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Published in Print: November 1, 2006, as Many Teacher Incentive Fund Applications Rejected

Many Teacher Incentive Fund Applications Rejected

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The U.S. Department of Education will award this year less than half the money appropriated to pay bonuses to principals and teachers whose students perform better on tests and meet tough academic goals.

Officials of the department, which has $99 million in the Teacher Incentive Fund, said they planned to announce 16 grants adding up to $42 million by early this week. Another $43.1 million will be awarded in the spring, said Amanda Farris, a deputy assistant secretary in the office of elementary and secondary education.

Ms. Farris said the states and school districts that will receive the grants submitted applications that met the program’s overarching goals of raising student achievement and driving teachers into high-needs schools. She would not divulge the names of the pending recipients.

But of the more than 60 applications the Education Department received, she said, many needed improvement.

“We thought the best thing to do was hold another competition to make sure all grantees are of the highest quality,” Ms. Farris said. Those that were not approved in the first cycle will get technical assistance from the department in putting together their applications for the spring grants.

Still, the department did announce its first award last week. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings delivered the news that Ohio was getting $5.5 million during a press conference in Columbus.

“Nothing helps a child learn as much as a great teacher, and research shows that rewarding teachers for results can improve student performance,” she said.

The state is expected to receive a total of $20 million over five years. Cincinnati and Columbus, two of the four school districts that will share the grant, will seek to expand the Teacher Advancement Program, or TAP, which they have already implemented in some schools. tAP was introduced by the Santa Monica, Calif.-based Milken Family Foundation in 1999. The program promotes senior teachers to mentors or master teachers, who then work with junior teachers on improvement strategies. The program also encourages schools to pay more to attract math and science teachers.

The programs in Toledo and Cleveland reward teachers for setting and achieving certain goals, ranging from attendance to graduation and student test scores, said Susan Tave Zelman, Ohio’s superintendent of public instruction. Proponents say the program has a strong professional-development component because it rewards teachers for acquiring additional knowledge and skills.

Playing Politics?

With the midterm congressional elections around the corner, there has been some speculation on the timing of the announcement. In Ohio, as in other states, voter polls show Democrats leading or breathing down the necks of Republican candidates, incumbents among them.

But Ms. Farris denied that the elections had anything to do with the announcement. “The timeline is very reasonable, and it just happened that it coincided with the midterm elections,” she said.

The Teacher Incentive Fund program has drawn sharp criticism from Reg Weaver, the president of the National Education Association, who called the grants “long on politics and short on substance.”

Mr. Weaver said the grants come at a time when school districts are financially strapped and would welcome funds from any source.

“Students learn best when teachers work as a team, not as free agents competing for a financial reward. These grants will promote unhealthy competition in a profession that thrives on teamwork and collaboration,” he argued.

Several states are now weighing how they can change the way they pay their teachers. Florida and Texas already plan to give individual cash bonuses to teachers who improve student test results. In Arizona, Minnesota, and North Carolina, programs have been implemented that tie teachers’ salaries, in part, to student achievement.

Although unions have generally remained opposed to such plans, some locals have jumped on board with pay-for-performance programs. In Denver and Minneapolis, for example, plans were implemented with the help of local affiliates.

The U.S. Department of Education offered additional funds to applicants that could show they have support for their plans from teachers and communities.

Individual vs. Schoolwide

Ms. Zelman said the unions in the four Ohio districts that will get slices of the Teacher Incentive Fund grant have signed off on the programs.

“We can look at this as a teacher-quality incentive. Teachers like it because more-experienced teachers get to mentor less-experienced teachers, and it allows them to come together in professional communities to look at student work,” she said in an interview.

Teachers who meet goals could get a bonus of as much as $2,000 a year, she added.

Francine Lawrence, the president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers, said the district and the American Federation of Teachers affiliate have worked together to put in place a compensation system that rewards teachers in some of the hardest-to-staff schools who achieve measurable student results. She said the grant would allow teachers with similar subject-matter backgrounds to collaborate better on strategies, intervention, and planning.

Union leaders who say they are open to pay-for-performance initiatives add, however, that the focus needs to shift from individual teachers to schoolwide initiatives where schools set improvement goals and the faculty, as a whole, gets rewarded.

“If you are going to tie teacher pay to student achievement,” said Tom Mooney, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, “the schoolwide approach would be much more encouraging because everyone is pulling in the same direction.”

Vol. 26, Issue 10, Pages 5,20

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