By Jeff Archer — April 01, 2001 12 min read
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Debbie Ong has never been satisfied just to coast along in her job. In her 10 years as an educator, she has pumped up her professionalism more than once. She earned a master’s degree in elementary education from Northern Arizona University. She volunteered to help write her district’s mathematics curriculum. And she traded her weekend down time for a spot in a program on new ways to teach fractions and geometry.

Yet at the overwhelming majority of U.S. schools, Ong’s job title would be the same as it was when she decorated her first bulletin board. In fact, the label would likely remain unchanged until the day she retired. Regardless of her talent and experience, she would be, simply, a “teacher.”

That’s not the case at Phoenix’s Madison Camelview Elementary School, where the 32-year-old Ong is a “master teacher.” Recognized as an exceptionally competent educator, she puts in extra hours to observe, coach, and advise her colleagues. In return, the 2nd grade teacher gets an additional $7,000 each year—and the chance to grow professionally.

“I’ve talked to a lot of teachers, and at a certain point in their careers, they say, ‘OK, now what?’ ” Ong points out. “Here, you’ve got the option to do more.”

Ong’s school is one of five in Arizona that offer a glimpse of what tomorrow’s careers in teaching might look like. The sites are the first in the country to pilot the Teacher Advancement Program, or TAP, which is designed to bolster student performance by creating new incentives and supports for teachers. An initiative of the Milken Family Foundation, it is founded on the principles of opportunity and accountability—and on the recognition that all teachers are not created equal. In fact, Camelview has three categories of educators: “master teachers,” like Ong; “mentor teachers,” who shoulder some extra responsibilities, such as planning professional-growth meetings (and annually receive an additional $3,000 to do so); and “associate teachers,” who can tap into their colleagues’ expertise.

“I think it’s incredibly exciting,” says Katherine Boles, a lecturer at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. “It’s one of the first [efforts] I’ve heard of that really attempts to change the role of teachers and the whole career of teaching. That’s the thing that almost nobody else is talking about.”

The program made its way to Camelview via Arizona’s superintendent of education, Lisa Keegan, who heard a TAP pitch at a Milken conference and was eager to sign on. Early this past winter, the state’s education department sent principal Karolee Hess a letter inviting her to bring her district superintendent, a school board member, and teaching staff representatives to a meeting about an “exciting project.”

When the Camelview contingent arrived, representatives from the Milken foundation proposed injecting marketplace principles into the school’s teaching. There’d be peer review, performance-based compensation, and ongoing professional development, among other changes at TAP schools.

Sure, none of these elements was completely new to education. “Career ladders” had been tried in various forms and mostly discarded. Other ideas, such as pay for performance, were just coming into vogue. But TAP was different: It would try to put all the pieces into place simultaneously. Rather than tinker around the edges, it presented a whole vision of a re-created profession.

A project on teacher quality was a natural outgrowth of earlier ventures by the Santa Monica, California-based foundation, which was established by Michael Milken (the junk bond dealer who pleaded guilty to securities violations in the 1980s) and his brother Lowell Milken. Every fall, for example, the foundation’s National Educator Awards Program wows teachers at their schools with news that they’ve won $25,000.

TAP arose in part from the ideas that fostering teacher talent was as crucial as honoring it and that the right policies might cultivate more award-quality educators. Folks at Milken also were aware of the looming teacher shortage: Schools will need to recruit an estimated 2 million new educators over the next decade. Graduates weighing law or medicine, the thinking went, might be more willing to teach if they knew that within a few years they could be earning $65,000. Says Lewis Solmon, a Milken foundation senior vice president, “The crisis is this: The structure of American education does not attract enough people with the kinds of talent and skills that we need.”

Yet Milken leaders believed across-the-board raises weren’t politically feasible—and wouldn’t necessarily fix the problem. Instead, any effort would pursue greater accountability and broader opportunities for educators.

