Teacher's Pet Peeves

The state's new teacher incentive program has had unintended consequences.

A state program that was intended to boost student achievement in low-performing schools by giving teachers extra money is instead creating confusion and dissension. And nowhere is that being felt more than in Denver, which is home to the highest number of struggling schools in Colorado.

"It was a misguided attempt to provide incentives. Legislators don't understand how education works," says Janet Draper, who teaches English to Spanish-speaking students at the Arts and Cultural Studies High School, part of the old Manual High School. "Whether the intent was to divide teachers or not, that's been the effect."

The incentive program was created in the final week of last year's legislative session as an addendum to a lengthy education-reform bill; it set aside more than $50 million over four years for schools that are rated by the state as "unsatisfactory" or "low" because of their scores on the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP).

Janet Draper teaches English at Manual's Arts and Cultural Studies High School.
James Bludworth
Janet Draper teaches English at Manual's Arts and Cultural Studies High School.

The bill, which was quickly signed into law, laid out four possible scenarios that each school district -- in conjunction with teachers' unions -- could use to spend the money: give it to outstanding teachers; use it to attract teachers who have a Masters Certificate from the Colorado Department of Education; use it to hire or retain teachers in hard-to-recruit subject areas; or, in communities without affordable housing, offer it to teachers to help them defray living expenses.

In February, Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) reached an agreement specifying that DPS would spend its share -- by far the largest chunk, at $3.7 million out of the $12.6 million available this year -- to reward teachers with Masters Certificates and to hire or retain teachers in hard-to-recruit subject areas, which the state defines as math, science, special education and "linguistically diverse education."

DPS and the teachers' union defined that last subject area as Spanish instruction in the district's English Language Acquisition (ELA) program. Although the law set the minimum bonus at $1,000 and established no maximum, DPS and the DCTA capped the bonuses at $5,000 and decided to let individual schools decide exactly how much to give each teacher. Schools themselves can also choose whether to spend the money on recruitment or retention, to give it only to certain eligible teachers or to give it to teachers who have a Masters Certificate, which is different from a master's degree.

But instead of gladly accepting the extra cash, which came courtesy of Amendment 23 -- the ballot initiative voters approved in November 2000 to increase school funding -- many DPS teachers are questioning the value of those dollars. "It might make a few teachers less disgruntled, but it's not enough money to make someone leave a job in the private sector to come teach. It's a token amount," says Draper, who isn't eligible for the bonus since she teaches English, rather than Spanish, in the district's ELA program.

"I feel that if an entire school is working to bring a school out of the 'low' category, the fair way to allocate the money would be to split it among all teachers," says Robert Parker, a kindergarten teacher at Fairmont Elementary School who is taking a break from the classroom this year to supervise student teachers. "I don't have a clear understanding of why they'd choose one group of teachers over another."

Phil Wade, a seventh-grade reading teacher at Baker Middle School, doubts the money will have its desired effect. "There are so many strings attached that it's not going to do kids any good," he says. "Our school's focus is literacy, and everything on the CSAP involves reading and writing -- even the math portion. It's not fair that it's only going to certain teachers. We all have the same kids.

"I find it unconscionable that the union would go along with this," adds Wade, who belongs to the DCTA. "They should have said, 'Screw this; it's not equitable.'"

According to DPS spokesman Mark Stevens, that wasn't an option. "In order to get the money, we needed to come up with a plan. It would have been a tragedy to have money to support teachers and then not use it," he says.

"I feel it was a bad law. They made it so it was not equitable," adds DCTA president Becky Wissink, explaining that the law was especially restrictive because it applies only to licensed teachers.

She and Stevens say their hands were tied by the strict parameters of the law and that, given such limitations, they came up with the most flexible plan they could.

Deborah Fallin, spokeswoman for the Colorado Education Association, a labor organization that represents 35,000 educators and faculty members in the state, agrees. "All of those things Denver teachers are complaining about are in the law. It's not the district's and the DCTA's fault," she says.

Rather, she blames the legislature. Because the incentive plan was developed in such haste, she believes, it wasn't well conceived. "This was pulled together in the last three days of the session, and districts didn't get anything in writing until November 14," she points out, referring to a memo the Colorado Department of Education mailed to districts explaining how the program is supposed to work. "Some districts got the check when they got the memo.

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