First Person

Testing the Murky Waters of Merit Pay, With Mixed Results

Last spring I took a position as English department chair at a New York City independent school, giving me a chance to work in the city after many years in suburban schools. The head of my new school told me that he and the board planned to launch a performance-based compensation system and asked me to help administer it. Like many teachers, I object to being paid based on student test scores, but after learning that wasn’t the plan at my new school, I found myself intrigued.

I admit it: I believe in merit pay, performance-based compensation, or whatever you want to call it. I’ve been in education too long not to be frustrated with the lock-step salary system: No matter how hard a teacher works, she’s paid the same as everyone else who started the same year she did and has the same number of postgraduate credits she does. While no one goes into teaching for the money, we’re also not volunteers. And why shouldn’t great teachers make more than mediocre ones?

So in I jumped, working with a formula that the department chairs, grade leaders, and heads of the secondary and primary schools had created. We made classroom observations and assessed each teacher’s collegiality, commitment, and participation in activities outside the classroom.  Teachers were scored 1 to 4 in 20 different categories. The categories were weighted, producing final scores that fell into four ranges. Teachers who fell into three of the ranges would — when the plan went into full effect — receive bonuses.

Good thing it turned out to be a pilot program. We made some mistakes; we learned a lot; and we saw hope for the future.

What went wrong:

  • The logistics: The formula required two supervisors to be present for each class visit. Scheduling this was staggering.
  • The timetable: In an effort to come up with a score for each teacher by the time contracts for next year were distributed, the visits, post-visit conferences, and final scoring had to be completed by February. The rush was terrible, and both teachers and supervisors felt the process was over with the year just past the halfway mark.
  • The language: The mechanism used to assess the class visits and other categories scored the teachers 1 through 4, with 3 and 4 being “meets expectations” and “exceeds expectations.” When the scores were tallied and the coefficients applied, each teacher received a final score of 1 to 4. A quirk in the formula meant that some teachers who had received nothing lower than a 3 in any category received a 2 overall, which was described as not quite meeting expectations.
  • The chatter: I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised when the teachers shared their scores with each other. Despite the administration’s reassurance that everyone receiving a score of 2 to 4 was in the bonus range, conversation in the faculty lounge was angry and resentful.

What went well:

  • This first year was a pilot program, so we have a chance to fix our mistakes before money is at stake.
  • The goal was to reward teachers, rather than punish them.
  • The department chairs and other administrators have gone back to the drawing board to tweak — if not completely redesign — the formula and adjust the timetable.
  • The board decided to pay out performance-based compensation in the form of a bonus, rather than adjust the pay scale. This suggests a fluid system that will adjust to the talents, needs, and desires of the community — including the board — rather than the other way around.

What we’re working on:

  • The purpose and shape of the class visit: Is the goal of an observation to help a teacher improve or to assess a teacher’s practice at a single moment? At this international school the European faculty’s expectations for classroom observations are quite different from the American faculty’s. The Europeans are used to outside examiners doing a one-shot observation. The Americans expect more give and take, feedback in the form of suggestions for improvement, and second and third visits if necessary. As the single American department chair, I am in favor of unannounced observations. The European department chairs think teachers would mutiny if the observations were unannounced. We are still working on compromises.
  • What exemplary practice looks like: The formula we are developing does a pretty good of describing what it means to meet expectations. Do we have to paint a picture of what it looks like to exceed expectations? Or is that vision also partly the responsibility of the teacher?
  • Language: We need something other than 1-4 (Bluebirds, Canaries, Egrets, and Robins, perhaps?) for the final categories. I’m embarrassed at how much we underestimated the faculty’s sensitivity to the numbers and labels we used.

The successes give me hope that a fair, well-organized and compassionate performance-based compensation system is possible.

But if there is a teacher at my school in favor of performance-based compensation, he or she has yet to make that opinion public. And I think that’s a pity. It breaks my heart to listen to teachers who received final scores of 3s and 4s talk about how the system is terrible for morale. How can it be good for anyone’s morale to know you’re being paid the same as a person who received a 1? (For the record, there were very, very few 1s.)

This coming year the stakes will be higher because teachers will receive an end-of-year bonus based on their score. I hope we will iron out the kinks in the formula, that teachers will begin to notice that the system is encouraging rather than punitive, and that morale will improve as teachers feel rewarded for going above and beyond, or even just for being very good at their jobs.

What would it take to make a performance-based pay scheme work in the public schools? Tying bonuses or pay scales to test scores is the easy and cheap path, but I believe teachers will and should fight that plan with everything they’ve got. It takes hard work and experimentation, but at my school we’re on the verge of developing a system that takes into account a wide range of teaching skills and practices, not just outcomes. Having seen what it took to muddle through a pilot year in a small independent school makes me wonder if a large public system has the heart — or the resources — to develop a way to reward the good teachers, the ones who give and give and give, the ones who nurture their students, inspire their colleagues, and who would do it with or without merit pay.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.