Teaching Profession

Teacher Re-Creation

By Jeff Archer — January 10, 2001 17 min read
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Borrowing principles from the world of business, the Milken Family Foundation is sponsoring a pilot program that seeks to redefine the teaching profession.

Debbie Ong has never been satisfied just to coast along in her job. In the 10 years she’s worked as an educator, Ong has volunteered to help write her district’s mathematics curriculum, earned a master’s degree in elementary education from Northern Arizona University, and spent weekends learning new ways to teach fractions and geometry through a program underwritten by the National Science Foundation.

And yet, at the overwhelming majority of U.S. schools, Ong’s job title would be the same as it was when she first stepped into her own classroom. In fact, the label would likely remain unchanged until the day she retired. Regardless of her talent and experience, she’d be a teacher.

But not at Madison Camelview Elementary School. Here, the 32-year- old Ong is a “master teacher,” as distinguished from the “mentor teachers” and “associate teachers” in her building. Recognized by administrators and fellow teachers as an exceptionally competent educator, she puts in extra hours trying to get her skills to rub off on others by observing them, coaching them, and planning their professional growth. In return, she receives an extra $7,000 a year on top of her base pay.

“I’ve talked to a lot of teachers, and at a certain point in their career they say, ‘OK, now what?’ ” says Ong, who teaches 2nd grade. “Here, you’ve got the option to do more.”

Madison Camelview Elementary in Phoenix is one of five Arizona schools that are offering 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, an initiative of the Milken Family Foundation that seeks to improve student performance by reorganizing schools in ways that create new incentives and supports for teachers.

“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 attempts 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 first hint that anyone at Camelview got about Milken’s program came in a letter from the foundation early last winter. The letter invited Principal Karolee Hess to bring her superintendent, a school board member, and representatives of her teaching staff to a meeting at the Arizona education department to hear about an “exciting project.”

What the foundation had in mind for Camelview and other schools was a program that relied heavily on the principles of the marketplace in rethinking careers in teaching. Among its components were new opportunities for career advancement, performance-based compensation, peer review, and ongoing professional development driven by teachers’ needs.

None of the elements was completely new to education. Some, like “career ladders,” had been tried in the past in various forms in many states and mostly discarded. Others, such as pay for performance, were just coming into vogue. What was unusual about TAP was that it put all those pieces into place almost simultaneously. Rather than tinker around the edges, it presented a whole vision of a re-created profession.

Rather than tinker around the edges like other programs, TAP presented a whole vision of a re-created profession.

Such a project on teacher quality was a natural outgrowth of earlier philanthropic ventures by the Santa Monica, Calif.-based foundation, which was established by the financier Michael Milken and his brother Lowell Milken. The foundation’s National Educator Awards Program, for example, awards exemplary educators $25,000.

In part, TAP arose from the idea that fostering teacher talent was as important as honoring it. “We needed a way of getting at the underlying policies that would produce more people like our educator-award winners,” says Thomas C. Boysen, the foundation’s senior vice president for education programs.

The foundation also recognized the need to recruit an estimated 2 million new teachers over the next 10 years, at a time when opportunities abound for young workers in far more lucrative fields. Milken officials believed that simply giving across-the-board raises to teachers wasn’t politically feasible, and wouldn’t necessarily fix the problem. What was needed, they argued, was a combination of greater opportunities and greater accountability for those who work in education.

On paper, TAP envisions schools with as many as six kinds of teachers. At the high end would be the experts in their schools, freed up from regular classroom responsibilities to keep abreast of advances in the field and to help colleagues grow professionally.

Those in the middle would primarily spend their time teaching, but would also be given ample time to observe “master” and “mentor” teachers as they demonstrated new instructional techniques and to talk regularly in groups about ways of doing their jobs better.

“As a former principal, I know that you often have five stars on your staff, and your challenge is to spread what they know to the rest of the teachers in your school,” says Micheline Bendotti, who last year left another Phoenix area school to work full time as Milken’s TAP coordinator in Arizona. “Not everyone can write a curriculum, but those who can should be allowed to.”

‘Let’s see what we can do to bring about realistic reform focused on teachers in a way that’s all built around making teachers more skillful.’

Karolee Hess,
Madison Camelview Elementary School

Milken also proposed two part-time categories—the “faculty fellow” and the “adjunct teacher"—to create new opportunities for retired teachers to come back to the profession and for individuals from other fields to use their talents in the classroom. An engineer, for instance, might teach one or two classes of high school physics.

Within each category, salary increases would depend on job reviews—carried out by peers and administrators—as well as on the gains students made on standardized tests. Bonuses for schoolwide improvements in student performance also would be included.

The result, in the foundation’s view, would be a new set of incentives aimed at luring more talented individuals into the profession and at rewarding those in the field who can prove their abilities. Young people weighing law or medicine, the thinking went, might be more willing to teach if they knew that within a few years they could be a mentor teacher earning $65,000

To help field-test the plan, Arizona education officials recommended some 20 schools, among them Camelview Elementary. It fit the bill on several levels.

