Teaching Profession

Top Oakland Administrators To Receive Bonuses Tied to Test Scores

By Mark Stricherz — January 24, 2001 3 min read
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The superintendent of the Oakland, Calif., schools continues to shake up the 54,000-student district.

Dennis Chaconas

In his latest move, Dennis Chaconas pushed through a plan this month to give top school administrators bonuses tied to test scores. Under the measure, approved 9-1 by the school board on Jan. 10, some 20 members of Mr. Chaconas’ “cabinet” will receive higher salaries, so long as students score higher on annual state tests.

While the administrators already will receive a 9 percent pay hike, they can earn up to an additional 3 percent raise—1 percent each for increases in reading, mathematics, and language arts. The highest-paid administrators would be eligible for as much as $3,400.

The pay plan follows other aggressive moves by Mr. Chaconas to tackle leadership problems.

Since taking his job last February, he has replaced a third of the district’s 90 principals, set new standards for principals’ job evaluations, and eliminated 12 top central-office positions.

In addition, Mr. Chaconas has required schools to use phonics to teach reading and pushed for teachers and other staff members to receive a 13 percent pay hike this school year.

The bonus pay initiative is viewed as a request to senior administrators to share responsibility for raising student achievement. “It’s kind of, put your money where your mouth is,” said Pete Yasitis, a deputy superintendent.

But the Oakland affiliate of the California Teachers Association opposed Mr. Chaconas’ merit-pay measure. Sheila M. Quintana, the president of the Oakland Education Association, which is also affiliated with the National Education Association, called the measure “egregious and wrong.”

“Our association is against high-stakes testing,” she said. “We know that test scores are tied to [family] income.”

Mayor’s Influence

The Oakland schools have been in flux since last March, when city voters approved a measure, sponsored by Mayor Jerry Brown, to add three members appointed by the mayor to the seven-member elected school board. (“Oakland Voters Give Brown Broader Say Over Schools,” March 15, 2000.)

Mr. Chaconas was hired, against the wishes of Mr. Brown, just before the governance change was approved.

“I think 90 percent of the time our agendas line up,” Mr. Chaconas said of his relations with Mayor Brown, “but the other times I’m going to fight for what I believe in.”

Both men appear to share similar values about improving school leadership: So far, they have sought to give themselves more authority to overhaul the district. Mr. Brown was unavailable for comment last week.

"[Mr. Chaconas] has really shaken up the Oakland school district in every way you can imagine,” said Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University

A graduate of the city’s public schools, Mr. Chaconas, 53, served as a middle and high school principal in Oakland and later as an assistant superintendent of the district. In 1993, he became the superintendent of the nearby 10,800-student Alameda Unified district, where he was credited with helping to end a $4 million deficit and improving test scores.

When the Oakland superintendency opened up in 1999, Mr. Chaconas quickly applied. Though Mr. Brown backed another candidate, Mr. Chaconas got the nod. The job he faced could hardly have been more difficult, school observers say. Early last year, a state audit blasted the district for poor management and student performance and threatened a state takeover.

The new standards for principals, who work under one-year contracts, call for them to lose their jobs if their students don’t improve on a number of criteria, from attendance to test scores. Mr. Chaconas also evaluates principals on how much time they spend in classrooms, asking that at least two hours a day be devoted to monitoring instruction.

When 31 of the district’s principals didn’t measure up, Mr. Chaconas removed them. Some now run new schools in Oakland, while others have been replaced with principals recruited from other districts.

Bruce Fuller, a professor of education at the University of California, Berkeley, praised the superintendent’s actions, but cautioned they may have a downside.

“I think it’s frustrating to some of these school principals that they’re dealt a hand they can’t control,” Mr. Fuller said. “The big issue is that a large number of teachers are uncredentialed.”

Mr. Chaconas responds that he intends to decentralize power, but had to act in a top-down manner to get things started.

“We had 15 different reading programs, and none of them seemed to work,” he said, “but down the road, once we stabilize the system, if a school comes up with a different way to come up with decisions, that’s fine by me.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2001 edition of Education Week as Top Oakland Administrators To Receive Bonuses Tied to Test Scores

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