay. Of that 8 percent, 4 percent will be based on standardized test scores, and four percent will be based on evaluations.

A beginning teacher with a salary of $38,650 would be eligible for $3,092 in performance pay, while a teacher who’s been here a longer time, making $45,000 a year, would be eligible for $3,600.

Why: Doing this allows the school district to not only reward high performance, but also veteran teachers, said Mitch Forsberg, principal at Gypsum Elementary.

The longer you stay, the more bonus pay you’re eligible for. This could be a helpful incentive to keep teachers in the district, which is a constant problem for the school district.

“There are studies showing that teachers start becoming really effective after three years ” and that’s around when we start losing them,” Glass said. “This is an incentive for people to stay around.”

Overall, the district would end up spending more money every year on salaries ” but it would be the right thing to do to stay competitive with other school districts and keep the most talented teachers, Glass said.

“Experience doesn’t always equal a good teacher, but a lot of times it does, because with experience comes knowledge,” Deem said. “Doing this helps teachers stay longer, and each year we know we will make more.”

Change: Teachers still need to be held accountable on an individual level, and that’s why evaluations conducted by principals and master teachers will still be an important part of the pay system, says the committee.

How those evaluations are used to pay teachers will change though. Currently, teachers are graded on a five point scale with 13 different cutoff points for different pay levels ” which means a teacher who scored a 3.91 could end up making more than a teacher who scored a 3.90.

Under the new program, the grading system would become qualitative, and teachers would be paid based on five performance categories ” excellent, high performing, professional, improvement needed and unacceptable.

The committee is also recommending that the district reexamine the way teachers are evaluated ” to revisit questions like:

– What makes up good teaching and how do you score it?

– How often should a teacher be evaluated and who should conduct the evaluations?

– What can an evaluator determine over a single class period, and what can only be seen over time?

Why?: The current system doesn’t make sense, and isn’t fair, especially considering how subjective evaluations can be, Glass said.

Is someone who scored a 3.91 really any better than someone who scored a 3.90? Hard to say. The evaluations shouldn’t try to be that precise, he said.

“One of the morale killers in the past five, six years was that there was a numeric value attributed to a teacher’s performance,” Forsberg said. “If your supervisor says that you’re doing great, but on a 5-point scale you’re a 2.6, that suddenly takes on a different meaning.

“By going to a qualitative descriptions solely, it’s to recognize teachers for what they are doing. You can call them ‘professional’ instead of a 2.6.”

As for the actual method of evaluating teachers, it still needs more work and study, the committee says. The district wants to make sure every school is grading teachers the same way, and that those who are performing evaluations are looking at the right things.

Because teachers put their heart and soul into their work, evaluations will always be tough and sensitive ” which means the district has to make sure it’s evaluating the right way, Forsberg said.

“It’s really hard to measure teaching because we’re working with humans “with children ” not a product,” Deems said. “There’s a lot of gray area, and it’s tricky. With the evaluations, we need more trust in the system to have humans evaluating humans.”

Change: The new compensation system would give teachers an increase in salary every year based on inflation. The actual percentage would be something that would be negotiated every year, depending on how much money is available.

Why?: This will allow for the school district to easily give teachers more money based on things like school reserves, the economy and available state funding. At a minimum, it would guarantee teachers some amount of compensation just for coming back the next year, Forsberg said.

Also, this is a part of a teacher’s salary that could be determined well before the beginning of the next school year. A common complaint among staff is that many people don’t know how much they’ll be making until days before the new school year starts.

“It provides the flexibility to adjust that system as needed to stay competitive,” Forsberg said. “The district is making huge strides to say, ‘Hey, come work for Eagle County Schools, and we want to honor that you want to be here.'”

Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or mterrell@vaildaily.com.


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