Recruitment & Retention

Houston in Uproar Over Teachers’ Bonuses

By Jessica L. Tonn — February 01, 2007 5 min read
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In the largest district-level performance-pay program in the country, the Houston Independent School District for the first time doled out $14 million in staff bonuses last month.

But once The Houston Chronicle published the names and awards of the more than 7,400 staff members who received the cash bonuses—ranging from $100 to more than $7,000—many people, including teachers, parents, and students, were left angered and wondering why some of their school’s most esteemed teachers were overlooked while others were rewarded.

“It’s embarrassing,” said Gayle Fallon, the president of the 6,300-member Houston Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. “We have teachers who are on ‘growth plans’—which isn’t a good thing—getting bonuses.”

Meanwhile, other teachers who have been named “teachers of the year” at their schools and by national organizations were left empty-handed.

Officials say that is because the awards are based exclusively on student improvement, which in this case is measured solely by students’ performance on standardized tests.

Under the old performance-pay plan, which had been in place in the district since the 2000-01 school year, teachers received schoolwide awards based on their schools’ rankings in the Texas accountability system. Last year, the district paid about $2 million to give about 2,070 of the district’s 13,000 teachers $1,000 each.

The new awards given this year averaged $1,847, which represents 4 percent of $48,000, the average teacher salary in the district, according to officials. Most of the money—$12 million—came from the federal government.

The first level of awards, the lowest, rewards both teachers and noninstructional staff members, such as clerks, aides, and janitors, based on the gains their schools’ students made on standardized tests from one year to another compared with students in other schools. All instructional faculty members, including nurses and librarians, can receive awards at the second level, which is based on students’ gains on the Stanford 10 Achievement Test and its Spanish-language equivalent, Aprenda 3.

The top-tier rewards “core” classroom teachers for their students’ improvement on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS. Since those tests are offered only in mathematics, reading, and, in some grades, science and social studies, a limited number of teachers are eligible for the largest awards.

Blaming the Messenger

To add insult to injury, some say, Abelardo Saavedra, the superintendent of the 209,000-student district, called the teachers who received bonuses “the cream of the crop” at a news conference held to announce the award winners.

Maria de Jesus-Pagán, a prekindergarten teacher at Gary L. Herod Elementary School, said most of the teachers she knows are more upset about Mr. Saavedra’s comments than whether they got bonuses.

“He cannot take back the damage he did to teachers,” she said. Ms. De Jesus-Pagán, who has been named the 2007 Bilingual Teacher of the Year by the National Association for Bilingual Education, did not receive a bonus this year.

Mr. Saavedra later apologized in an e-mail to employees.

“I agree that referring to the recipients of our performance-pay program as the ‘cream of the crop’ and ‘dedicated’ suggests that the others are not, and that was not my intention,” he wrote, adding that he would work with teachers and principals to improve the plan. “As I have said many times, we have excellent, high-performing teachers at all levels and in all schools in HISD. Many of those teachers received performance pay and some did not.”

Mr. Saavedra went on to say that the system is “not perfect,” but that it was an improvement over the old model. He also criticized the Chronicle for running the list.

The Chronicle says that the search engine on its Web site had more than 400,000 hits in the days following the awards. The site’s blog entry on the subject has more than 400 comments from teachers and other readers, many of whom were unhappy about the newspaper’s handling of the information.

The newspaper defended its decision in an editorial. “In publishing this information, we created a public discussion that may not have happened but for the data being disclosed,” it said. “As a result, the superintendent has vowed to work with teachers and principals to devise a better bonus plan. After all, isn’t that what teachers want?”

Last-Minute Results

Though Mr. Saavedra said that he was willing to tweak the plan, a press release put out by the district after the flap promised that “performance pay for teachers—paying more money to the teachers who lead children to make the greatest progress—is here to stay.”

But the plan will need a lot of work to do that, critics say.

“Teachers do more than just give standardized tests to students,” said Ms. De Jesus-Pagán. “Principals and administrators should be able to take into consideration other factors than just a test for minimum skills.”

Others complain that the plan is confusing and leaves teachers with no way of gauging whether they will receive a bonus.

“The board needs to be very clear about what they want teachers to do,” said Lisa Auerbach, a 3rd grade teacher at Herod Elementary, who received a $1,025 bonus. She said she believes that the board has good intentions and will work hard to fix the problems in the plan.

On a “frequently asked questions” section of the HISD Web site, the district offers this explanation: “Given the nature of the model and the way all campuses and teachers are compared to each other, … it is impossible to anticipate how much any single teacher will receive in any year. Only when the final results are calculated and comparisons are conducted will it be possible to know if any teacher qualifies for performance pay.”

Houston’s board of education is scheduled to hold its next meeting Feb. 8. Ms. Auerbach plans to be there, and has volunteered to work with Mr. Saavedra and the board to change the plan.

Ms. De Jesus-Pagán said that she would like to go, but won’t be able to make it. She’ll be at the NABE conference in San Jose, Calif., receiving her national teacher of the year award that evening.

A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2007 edition of Education Week as Houston in Uproar Over Teachers’ Bonuses

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