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Oregon Schools Test Bonuses For Teachers

One of the most cherished holiday traditions in many work places is the end-of-year bonus check - at least in good economic times. But there’s one large group of workers that doesn’t usually get extra pay at the holidays: teachers. Now, for some teachers in Oregon, that’s changing.

Six Oregon school districts paid out more than $2.7 million in bonuses this year. The payments are required by a federal grant – called the Teacher Incentive Fund. The money can’t be spent in other ways, like hiring teachers.

Salem-Keizer paid out $1 million in bonuses. Bend-La Pine spent $850,000.

“I think that the whole conversation around teacher compensation has been pretty locked up for a long time,” said Sue Hildick, the president of the Chalkboard Project – the organization managing the federal grant.

Hildick says the federal grant is one way to explore alternatives to the seniority-based pay system.

“What we want to see is a conversation about new models of compensation that really reflect a teacher’s leadership roles, their knowledge, and their impact on kids,” she said. “And I think that’s hard to argue with – but we don’t quite know what that path is.”

Teachers and principals can earn the extra pay in two ways: as individuals, if they’re evaluated more favorably than their peers, or if they work at a school where test scores improved more dramatically than at others.

Pat Weidmann is the principal at Calapooia Middle School, which received a school wide performance bonus. He shared the results at a staff meeting this week.

“And ended it with that we had tied for one of those awards. And we celebrated,” Weidman said.

“I don’t know if celebrating is the right word,” said Kathleen Sundell – the president of the teachers’ union at another participating district, Salem-Keizer. She was describing her members’ reaction to the bonuses.

“It’s nice to have the extra funds, especially since the salaries have been cut with furlough days,” she said. “But as far as thinking, ‘This is wonderful, it’s something that’s going to be there every year, and we’re really going to work for it,’ not so much.”

The Teacher Incentive Fund’s inclusion of “merit pay” has sparked controversy. The merit pay issue ultimately forced the Oregon City district to pull out of the fund. Salem’s union leader, Sundell, says her teachers agreed to participate to make a point.

“Well, we looked at it as ‘it’s an action research project, and we’re going to prove them wrong’ – that the money didn’t really matter.”

The middle school principal in Albany, Pat Weidmann, says his teachers weren’t cheering for the money. He says they cheered the reason they were getting paid: their students’ improved achievement.

The incentive fund covers 55 schools in Oregon. So not every school in the six districts involved are included. Individual awards ranged from a few hundred dollars upwards to five-thousand dollars for teachers. Bonuses for principals ranged higher.

Weidmann says even the teachers at participating schools – like his – aren’t thinking about the incentives. Albany teachers got checks based on their individual evaluations, last summer. “I got some phone calls and emails over the summer when all of a sudden they noticed the bonus in their paychecks for those that qualified for it. It was like ‘I didn’t realize that was going to be there – that’s cool.’ “

Bonus compensation isn’t the only experiment in the federal grant. It offers stipends to teachers who take on leadership and mentoring roles. Administrators say the “value-added” data system used to judge school performance provides good information.

And Cheryl Hultberg, with the teachers’ union in Albany, says the grant improved teacher evaluations. Principals now visit classes more often. And now, they don’t make appointments.

“Sometimes it seemed a little staged, in some instances,” Hultberg said. “Maybe it would look a little different knowing that someone was coming, versus they drop in. What does the real classroom look like?”

Strong evaluations often led to bonuses. Not for everyone. No individual bonus for Weidmann at Calapooia Middle School. That’s because principals at other schools received higher ratings.

“Huh, huh. Yeah, I was disappointed,” Weidmann said. “But I wasn’t disappointed with my evaluation. I thought my evaluation was fair. But you don’t know really what’s going on in all the other buildings.”

This is the first year of payments under the Teacher Incentive Fund grant. There’s federal money to cover two more years. After that, the money might be gone, but school leaders hope the better evaluations, new roles for teachers, and data systems will remain.

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