To attract talent to the classroom, TAP envisions even more teaching categories than are in place at Camelview. There would be part-time options for retired teachers and experts from other fields, such as an engineer who might teach one or two high school physics classes. Salary increases in all categories would be based on job reviews—carried out by peers and administrators—as well as on students’ gains on standardized tests. Moving from one level to the next would depend less on years of experience and more on skills and abilities.

To help field-test the plan, Arizona education officials recommended some 20 schools. Camelview Elementary, which qualified for the program after a rigorous application process, fits the bill on several levels.

The school serves a culturally diverse and largely low-income population in Phoenix. Since 1997, Camelview’s enrollment has jumped from about 350 to 522. If TAP could work there, it arguably could work elsewhere, officials reasoned.

In addition, the school has earned a statewide reputation for its drive to raise student achievement. Even work hanging in the halls shows how creative Camelview can be. One item, for example, illustrates the results of a student survey on the popularity of white milk vs. chocolate milk. Small notes explain which state standard each exercise was geared to—in this case, collecting and analyzing data.

Principal Hess was open to change. Still, she had doubts about TAP. Could innovations borrowed from the business world work in a public school? But she was impressed by the program’s different facets. It wasn’t just about prodding teachers to do better. It also was about giving them the chance and the means to improve.

The foundation was offering a wide range of technical assistance, from training seminars to “tool kits” for putting the program’s elements into place. And the transition would be softened with a pile of money: For each of TAP’s first three years, the foundation is distributing checks to the tune of roughly $100,000 to each school.

“There was a whole package here that was tied together,” says Hess. It was the first time, she adds, that she’d heard anyone from the business world say, “Let’s see what we can do to bring about realistic reform...that’s all built around making teachers more skillful.”

Milken foundation officials were well aware that importing more of a business- world approach into education could engender suspicion among educators, who often see an underlying message that they’re just not working hard enough. But TAP seeks to shore up teachers at the same time that it shakes up schools, explains the foundation’s Solmon. Still, even a school like Camelview, which considers itself willing to experiment, lost three teachers who didn’t like the program.

Because not everyone can be a master or a mentor teacher, TAP breeds competition. After all, as in business, there’s only so much room at the top. Those vying for the higher-paying positions at Camelview underwent interviews with a panel of teachers and administrators and submitted portfolios of lesson plans and other evidence of their excellence. But as luck—and self-selection— would have it, only four of the school’s 31 teachers applied to be master teachers, and seven pursued the mentor slots, precisely the numbers needed.

The reconfiguration immediately resulted in some obvious departures from tradition. For instance, 1st grade teacher Stephanie Elsaesser became a mentor teacher, even though she hasn’t been in the profession long. “I just thought of the way I run my classroom, and although I only have two years of experience, I thought I had a lot to offer,” she says.

Meanwhile, 2nd grade teacher Jane Scott, a 15-year veteran, is an associate teacher. But with four children at home, including a newborn, Scott says she didn’t want additional hours and new responsibilities. “Where I am in my life right now, I just want to teach,” she says. “I have pretty much more experience than all of the master teachers, but I don’t feel intimidated or resent that. They’re in here to help everyone, and they still learn from us, too.”

Many teachers at Camelview say the new system hasn’t so much set up a hierarchy as it has made clear who’s there to help. Of course, smoothing the transition was the fact that nobody lost financial ground in the changeover. Even though the plan proposed a $30,000 to $35,000 salary range for associate teachers, the foundation realized it couldn’t tell Camelview that a teacher like Scott, for example, had to suffer a pay cut.

Nevertheless, ensuring that teachers would at least maintain their current salaries raised the total budget for the school since master and mentor teachers receive extra pay. There were logistical hurdles, too: Someone had to cover classes when teachers at each grade level were meeting for the hour-long “professional-development block” four times a week, so Camelview wound up hiring an extra teacher. Milken officials expected such budgetary adjustments, though, and these expenses are, in fact, consuming the biggest chunk of the program’s funding.

A certain amount of built-in wiggle room also has eased the transition. In the Milken model, for example, master teachers don’t have their own classes. At Camelview, however, they teach part time because they believe that continuing to practice helps them train other teachers.

