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Teachers wary of pay-for-performance legislation
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Some local educators are skeptical of new legislation that would link teacher pay to student performance and eliminate pay incentives for teachers studying to get advanced degrees.

Under Senate Bill 386, the state Board of Education would establish a statewide evaluation system to measure student performance over time and use the data to rate all school personnel, including teachers, principals and local superintendents.

The evaluations, called the Teacher Effectiveness Measure and Leader Effectiveness Measure, would be based on student achievement and performances of teachers and principals, but the bill does not lay out details on how students will be evaluated for progress. It leaves the task of creating an evaluation system up to the state board of education if the bill is passed by lawmakers.

The lack of details is troubling to some local school leaders, since the bill also says 50 percent of teacher salaries will be linked to their TEM rating.

“The issue with this Senate bill is there’s so many unknowns as to the quality of how a teacher effectiveness measure can actually be evidenced,” Gainesville schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said. “It’s hard to say if you can support that when you don’t even really know what it is yet.”

But leaving out details on the system is what strengthens the bill, since it gives the board of education until July of next year to work on a plan, Hall County schools Superintendent Will Schofield said.

“It says right up front we don’t have that measurement in place right now,” Schofield said. “Again, it remains to be seen how well that can be done. It’s a lot of heavy lifting, but I don’t think that’s a reason to shy away from the concept.”

To evaluate teachers and principals on a local level, the bill leaves that up to local superintendents who would appoint a group to study several factors of personnel performance. Among the factors listed in the bill: Teachers would be rated on observations made by principals during classes; whether they participate in professional learning development opportunities; and how they communicate with students, parents and colleagues at the school.

Another element will be in the hands of teachers themselves, who will provide anonymous peer evaluations for one another and for principals.

According to the legislation, schools who sign up for the federal Race to the Top program will begin using the system July 2013. A part of the terms of the $4.35 billion national grant would go toward implementing a pay-for-performance scale similar to that outlined in SB 386.

Both Gainesville and Hall schools have confirmed participation in the program if Georgia is selected. But current teachers will have the choice to opt out of the new system if it passes, said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen.

After Race to the Top schools are integrated into the new system, the state would then add schools on a rolling basis until 2015.

Only new teachers or teachers who leave the school system for more than 12 months and return to teach will be automatically enrolled in the performance-based system.

“There is no mandate that any current teacher outside Race to the Top teachers will be included in this,” Heath said in a phone interview Tuesday. “They can continue doing what they’re doing.”

Georgia teachers have a history of distrust with legislators, Heath said, but once the new system is in place and they can see firsthand whether it works or not, he expects more teachers will warm to the idea and opt in.

“Frankly, teachers are not very trusting because of the way they’ve been treated in the past. They are skeptical of anything that’s ever passed dealing with education,” he said. “It’s a hard sell. I understand why they feel that way, but I can’t walk away from something I think has merit because it’s a tough process.”

Still, raising eyebrows among teachers is that the bill also would eliminate pay incentives for those holding advanced degrees unless they are currently enrolled in a degree program or earned a degree before Jan. 27.

“From my point of view, at this time, an advanced degree that is a high-quality, highly respected degree has given teachers much more depth of experience and knowledge in their teaching than professional learning that may have been developed at their school-based level,” Dyer said.

Hall County teachers receive up to 10 percent pay increases per advanced degree, according to Steven Wang, president of the Hall County Education Association. The state currently shells out up to $600 million per year to teachers receiving higher degrees of education, said Georgia Association of Educators President Jeff Hubbard. And with online master’s degree programs becoming more and more accessible, the number of teachers piling up degrees is becoming costly for the state.

But Heath maintained the bill was not intended as a cost-saving measure but rather a means of better identifying high-performing students and personnel.

Teachers continue to speak out against it, rallying on social networking sites such as Facebook to form a movement against its approval.

The group “Georgians Against Merit Pay” has garnered more than 3,000 members and sent thousands of letters to lawmakers since its creation in mid-February.

“We feel like teachers aren’t the only factor that influences the performance of a student,” said Jody Wilson, graduate admissions coordinator for Piedmont College. “You have socioeconomics, family life and educational resources, and because of those other factors it’s really unfair to base a teacher’s pay off a performance of a student.”

Wilson said he hopes to rally about 5,000 teachers for a public protest in Atlanta later this month, but he is awaiting approval from the state for the protest.

Schofield said teachers worried about the legislation have no need to be concerned.

“I just don’t believe they have a legitimate concern because they can opt out. They can stick with the current plan if they like,” he said. But he added that he has “mixed feelings” about the bill only applying to newly hired personnel and leaving it up to current teachers to opt in or out.

Heath said the goal of legislation is to create a system that rewards educators and inspires them to succeed.

“If (the system) is designed properly, we will able to show current teachers here’s what you would have made under the new proposal,” he said. “I think what you’re going to see is that certainly good teachers will say ‘I want to be over there.’”

The state Board of Education is already piloting a set of teacher and school leader evaluation systems at some districts, including Gainesville.

In Gainesville schools, where teachers deal with a vast number of high-poverty and minority students, the cards are stacked against them in terms of student performance, demanding much of teachers, Dyer said.

“We need our very strongest teachers, the teachers that can do the work in high-poverty schools, that can work with students with disabilities,” she said. “If their pay starts being tied to the test scores of those students, I’m afraid they’ll bail out. They’ll go to the easy place.”

But Heath said the fear of “mass migration” of teachers to more affluent areas with traditionally higher test scores is not likely.
Schofield agreed.

“The kind of people I’d like to hire are people that have enough self-confidence that they think they could do a good enough job teaching children that they’d actually be paid more,” he said. “It’s gonna give us an opportunity to attract the best and the brightest into the teaching profession and into Hall County.”

East Hall Middle School Principal Kevin Bales has seen his school’s performance on standardized testing watched heavily by the state and media after several years of not making Adequate Yearly Progress. The heightened attention has made teachers more aware of legislation and many have come to him worried about SB 386, he said.

“We’ve actually had many discussions among our teachers,” he said. “Their philosophy toward merit pay is they want to see it done right.”

“Our teachers here have been very alert to what’s been taking place in Atlanta and they’ve been very attentive to proposed legislation. They’re anxious ... at what they see now.”

The bill was read on the Senate floor last month and senators are expected to cast their vote after the General Assembly returns next week following a two-week recess to focus on the budget deficit.

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