The public school serves a culturally diverse and largely low-income population in Phoenix’s central city. The number of very young children in the surrounding neighborhood had mushroomed in recent years, prompting district officials to break off Camelview from another elementary school and designate it to serve only students in prekindergarten through 2nd grade. Still, since its new building opened in 1997, Camelview’s enrollment has jumped from about 350 to 522. If TAP could work here, it arguably could work elsewhere, the state officials figured.

In addition, both the school and its district—the 5,000-student Madison Elementary School system—have earned statewide reputations for their efforts to raise student achievement. Even before Milken came along, the district had created a “teacher leader” position for educators who split their time between teaching their own classes and helping other teachers polish their skills. Until TAP, however, none of those exemplary educators received added compensation for the extra time they put in.

The building itself was even designed to be both supportive and achievement-oriented. Principal Hess, who had a hand in Camelview’s planning, successfully insisted that doors be installed between classrooms to increase communication among her staff members.

Student work hanging in the halls also shows how central student learning is at Camelview. One piece, for example, illustrates the results of a student survey on the popularity of white milk vs. chocolate. A small note explains which state standard the exercise was geared to—in this case, the ability of students to collect and analyze data.

‘Unabashedly, this is a more market-oriented system than what has traditionally been a more highly regulated public system of education.’

Lewis C. Solomon,
senior vice president,
Milken Foundation

Though willing to change, Hess says she was initially skeptical that innovations that borrow heavily from the business world could work in a public school. But what impressed the principal was how multifaceted TAP was. It wasn’t just about prodding teachers to do better. It also was about giving them the chance to improve.

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

Milken Foundation officials were well aware that efforts to inject more of a business approach into education can 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, says Lewis C. Solmon, another senior vice president at Milken. “Unabashedly, this is a more market-oriented system than what has traditionally been a more highly regulated public system of education,” he says. “Having said that, I think this takes into account a lot of the concerns and interests of the educational community.”

Camelview agreed to work with Milken after more than 85 percent of its teachers voted in favor of the idea. Like the other four schools in the pilot this year, Camelview consented to stick with TAP for at least three years. All but one of the public schools are in the Phoenix area; the fifth is in Flagstaff. One is a charter school.

Milken is giving the sites a wide range of technical assistance through training seminars and “tool kits” outlining how the program’s elements can be put into place. To help them make the transition, the foundation also is providing the schools with roughly $100,000 apiece for each of the first three years.

Even at a school like Camelview, which considers itself willing to experiment, some staff members have been wary of all the changes demanded by TAP. Hess says that three teachers who didn’t like the program went elsewhere.

The program—by necessity—sets up a competition at a school because not everyone can be a master or mentor teacher. As in a business, there’s a limit to the number of formal leaders a school needs.

The selections were made by a committee that included teachers and administrators from Camelview and from Madison Rose Lane Elementary School, the other Madison district school piloting the program. Applicants underwent interviews with the panelists and submitted portfolios demonstrating the quality of their work through such evidence as lesson plans and student work.

Many teachers in TAP say the system hasn’t so much set up a hierarchy as it has made clear whom they can go to for guidance.

As luck would have it, only four of the school’s 31 teachers applied to be master teachers and seven to be mentor teachers at Camelview—precisely the number needed—and all were selected.

The reconfiguration immediately resulted in some obvious departures from tradition. For instance, 1st grade teacher Stephanie Elsaesser became a mentor teacher, even though she’s been in the profession less than three years. “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,” Elsaesser says.

Meanwhile, 2nd grade teacher Jane Scott, a 15- year veteran of the profession, is an “associate teacher,” the same title she’d hold if it were her first year in the classroom under the Milken model. In fact, Scott says, she didn’t want a leadership role. With four children at home, including a newborn, Scott says she couldn’t see putting in more hours fulfilling 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 new hierarchy as it has made clear whom they can go to for guidance.

Helping to smooth the transition was the fact that nobody lost financial ground in the changeover. Even though Milken proposed that the salary range for associate teachers be $30,000 to $35,000, the foundation realized it couldn’t tell Camelview that a teacher like Scott, for example, had to have her pay cut because she wound up in that category. Nevertheless, ensuring that teachers would at least maintain their current pay raised the total budget for the school because master and mentor teachers are paid for their additional work.

Meanwhile, rescheduling the school day to give teachers more opportunities to learn from each other presented a logistical challenge. Camelview had to hire an extra teacher to make sure all classes were covered when teachers at each grade level met for their hourlong “professional-development block” four times a week. For the most part, those budget adjustments were what the Milken funding has been used for.

