Teacher incentives draw criticism

Educators, lawmakers say state's program too flawed to work

Posted: Sunday, September 09, 2007

The tiny Port Protection School, isolated on the northern tip of Prince of Wales Island, did the best job of any school in Southeast Alaska last year, according to the state. The school, with 12 students, was one of only 10 rated "outstanding" by state education officials last year.

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That ranking means teacher Paul Young is going to get a check for $5,500 from the state sometime this month as the state offers new cash incentives to teachers for improving or maintaining exceptional performance.

Teachers at six more schools rated "excellent" will get $4,500 each.

Schools rated "strong" and "high" achievement will get lesser amounts. Altogether, 770 teachers and staff at 42 schools will share in awards this year totaling more than $1.8 million.

The incentive program is part of a pilot program intended to motivate teachers to teach better.

But it's drawn criticism from educators and some lawmakers.

Implementation of the program was so flawed and unfair that most teachers couldn't hope to win an award, said Bill Bjork, president of the National Education Association Alaska.

"It's akin to being struck by lightning," he said.

Juneau's ratings

School Index value

Alyeska Central School 65.90

Auke Bay Elementary 101.80

Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School 98.64

Floyd Dryden Middle School 99.18

Gastineau Elementary 104.00

Glacier Valley Elementary 99.67

Harborview Elementary 97.43

Johnson Youth Center 62.67

Community Charter School 97.75

Juneau District Homebridge 72.63

Juneau-Douglas High School 90.47

Mendenhall River School 105.95

Riverbend Elementary 96.72

Index: Number is the point system created by the department based on student test results. The higher the score, the better.

Source: State of Alaska, Department of Education and Early Development

Even though he's a winner, Young thinks the incentive program hasn't had any affect on his teaching.

"I don't pay much attention to the standards, and I don't teach to the test," he said.

Young, born and raised in Juneau, lived in Port Alexander, another isolated fishing community, for 29 years before becoming a teacher.

"What I'm most interested in is teaching to think clearly and ask good questions."

What makes Port Protection successful, he said, is involved parents.

Young and many other teachers aren't fans of the incentive program. They don't agree with state education officials that the program is fair.

All of the schools rated outstanding or excellent were either so small that, like Port Protection, they had only one or two teachers or they were selective in their student bodies. In smaller schools, with fewer than two dozen students each, a change in the performance of only one or two students could significantly affect each school's ranking.

State education officials publicly deny that, however.

Les Morse, director of Assessment, Accountability and Information Management, said he could see no common themes among the winners.

"The results this year demonstrate the effectiveness of our scoring method," he said. "Recipients include large and small schools, rural and urban schools, and elementary and secondary schools statewide," he said.

Actually, no regular high school or middle school in the state was an award winner.

Morse acknowledged that none of those schools had won, but said they could have had they changed the way they taught.

"If I was a school principal, I could chart out every one of my students. We could do targeted instruction - this is achievable by all of our schools," he said.

Chances of winning

The results of the first year's rankings showed that most teachers in the state may have been officially eligible to win the awards, but in actual practice had no chance, according to Bjork of the National Education Association Alaska. None of the state's largest schools were able to win the awards.

Juneau State Sen. Kim Elton, a Democrat who advocated last year for more school funding, said the incentive program is not the way to provide those funds.

He said the scoring method the state used put too much emphasis on improvement, which favors smaller schools.

"It's more difficult to change the mean or median in a large school," he said.

The highest ranking average-size school was Anchorage's Chugach Optional Elementary, with 251 students, where students have to win a seat by lottery. All of the other excellent or outstanding schools appeared to be a charter school or in some manner had a selective student body.

The biggest regular school to win an award was Anchorage elementary school with 634 students; Anchorage's biggest schools are more than three times that size.

State Sen. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, an advocate for the plan when it was adopted by the Alaska Legislature last year, said, however, it has worked well in its first year.

Every school in the state can compete for an award and hope to win one next year, no matter how big or what challenges they face, if they improve their teaching.

"If by some creativity on their part they move forward, they'll get an award," he said. "If they don't get an award, they'll still get their very substantial salaries."

Bjork disputed that.

"If a merit-based scheme is going to be fair, everyone has to have equal access," he said. "Only small schools realistically had access to this."

At one regular school that won, Pearl Creek Elementary in Fairbanks, teachers decided to turn down the awards because they didn't want bonuses for doing what they're already paid to do, Principal Mary Short said.

"We were quite offended that they (the state Department of Education and the Legislature) thought we needed motivation," Short told the Fairbanks News-Miner.

At Port Protection School, teacher Young said he'll be spending his bonus on his students.

"They're the ones who won this," he said.

Debate on how to motivate

A philosophical difference in the legislators may be most starkly highlighted by Sens. Bunde and Elton.

Bunde has served in the Legislature for 15 years, and has become increasingly frustrated with the state's inability to improve school performance.

"Keep doing what you've been doing, keep pouring money in, isn't going to work," he said. "We've got to do something different."

Bunde serves on the Education Commission of the States, a national school improvement advocacy group.

Two days after the incentive awards were announced in mid-August, Alaska Commissioner of Education and Early Development Roger Sampson left Alaska to head that group.

Earlier this summer Bunde accepted on behalf of Alaska the group's chief award for educational innovation. Among the reasons the group cited for Alaska's meriting the award was its adoption of the Performance Improvement Program.

Juneau's Elton, in the Senate minority last year, tried to persuade Sampson not to push for the program, and then publicly opposed it.

"You start with a flawed assumption that a teacher will work harder if there's a bonus in it," Elton said. "The few that might agree ought not to be in the school system.".

Bjork said he fears the program will have a negative incentive. It will spend more money on successful schools.

Challenging schools that are already having difficulty recruiting teachers will find it that much harder, he said.

Bunde said he could not figure out why anyone would oppose such a small pilot program, less than $2 million a year out of a $1 billion a year education budget.

"School funding has gone up substantially," Bunde said. "School performance and achievement have not."

"I'm offended by the NEA contending that teachers are already working as hard as they can," he said. "Maybe they need to work differently."

NEA'S Bjork said the program can't change behavior if most schools won't be eligible.

"Commissioner Sampson wanted to motivate people, but people weren't motivated because they can't realistically think they can qualify."

Read more in the related article: "Official says plan provides path for improvement in schools".

• Contact Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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