Recruitment & Retention

Test-Tied Bonuses to Take Effect in Houston

By Bess Keller — January 17, 2006 5 min read

The Houston school district has launched a large-scale plan to pay teachers bonuses based on the year-to-year improvement of their own students’ test scores.

Approved by the district’s board of education last week, the plan is expected to put millions more dollars into rewards for teachers whose students show better-than-average improvement compared with similar groups of students.

“It’s a real departure from business as usual, in that it takes [bonuses] to the individual teacher and classroom, and it’s also based on a ‘value added’ model that looks at how effective a teacher is in moving the [achievement] needle by the end of the year,” said Dianne Johnson, the president of the school board.

Although individual bonuses based on improvements in classroom test scores are paid out here and there around the country, they are still a relatively rare form of “performance pay.” Even as the notion of paying teachers for improved performance has picked up steam, districts have shied away from the controversial practice of relying solely on test scores from individual classrooms for bonuses.

Nor have many districts undertaken a broad alteration in the way teachers are paid. Denver, with about 70,000 students to Houston’s 210,000, attracted national attention this past fall when it won approval from city voters for such a change, which required $25 million more in local property taxes. (“Denver Voters Pave Way for Incentive Pay,” Nov. 9, 2005.)

Houston, in contrast, is sticking to a traditional salary framework, pegging salaries to years in the classroom and college credits. Bonus money will come on top of regular salaries. Houston leaders contend, though, that the focus and scope of their program makes it nationally significant.

Improvement the Focus

“We believe this kind of model does draw attention to individual students and will drive student performance up” because it is tied directly to improvement in student test scores classroom by classroom, said Karen Soehnge, the district’s chief academic officer.

Teacher Bounty
The new bonus plan for teachers in Houston builds on a system that was less tied to their own students’ performance.
Teachers in the district: 13,000
Amount committed in current budget to bonuses: $14 million
Bonus payout last school year: $2 million
Payout range under new system: Possibility of $250 to $3,500 annually per teacher
System in use since 2000:
• Group bonuses were divided into individual awards based on school ranking in Texas’ school accountability system.
Guiding principles of new system:
• Group and individual bonuses will be paid on top of traditional salary schedule.
• Bonuses are based on performance of students on standardized districtwide or statewide tests.
• Level of improvement, rather than the level of absolute achievement, will be rewarded. Improvement levels are determined in relation to the average performance of demographically comparable schools or classrooms.
SOURCE: Education Week

It will also affect more teachers and pay out far more money than the bonus program Houston has had in place since the 2000-01 school year, officials said.

Last year, about 2,070 of the district’s 13,000 teachers got $1,000 each for a total of just $2 million. The money came as schoolwide awards for ranking high in Texas’ school accountability system.

If the new plan had been in place, more than 6,800 teachers would have earned rewards totaling more than $6.6 million, according to district estimates.

The bonuses are set to range from $500 to $3,500 this school year. Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra has said he would like to see the rewards go as high as $10,000.

Under the new system, the schoolwide bonuses will continue, but partially on a new, value-added basis that considers year-to-year improvement on the Stanford Achievement Test-10th Edition compared with a group of demographically similar schools.

Likewise, the individual bonuses will be based on how much student scores on either district or state standardized tests went up over a year. Gains will have to be better than average for teachers to earn a reward.

The number of teachers who can qualify for the individual bonuses is limited by the grades and subjects in which tests are given. An 11th grade economics teacher, for example, could earn up to $1,500 from schoolwide bonuses, while a 5th grade teacher who covers math, reading, and science could make a total of $3,500 from a combination of schoolwide and individual bonuses.

Officials say they want to extend in the future the individual rewards to as many teachers as possible by using other kinds of quantitative data such as Advanced Placement or state special education test results.

“Teachers told us they wanted to be included as much as possible,” said

Ms. Soehnge, the chief academic officer.

Comparisons With Denver

But Gayle Fallon, the president of the 6,300-member Houston Federation of Teachers, had a different take on teachers’ reactions.

She said teachers are so bowed down by the district’s low salaries and single-minded focus on test scores that “the attitude of the teachers is a yawn and a ‘Whatever.’ ”

Ms. Fallon was particularly scornful of the notion, endorsed by district leaders, that the new bonuses would help attract and keep teachers. “I can give myself a $3,500 raise just by changing school districts” in the Houston area, she contended, adding that the complexities of the intricate bonus system alone are off-putting.

Houston pays a teacher with 10 years experience $41,210.

Teachers would prefer higher base salaries, an end to out-of-field teaching assignments, and opportunities to acquire skills and earn more while remaining a teacher, the union leader argued.

Experts on new ways of paying teachers found good and bad about Houston’s approach.

Jennifer Azordegan, a director at the Education Commission of the States in Denver and the author of a new report on the subject of teacher pay, said the plan might falter on teacher skepticism linked to the almost exclusive use of test scores to determine bonuses.

“I think right now the reason Denver looks so appealing to people is that there’s a certain amount of anxiety or nervousness about redesigning teacher compensation on test scores alone and Denver provides an alternative to that,” Ms. Azordegan said.

Brad Jupp, the union activist who led the campaign to revamp Denver’s pay system and now works for the administration, praised the Houston plan’s use of value-added measures.

“Any time you are using a method that looks at student learning [over time] and tries to identify people who get exceptional results, you’re going to be making sense to teachers,” he said.

As of the end of last calendar year, Mr. Jupp said, almost 750 of Denver’s 4,500 teachers had signed up for the new pay system, which rewards teachers for raising student achievement, adding to their skills, and teaching in fields where they are needed most.

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