So far, many of Camelview’s teachers say the change has been well worth the initial angst. Rather than yielding divisiveness, they see it building on the school’s history of collaboration by providing new avenues through which teachers can share ideas.

“Last year, when they brought all of this stuff up, I was very skeptical,” Scott says. “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.”

In particular, Scott and her colleagues say, the professional-growth blocks have significantly improved their outlooks. Now that they have a portion of each 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.

“If that piece weren’t there, I think it’d be very hard to be a new teacher at a school,” says Terry Fatout, another associate teacher at Camelview, who re-entered the profession two years ago after a two decade hiatus. “The teachers who have been here for a while had to do that by getting knocked down and having to sit up and dust themselves off.”

‘I could see that something like this program could easily be abused. You can’t operate this program unless you have the right personalities in place among the building’s leaders.’

Susan Tyler,
South Hadley Education Association

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. While teachers at Hess’ school are enjoying their new time for professional development and the chance to get compensated for their added responsibilities, pay for performance and peer review won’t fully kick in until next year.

Milken officials permitted each school to design the details of its appraisal and compensation systems. By intent, in fact, the foundation allows its schools a certain amount of wiggle room. In the Milken model, for example, master teachers do not have their own classes at all. At Camelview, the master teachers teach half time, believing that continuing to practice helps their ability to train other teachers.

Similarly, Milken expects each site to create a performance-appraisal system in which teachers are evaluated by their peers, but it’s left up to the schools to decide exactly what skills to stress. (Milken also allows individual teachers to opt out of performance pay and stick with their district’s salary schedule; all teachers, though, must go through their schools’ new systems for carrying out job evaluations.)

At most of the five TAP sites, committees of teachers have spent much of the school year hammering out specifics of the new accountability systems—deciding, for instance, what to include in the skills upon which teachers will be judged. At Camelview, Hess says that any new pay scheme next year also will likely require the local teachers’ union to issue at least a partial waiver from the contract that covers Madison’s teachers. This year, her school managed the initial phase of TAP’s differentiated pay structure by incorporating an addendum to the contracts of master and mentor teachers that paid them for their extra work.

Some teachers at TAP schools worry that the new procedures could damage the sense of collaboration they’ve built this year.

As Lynn Alloway, a 2nd grade master teacher at Rose Lane Elementary, explains, it’s one thing for teachers to know she’s there to help them; it’s another if they know she’s there to judge them, and that her judgment could affect their job reviews and salaries.

But Alloway and others believe that the changes ultimately could be for the better, especially if the teachers see that the rewards and incentives are guiding them toward improved instruction. Says Alloway: “It’s like with the kids. If you want them to learn something, they attach value to it if someone says, ‘You’ve done that right.’ ”

In the meantime, the Milken Family Foundation is working to spread the model. At its annual meeting last spring, the Education Leaders Council agreed to encourage schools in its member states to participate in the program. The conservative-leaning ELC was formed six years ago by a group of top state education officials as an alternative to the Council of Chief State School Officers. Recently, South Carolina officials announced that eight of its schools would become TAP schools next fall— including the first high school and middle school to join the program.

Last November, a conference held in Arizona to highlight the program drew some 250 attendees, including scores of state lawmakers, district leaders, and state education officials.

‘I’m optimistic that teachers’ organizations and regulators will keep an open mind about this [program].’

Lewis C. Solomon,
Milken Foundation

Moreover, the pilot could take root in more schools in the Grand Canyon State. Milken plans to show off TAP to a wider range of Arizona educators at another conference next month. The state’s voters created a new incentive to try out such innovations last fall by passing Proposition 301, a ballot measure that allocates additional funds to schools in the expectation that they enact new financial rewards for improved performance.

Some regions, however, may provide less fertile soil than others. Both South Carolina and Arizona, for example, are “right to work” states that do not guarantee teachers’ groups the right to bargain collectively. Many teachers’ unions have expressed deep reservations about career ladders and performance-based pay, which could mean TAP would face resistance in the Midwest and Northeast where unions are stronger.

“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, and an attendee at the Milken conference in November. “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. Nonetheless, she says her local might accept a gradual phase-in of some of the elements of TAP. In fact, officials from her state’s education department, who also attended the conference, say they hope to persuade five to 10 schools in Massachusetts to institute some TAP-like changes next year.

Whether or not the program is embraced in a place like Massachusetts, Solmon says what’s important is that TAP be piloted somewhere. His best hope, he adds, is to have the project up and running in at least 50 schools across the country in the next few years. At the foundation’s fall conference, Milken officials advised participants on how they might use federal grants and other sources of funding to pay for the “transitional costs” of implementing the program. (Milken will offer technical, but not financial, support to additional schools.)

“I’m optimistic that teachers’ organizations and regulators will keep an open mind about this,” Solmon says. “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 the burden will shift to the other side to show why it can’t work where they are.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2001 edition of Education Week as Teacher Re-Creation


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