Overall, many of Camelview’s teachers say they’re comfortable with the new structure. “Last year, when they brought all of this stuff up, I was very skeptical,” Scott recalls. “I just didn’t know what to think and if it would be best for the children. But with what we have experienced up to this point, this has been 100 percent positive.”

Scott and her colleagues have particularly taken to the professional-growth blocks. With a portion of the day carved out for such meetings—and an expert teacher to facilitate them—they’re able to try suggested approaches and come back with more questions. “Teachers who’ve been here for a while [learned] by getting knocked down and having to sit up and dust themselves off,” says Terry Fatout, an associate teacher at Camelview who is glad to be spared those bumps. “You come to these daily meetings with problems, but then you get to leave with solutions. Without this, I don’t think I’d still be in teaching,” she says.

But TAP’s toughest test may lie ahead because Camelview Elementary and the other participating schools have yet to implement some of the program’s most controversial elements: Performance-based pay and peer review won’t fully kick in until next year.

At most of the five TAP sites, committees have spent much of the school year hammering out specifics of the new accountability systems—deciding, for instance, on which skills teachers will be judged. Although the Milken plan allows teachers to opt out of performance pay, sticking instead with their districts’ salary schedule, all must go through the new evaluation systems.

Once a participating school determines the final criteria for rating and paying teachers, the new salary structure will be set in place. But, Hess notes, it will most likely require the local teachers’ union to issue at least a partial waiver from the current contract. This year, all that was needed was an addendum to the individual contracts of master and mentor teachers for their extra work. Therefore, union approval was unnecessary.

With the changes ahead, some TAP teachers worry that the new procedures will damage the collaborative spirit that flourished this year. As Lynn Alloway, a master teacher at one TAP school, explains, it’s one thing for teachers to know she’s there to assist them; it’s quite another if she’s judging them and helping determine their salaries.

But Alloway and others believe that, ultimately, the changes will serve their students, especially if teachers see that the incentives are guiding them toward improved instruction. Says Alloway: “It’s like with the kids [when] you want them to learn something. They attach value to it if someone says, ‘You’ve done that right.’ ”

In the meantime, the foundation is looking to sign up more schools, which will receive technical, but not financial, support. Milken leaders see federal grants and other sources of funding as picking up the slack.

So far, interest is spreading. Last spring, the Education Leaders Council, a group of conservative-leaning state education officials, agreed to encourage members to participate in the program. Recently, South Carolina officials announced that between five and 10 of their schools would join TAP next fall. And last November, a conference held in Arizona to highlight the program drew some 250 attendees from 22 states, including state lawmakers, district leaders, and state education officials.

Some regions, however, may provide less fertile soil. Many teachers’ unions have expressed reservations about career ladders and performance-based pay, which means TAP could face resistance in the Midwest and Northeast, where unions are stronger than in Arizona or South Carolina.

“From my experience over the years, I could see that something like this program could easily be abused,” says Susan Tyler, the president of the South Hadley Education Association in Massachusetts. “You can’t operate this program unless you have the right personalities in place among the building’s leaders.”

Such fears of abuse by administrators helped prompt the national affiliate of Tyler’s union, the National Education Association, to kill a resolution last summer that would have allowed some union support for alternative pay schemes. The American Federation of Teachers, on the other hand, did recently pass a resolution encouraging locals to consider such plans, though it has several provisos. In any event, Tyler says her local might accept a gradual phasing in of some TAP elements. In fact, officials from her state’s education department are working to persuade five to 10 schools to sign on to TAP next year.

Regardless of whether the program is embraced in a place like Massachusetts, Solmon claims that what matters is that TAP continue to be piloted somewhere. His best hope, he says, is to have the project up and running in at least 50 schools across the country in the next few years.

“I’m optimistic that teachers’ organizations and regulators will keep an open mind,” he says of the program. “Having said that, I think there’s no secret that we’ll welcome it wherever it can work. And if that’s South Carolina and Arizona, so be it.

“But then,” he adds, “the burden will shift to the other side to show why it can’t work where they are.”


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