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Kentucky Names Schools to Receive Achievement Bonuses

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More than 13,500 teachers will share in the nation's richest teacher-bonus program, Kentucky officials announced last week.

Money from a $26 million reward fund, averaging about $2,000 a teacher, will be divided among the 38 percent of the state's schools that improved by more than 10 percent on certain measures over the past two years. Those steps were necessary to meet the state's 20-year student-achievement target.

The rewards program is a cornerstone of the state's landmark 1990 school-reform law, which overhauled the state's assessment program, school-governance system, and school-funding formula.

At the classroom level, the program was designed to give teachers more leeway in how students are taught and how schools are run while holding schools accountable by dispensing bonuses--and eventually sanctions as well--based on test scores and other achievement criteria.

"This tells people that when they focus on academics and building teams and improving teaching methods, it pays off," said Thomas C. Boysen, the state education commissioner. "We are showing that we can use exams as a way to convey what is important."

Which schools are eligible for the reward money is determined by student test scores in grades 4, 8, and 12, combined with the schools' trends in dropout, attendance, and retention rates and in students' transitions from school to work or college.

The final scores for the 1994 tests were released last week, giving state officials an indication of which schools are eligible for money that will be awarded this spring.

For example, at Fancy Farm Elementary School, a 220-student, K-8 school in western Kentucky, testing in 1992 established a baseline score of 37.1 on the state's ranking system, which assigns points based on test scores and the other criteria. The following year, the score improved to a 43.5 ranking--a shade above the state's improvement target for the year. Last year, the score increased again, to 50.5.

Merit-Pay Model

Donald Spicer, the principal of Fancy Farm Elementary, said news of the rewards arrived when the school was dismissed for a snow day. But teachers had an inkling that they were in line for the bonuses, he said.

Curriculum changes at the school, he noted, have been aimed at pushing student performance toward the reform law's targets.

"I know my teachers and students have worked hard, and our parents have been supportive of the state goals," Mr. Spicer said. "They gave us something to work for."

The state will now ask local districts for rosters of the teachers who were working on the last day of the 1993-94 school year at each school eligible for rewards. In districts where schools' combined performance surpassed state goals, central-office administrators will also be eligible for rewards.

Once final appeals and personnel counts are complete, the state will notify each district of the exact amount of its bonuses.

Teachers in the schools that win rewards will then vote on how to distribute the money. In addition to awarding faculty bonuses, they could vote to include other staff members or to plow the money back into the school's budget.

While the Kentucky system may cause some friction among teachers, Mr. Boysen said, it stands as a model merit-pay program because of its objective measures and its focus on entire schools.

"In every local superintendency I ever had, the board members were interested in merit pay, but the plans didn't work because teachers felt pitted against each other in a building," the commissioner said. "What works about this is that we're not talking anymore about what a teacher does or how he or she looks while they are doing it, we are talking about what children gain."

Originally, the state had designed the program to include sanctions this year for low-performing schools. As questions swirled about the worth of the new open-ended assessment system, however, state lawmakers last year postponed the sanctions for two more years. Two independent reviews of the testing system are still being conducted.

State Intervention

According to last week's results, just over 4 percent of the state's schools showed declining performance over the last two years. Only one school would have been in line for the state's harshest sanctions--Estill County High School in Irvine, which dropped from a 41.6 rating in 1992 to a 34.1 the first year before rebounding slightly to 35.9 last year.

The state has already intervened at Estill County High and the other schools that have failed to improve. This involved sending in "distinguished educators," consultants who are working with administrators and teachers to boost the schools' performance.

The state of Estill County High and all of the rest of the state's schools will be checked again in two years when the next round of bonuses is delivered--as well as the first round of sanctions, which could mean a state takeover of declining schools.

State lawmakers have already earmarked about $22 million for the 1997 reward fund.

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