Teacher's Pet Peeves

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

"It hasn't worked out in reality the way the legislators had hoped," she continues. "In some places it's been divisive, but I don't think the legislature intended for it to be. It just hasn't been a particularly productive thing."

Of the 176 school districts in Colorado, 86 have low-performing schools. In those districts, there are 430 schools that need to make significant improvement, according to the education department, and 95 of them are in Denver.

Based on last year's CSAP scores, DPS had 74 low-rated schools and 21 unsatisfactory schools, giving it claim to the most funding in the incentive program. Trailing Denver was Aurora Public Schools, which had 33 low or unsatisfactory schools and got $1.3 million; behind Aurora was Adams 12, with fifteen such schools and $696,000. The amount of money each school gets depends on its number of students.

Although these districts got the bulk of the money, the majority of districts with low-performing schools are small and rural, and the law created unique complications for them. In some tiny schools, teachers in one of the hard-to-recruit subject areas also frequently teach other subjects that aren't eligible for the money. And for the many schools that got only a few thousand dollars, dividing it when the state had imposed a $1,000 minimum for each teacher wasn't possible. (The law doesn't require districts to use the money this year, so some may choose not to spend it just yet, Fallin says.)

State senator Pat Pascoe, who sponsored the bill, admits that the $1,000 minimum was a mistake, and she says she's seeking to correct it in Senate Bill 80, which she introduced this session. Still, she believes the law is a good one. "I don't think you can blame the state for [school districts'] narrow interpretation of the law," she says. "There was room in the bill because there were four criteria from which to choose. They could have chosen the affordable-housing option and divided the money among all teachers. I thought it was giving them the power and flexibility to do their own thing."

Wissink says DPS and the union didn't think it was necessary to use the money for living expenses. "In general, this is not a community that lacks affordable housing," she says. They decided against awarding the money to outstanding teachers because "it sounded too much like pay-for-performance, which we already have a pilot program for."

SB 80 also strikes the restrictions on which teachers are eligible for the money, Pascoe says. "If it passes, districts will decide how to spend the money, and some districts may allow faculty to decide."

But that could create even more problems. Maxwell Elementary School principal Robert Woodson thinks the law is equitable just the way it is. His school, located in Denver's Montbello neighborhood, has a "low" rating, and he welcomes the extra money; he needs to hire two Spanish-speaking ELA teachers and believes the bonuses will help attract them. He's also grateful that the district and the union agreed to disperse the money among teachers in certain subject areas; if it had been up to him to choose which teachers would get bonuses, it would have generated ill will, he explains.

"There's not enough money for every teacher to get $1,000, so how do you divide it?" he asks. "Am I supposed to say, 'You're a good teacher, you're not'? Then they'd be mad at me."

For now, the eligible teachers at Baker Middle School are considering pooling their bonuses to buy library books or school supplies. That way, Wade says, "Maybe we can actually do something for the kids with it."

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