Federal funding divides district, revives merit pay talk


The school board and teachers union clashed over a controversial
initiative that gives districts federal funding in exchange for
linking teacher evaluations with student growth, possibly setting
the stage for a discussion of performance-based pay.
The school board and teachers union clashed over a controversial initiative that gives districts federal funding in exchange for linking teacher evaluations with student growth, possibly setting the stage for a discussion of performance-based pay.

The details surrounding the federal Race to the Top initiative remain fuzzy – one of the major reasons why the Gilroy Teachers Association said it could not support the program – but Gilroy Unified School District trustees took a “leap of faith” and voted 6-1 with trustee Mark Good dissenting to agree to the deal. Trustees believe the funding could help usher in some of the reforms educators have been talking about for years, including merit – or performance-based – pay.

The memorandum of understanding joined the district with more than 700 districts across California to compete for their share of $4.35 billion in federal stimulus funds, a sum that comes with many strings attached. Of that pot, California may be eligible for about $700 million at most. It’s unclear how much GUSD might receive. If the money is divided equally among the state’s competing districts, GUSD would stand to gain about $1 million. The district’s annual general fund budget is about $88 million – 81 percent of which pays for salaries and benefits. Winning districts will be announced in two rounds in April and September.

Race to the Top aims to promote standards that prepare students for success in college and the workplace, promote the recruitment and retention of effective teachers and principals, build data systems that measure student success, and inform teachers and principals how they can improve their practices and turn around the nation’s lowest performing schools, legislators said.

“I support (Race to the Top) because it’s in line with a lot of initiatives we’re already taking and it’s a possible revenue source,” Superintendent Deborah Flores said.

Of the hundreds of districts that entered Race to the Top, only about 25 percent were backed by their local teachers union, according to the California Department of Education. That’s because teachers balked at two requirements: linking teacher evaluations with student test scores and conducting teachers evaluations annually, instead of biennially, as is current practice, GTA President Michelle Nelson said. Teachers also worried about committing to long-term changes with one-time money, especially when it’s still unclear how much money districts might receive, Nelson said.

“That’s always a red flag,” she said. “I can’t support something when there are so many unanswered questions.”

The district and teachers union already have an evaluation tool in place that uses student data, Nelson said. On the evaluation form, one of the areas covered includes evidence that “demonstrates adequate annual progress of students based on state criteria referenced tests.” What sparked concern was that legislation language stated that a “significant” portion of a teacher’s evaluation must be based on student growth, she said. Many states interpreted that to mean more than 50 percent.

“I do agree (test scores) should be a component, absolutely, but there are so many other factors,” said Paul Winslow, a Christopher High School English teacher. Besides, evaluations would have to be based on test scores from the previous year, he said.

Basing more than half of a teacher’s evaluation on student test scores is alarming for teachers because of the lack of control they have over which students are in their classes, Nelson said.

According to the federal definition, an “effective teacher” must raise each students’ ability by at least one grade level in an academic year.

“That might be unrealistic for some students,” Nelson said, pointing to students with special needs or students who come into the school district as Spanish speakers. “One size does not fit all.”

Additionally, teachers have little control over parent engagement, attendance or after-school tutoring, Nelson said.

“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink,” she said.

Although he voted against signing the memorandum of understanding because of its lack of detail, Good felt implementing this educational reform is the first step toward talks of merit pay, he said.

“Teachers who are producing students showing superior (academic) results need to be rewarded,” Good said.

The GTA was discussing that issue with former Superintendent Edwin Diaz, but the idea died with his departure in 2007.

“There are some teachers who you get more bang for the buck with,” Nelson said.

Trustees said they expected the Race to the Top discussions to reignite the conversation on merit pay.

“This is the perfect time to bring back that issue,” Aguirre said.

Nelson and trustees said they were open to the idea of merit pay, but funding and bonus criteria were important unsettled issues.

“The devil is in the details,” Nelson said.

Merit pay, however, is still taking a backseat to Race to the Top for now.

In addition to student volatility, the legislation causes problems because the district doesn’t have the resources to effectively evaluate its teachers annually, Nelson said.

“I just don’t think they have the manpower to do it,” she said. “Already, they miss deadlines, they don’t follow procedure. I don’t know of any teacher who doesn’t want to be evaluated, who doesn’t welcome constructive criticism. They just want it to be fair.”

As it stands now, in their first two years, teachers are evaluated annually. After year three, teachers are evaluated every other year.

Many teachers did not return messages left by the Dispatch regarding Race to the Top. Those that did said they didn’t know enough about the initiative to comment.

Nelson expressed her concerns to trustees just before they voted to sign the memorandum.

“It’s time for us to take these dramatic measures,” trustee Javier Aguirre said. “The achievement gap is increasing. Schools are still in Program Improvement. If we’re not evaluating teachers accordingly, then we’re failing those students.”

The district can still back out up until the point it receives money, Flores said.

Trustee Rhoda Bress said that if opting out was the worst case, in the “best case, we get the funds and actually do some of the reforms people have been talking about in education for years.”

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