Teaching Profession

Houston Board OKs Revamped Performance-Pay Plan

By Lynn Olson — September 14, 2007 4 min read
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The Houston school board last night unanimously approved an overhaul of the nation’s largest performance-pay plan for teachers.

The revision of the controversial performance-bonus system comes at a time of heightened interest— and pushback—about such programs nationwide. This week, both national teachers’ unions objected to proposed provisions in the reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act that would create pay-for-performance plans based, at least in part, on student test-score gains.

The 200,000-student Houston district will continue to reward schools and teachers whose success in raising student test scores exceeds that of their peers. But the newly named ASPIRE Award program, which stands for Accelerating Student Progress Increasing Results & Expectations, is intended to address many of the shortcomings that dogged the program’s first year. The retooled program, for example, seeks to improve communications with teachers, strengthen the data analysis on which the awards are based, and make a much larger number of educators potentially eligible for bonuses.

Gayle Fallon, the president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, this week described the changes as an improvement. “It’s one of the few programs we’ve ever had that couldn’t have gotten worse,” she said.

But she said the union remains opposed to “any plan that is just based on how well a kid bubbles in a standardized test.”

Even so, she predicted that few teachers would choose to opt out of the program, which is expected to pay out as much as $22.5 million in bonuses next January, including as much as $7,300 to individual educators.

External Analysis

The new system, crafted with the help of a 20-member teacher advisory group, will still pay the most money to teachers of such core academic subjects as English and mathematics whose students show the greatest test-score gains. But the district has jettisoned its internal data analysis in favor of one conducted by William L. Sanders, a national expert on “value added” educational measurement, that will use multiple years of data from both state and national tests.

Karla J. Stevens, the head of research and accountability for the district, said the new analysis would be “much more statistically robust” and a “much fairer system” than last year’s model. That model, which doled out more than $15 million in staff bonuses last winter, received widespread criticism after The Houston Chronicle published the names and awards of individuals who had received the cash bonuses, leading to questions about why some individuals were rewarded while others were not.

The new analysis will permit the district to calculate value-added results for a wider group of teachers, including departmentalized elementary and middle school teachers who teach science, social studies, and language arts; teachers of preschool through grade 2; and high school teachers, who will be rewarded as departments based on gains in their respective subjects.

In addition, rewards will be given to every teacher and staff member in schools where the average academic improvement of students is in the top half of all schools in the district.

As before, the system will also give smaller awards to all instructional- staff members in schools that do well under the Texas accountability system. But in addition to rewarding those in schools that have shown the most improvement compared with similar schools statewide, bonuses will be given to teachers in schools rated “exemplary” or “recognized” under the state rating system.

One of the biggest complaints about the program last year was how little educators knew about or understood the data on which the awards were based. In contrast, Mr. Sanders’ system will generate value-added reports that will enable educators to log on to a Web site and see the results before the bonuses are doled out.

Value-added approaches in education aim to determine the contribution that teachers and schools make to student learning by tracking the academic growth of individual students from year to year.

A nearly $3.6 million grant to the Houston Independent School District from the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation will help the district develop and manage the data associated with the awards, conduct strategic planning to improve the program over time, and create the Web site.

It also will help pay for professional development, provided by the Columbus, Ohio-based Battelle for Kids, on how to use the data to improve student learning. The nonprofit group, created by business leaders to enhance student achievement, has extensive experience in helping educators use value-added analyses.

“We’re trying to really make this be what we intended it to be, which is an initiative to help drive student improvement,” Ms. Stevens said.

Eli T. Kennedy, an associate director of the Broad Foundation, said the philanthropy made the grant to Houston because of district leaders’ dedication to the program, the strong partnerships that Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra has formed to strengthen the plan, and the focus on providing sizable rewards, based on studentachievement results, to large numbers of teachers.

“We also look for this willingness to change,” Mr. Kennedy added.

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