In what is thought to be the first experiment of its kind in the state, two California school districts will give teachers bonuses of up to $5,000 based in part on measuring how well their students score on standardized tests this year.
One district is Lucia Mar Unified in San Luis Obispo County, situated in a rural area on the Central California coast between Santa Maria and San Luis Obispo. The district, the largest in the county, serves about 10,600 students in 17 schools. The other is Northern Humboldt Union High, at almost the other end of the state. Both received a federal Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) grant to implement their new teacher evaluation programs.
Until now, most attention has focused on Los Angeles, where a huge controversy was triggered by a series of articles last fall in the Los Angeles Times that jump-started the debate on the issue in California and nationally by publishing rankings of teacher “effectiveness” based solely on student test scores. Implementation of a pilot teacher evaluation program in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is now the subject of a lawsuit filed by the teachers union.
In a speech in Los Angeles in March, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Los Angeles needed to “accelerate its work” in incorporating student test scores as “one element of a better teacher evaluation system that also includes observation of practice and other indicators.”
As of last week, the Obama administration is requiring states to use student test scores as a core part of how teachers are evaluated in order to qualify for a waiver from some of the most onerous requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law. That is why what is happening in Lucia Mar and Humboldt County is likely to be watched closely by educators.
The two school districts are substantially different from LAUSD in size and make-up of the student body. LAUSD serves 667,000 primarily Latino students, 31 percent of whom are English learners. More than three-quarters of the students qualify for free and reduced-price meals.
Northern Humboldt Union, on the other hand, educates 1,600 primarily white high school students, of whom two were English learners in 2009–10 and less than half qualified for the federal meals program.
“I almost drove off the road,” said Jack Bareilles, Humboldt’s grants and evaluation administrator, on hearing that his small district had been awarded a $4.5 million Teacher Incentive Fund grant to implement the new evaluation system. A goal of the program is to “reform teacher and principal compensation systems” so that “they are rewarded for increases in student achievement.”
The reaction at Lucia Mar was similar. “This is the greatest thing we’ve ever done in the district,” said Andy Stenson, the district’s superintendent for curriculum and instruction, referring to a similar grant to his district for $7.2 million.
Two California charter school consortiums—The College-Ready Promise and the Reach Consortium—also received federal grants to put in place evaluation systems that will result in teacher bonuses. (We’ll describe these in a later edpost.)
A decade ago California instituted a range of programs that awarded teachers bonuses based on the academic performance of the entire school, but teachers weren’t evaluated on how well or badly their individual students did on state tests. Budget woes soon forced the state to abandon these programs.
In Lucia Mar, the program is now being implemented in seven of the district’s schools. Teachers will be evaluated based on the System for Teacher Advancement Program, or TAP, created by the Santa Monica-based National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.
To participate, the district required 75 percent of teachers to vote to support the program. Teachers in seven schools voted overwhelmingly to participate, including Oceano Elementary, where Lloyd Walzer, the president of the Lucia Mar Teachers Association, is a 5th grade teacher. “Certainly it is going to be more work, but I look forward to the challenge and the possibility of the program improving my teaching,” he stated.
Last spring, some of the district’s teachers competed to be selected as “master teachers” to work intensively with other teachers to help them become more effective and also to evaluate them through classroom observations. The dozen that were chosen were assigned to one of the seven participating schools and were relieved of their teaching duties for the year. They work for 20 days more than a regular teacher and in return receive an additional $10,000 in salary. In each school, other teachers are designated as “mentor teachers” to help coach their colleagues. They remain as classroom teachers but also work extra days and get an annual salary supplement of $5,000.
Under the new system, Lucia Mar teachers will be evaluated four times during the year, from mid-November to mid-March—once by their principal, once by a master teacher, once by a mentor teacher, and a fourth time by either the principal or the master teacher. The evaluations are based on observing an entire classroom lesson.
But the focus of the initiative is not just on evaluation. Instead, master and mentor teachers all work intensively with teachers on improving their classroom practice.
Each week, master and mentor teachers meet with classroom teachers in “clusters” to focus on particular problems they are facing. At the end of each meeting, the master teacher schedules a time to come to the classroom and team teach, do a model lesson, or observe a lesson and then provide feedback. Sometimes mentor teachers will play this role.
Stenson said that the approach of identifying specific problem areas and focusing on solutions is especially powerful.
“If you have a teacher who is struggling, we have a tendency to throw the kitchen sink at them in terms of what they need to do to improve,” he said. Instead, the emphasis is on improving one area and then moving on to the next. A major part of the program is follow up, said Stenson, “in every single classroom every single week.”
During the first week of school, Stenson visited all participating schools and said he witnessed “a tremendous amount of enthusiasm” for the program. “Teachers will be given a level of feedback and coaching that, frankly, they haven’t gotten [a lot of] in their careers,” he said.
One downside of the program is that federal funds don’t pay for the entire cost. As a result, the district is having to cut back in other areas to fully fund it. For example, in order to pay for a part-time master teacher, Oceano Elementary no longer has a computer lab technician, said Walzer. In addition, federal funding is assured for only five years. After that, it will be up to the district to come up with the funds to sustain the program.
To evaluate how well students are doing, Lucia Mar will use a controversial and complex “value-added” statistical methodology to measure a student’s academic growth that is supposed to take into account the impact of variables such as a student’s socioeconomic background. Lucia Mar has outsourced the statistical analysis to SAS, an East Coast “business analytics” firm that is performing a similar service for a number of districts nationwide, Stenson said.
Some 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation scores will be based on a valued-added analysis of how much students improved academically, and another 20 percent on how the entire school improves. Actual classroom observations will make up the other half of a teacher’s score. For those teachers who do not teach English language arts and math—the only subjects that students are tested on consistently in most grades—50 percent of their evaluation scores will be based on the entire school’s improvement, and the other half on classroom observations.
Northern Humboldt Union High will take a much simpler approach. To measure how much a teacher is contributing to his or her student’s academic advancement, it will compare student test scores at the beginning and end of the school year.
Stenson said the average bonus teachers will receive will be $3,000 per teacher. It is conceivable, he said, that some will receive no additional boost in their paycheck and others could earn more—up to $5,000.
Teachers union president Walzer said so far things are going well. But “it’s still early,” he cautioned. “Everybody is still in the learning stage. So far I haven’t heard any complaints.”
For background information, see the following EdSource publications:
Envisioning New Directions in Teacher Evaluation (June 2011)
This report reviews teacher evaluation methods and explores the role of state policy in teacher evaluation reform. (Also see the works cited in the report for additional resources.)
What qualifications are necessary to become and remain a teacher in California?
This page on the EdSource website describes the minimum qualifications for California K-12 public school teachers.
Strengths and Limitations of Potential Teacher Evaluation Tools
This table from EdSource’s June 2011 teacher evaluation report provides a quick overview of several teacher evaluation tools and their strengths and weaknesses.