APS Revives Bonus Program

Atlanta Public Schools is once again tying teacher and principal pay to student performance as are five more metro Atlanta school districts. The others are Cherokee, Clayton, DeKalb, Gwinnett and Rockdale counties, according to the Georgia Department of Education.

Atlanta’s last performance-pay program ended in 2011 after state investigators found evidence of widespread cheating.

Thirty-five former Atlanta district employees, including former superintendent Beverly Hall, were indicted last year, accused of a conspiracy to cheat on state standardized tests. Prosecutors allege they boosted scores to meet performance targets in part because, for many, bonuses and raises were tied to the targets. Twelve former employees are on trial now.

“You wouldn’t think they would do that, considering the last debacle they had,” attorney Gerald Griggs said. He represents teacher Angela Williamson in the cheating trial.

Setting up a performance-pay plan was required under the federal Race to the Top grant Atlanta and the other districts received.

Bonuses under Atlanta’s new program will be based on Georgia’s new educator evaluation system. It bases half of a teacher’s overall job rating on student academic growth, measured by state or local tests, and half on classroom observations. For principals, 70 percent of the rating is based on student academic growth and progress in closing the achievement gap among various student subgroups and 30 percent on observations.

Under the old program, bonuses for school employees were based primarily on meeting targets for changes in state test results from year to year, according to a 2011 state investigative report.

Here’s how Atlanta’s new program will work:

• Teachers who score in the top 10 percent districtwide on the new evaluation system will receive $2,500. Principals and assistant principals will receive $2,300. (The average Atlanta teacher salary is $58,640. The average principal salary is $100,051.)

• Teachers with a top rating on classroom observations but who don’t have a rating based on student test scores will receive $2,500. (A teacher might have only one of the two evaluation components because, for example, the teacher is new or has been on a medical leave.)

• Any money left over will be distributed in bonuses of at least $1,000 to teachers who score among the top 11 to 30 percent on the new evaluation system.

For teachers of subjects covered by state standardized tests — about 30 percent of teachers — half of their evaluations will be based on the previous year’s test scores, because of the timing of state data releases.

District officials estimate 400-500 teachers and about 20-25 administrators will receive bonuses under the program, which will be overseen by Chief Human Resources Officer Pamela Hall.

Atlanta was required to launch the new performance-pay program because it accepted some of Georgia’s federal Race to the Top money, a decision made before superintendent Meria Carstarphen was hired. The $1.6 million performance-pay program is funded entirely by Race to the Top.

All 26 Georgia Race to the Top school districts plan to launch performance-pay programs, according to the Georgia Department of Education.

These scattered programs are a dramatically scaled-back version of the comprehensive performance-pay program Georgia promised in its application for $400 million in Race to the Top money. Georgia’s failure to fully follow through on that promise led the U.S. Department of Education to withhold $10 million in grant money.

The Atlanta school board has not identified a way to fund the program after this year or made it a priority for next year’s budget.

The program’s short term calls into question whether it’s a wise allocation of resources, said Matthew Springer, director of Vanderbilt University’s National Center on Performance Incentives.

“It’s hard to say if this program will bring any changes, given that it’s only being implemented for a single year and it’s treating teachers differently based on whether they teach in a tested subject or grade,” he said.

And, as Atlanta has learned, any performance-pay program has the potential to incentivize the wrong behavior.

Carstarphen said district staff are working with teachers and principals to identify ways to improve instruction and prevent bonuses from being the sole driver of their work. But she said she isn’t sure how the program will play out.

“It’s an opportunity and it’s a risk at the same time to do merit pay in APS without having a chance to rebuild the culture and work with people to understand how careful and thoughtful they have to be about how they do this in the classroom,” she said.

Attorney Angela Johnson represents teacher Pamela Cleveland, one of the 12 on trial. Johnson said the case against Atlanta teachers isn’t about pay for performance. Some of those indicted received bonuses less than $500. Eight didn’t receive bonus money.

“I don’t think it’s an issue with the teachers. Why would they throw away a career for $500?” she asked. The bigger issue, she said, are the bonuses superintendents can earn as test scores rise.

Hall collected more than five times as much bonus pay as the other 34 original defendants combined. In all, Hall received more than $580,000 in extra pay in the dozen years she was superintendent. The contract the Atlanta school board signed with Carstarphen earlier this year does not include performance bonuses.


Race to the Top Districts

Twenty-six school districts will pay out educator bonuses this spring: Atlanta, Ben Hill, Bibb, Burke, Carrolton, Chatham, Cherokee, Clayton, Dade, DeKalb, Dougherty, Gainesville, Gwinnett, Hall, Henry, Meriwether, Muscogee, Peach, Pulaski, Rabun, Richmond, Rockdale, Spalding, Treutlen, Valdosta and White

Source: Georgia Department of Education

Atlanta performance-pay plan

APS will allocate $1.6 million in Race to the Top money in three tiers:

  1. Bonuses of $2,500 (teachers) and $2,300 (principals and assistant principals) to those scoring in the top 10 percent on their overall job ratings.
  2. Bonuses of $2,500 to teachers who receive a top rating on their classroom observation but do not have an overall rating.
  3. Any remaining money will be distributed in bonuses of at least $1,000 to teachers who score in the top 11-30th percent on their job ratings.

By Molly Bloom
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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