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Teachers Wrestle With Developing Pay For Performance Measures

Kevin Strawn align=left

Part two in a three part series from WFAE. CMS is working on a plan to pay teachers not based on longevity or degrees, but in part on how well their students perform on standardized tests. The district intends to evaluate teachers through other methods as well, like classroom observations and student surveys. There are a lot of questions: How much will the tests matter? How will students be surveyed? What other factors should be considered? Superintendent Peter Gorman says he can't give any firm answers because the measures are still being developed with the help of teachers. WFAE's Lisa Miller looks at who these teachers are and what matters they're wrestling with: Kevin Strawn teaches math at East Meck, so he's comfortable with numbers and he sees the value in statistics and tests too. But last fall his principal handed him three numbers that worried him. Twenty-seven, fifteen and eleven, as in the 27th, the 15th and the 11th percentiles. Those were his teacher effectiveness scores for the past three years based on how much his students improved on the state's standardized test. "I sort of said to him at the time, 'Well, you know, should I quit? Are you telling me I'm a bad teacher?' And his immediate response was, 'No, no, no. This isn't the only thing we consider," says Strawn. Strawn doesn't want to stop teaching. For him, it's a calling. He left his job at Duke Energy 11 years ago to become a math teacher. He knows there's room to improve. He just didn't figure there was that much room. But Strawn's willing to swallow his pride and acknowledge there might be something to these numbers. So when the district asked for volunteers to help design some of the pay for performance measures, he signed up. "I hoped I could come to an understanding of how the value-added system worked and that I'd be able to show that it has failures and flaws and shouldn't be used or be able to say, 'This is okay. You should consider it a valuable system,'" says Strawn. Pay-For-Performance FAQs But he still can't say either way. Since January, about a hundred teachers have been meeting regularly in small groups of about 10 to hash out the details of what will become the district's Pay for Performance plan. Each group is tasked with looking at a certain factor that will help determine teacher effectiveness like contributions to schools, classroom observations, student surveys, and the value-added numbers. Strawn is part of the value-added team. A value-added score is primarily based on how students perform on tests. But it takes into account about 40 different variables all with different weights. Things like the number of low-income students at a school, absences, class size, even the ratio of boys to girls in the classroom. During a recent meeting, CMS's Pay for Performance Director Andy Baxter fields questions from Cindy Rudolph, a biology teacher at Hopewell. "I think that comes back to did we buy a canned program that says this is the way it is or can we change it?" asks Rudolph. "No, we can change it," Baxter replies. The group has already suggested some changes. Since value-added numbers are relative to how other classes do, the group worries that could make competition cutthroat among teachers. So to promote collaboration they want the overall score of a school and, say, a department to count toward an individual's value-added score. That could help a low-rated teacher or hurt a high-rated one. "Yeah, I would want to see how am I contributing to my team," says Strawn. "It's like my score is going to look lousy, but I must be at the top of my team cause my team's score is way down here. I would want to be able to see that or vice-versa." The team can't change everything. No matter what the value-added score will factor into pay. We just don't know how much of a factor. Another design group will address that in the fall. This group knows their colleagues are watching closely. They've seen teachers and parents tell off Superintendent Peter Gorman and the board at meetings. Comments like: "I just want to say to you Peter Gorman, stop wasting people's time." "There has been a massive failure to garner stakeholder support for a pay-for-performance plan." One of them, Hans Plotseneder, has even been part of it. "I'm one of the teachers on the design board. I can tell you it's not working." Elementary teachers Colleen McQuade and Lisa Fulenwider say they have to ignore the commotion and focus on their task. "I think there's so much negative out there that we feel good in coming to these meetings and not having to talk about that," say McQuade. "I don't think any of us could sit here and say, 'She's for it. He's not.' We don't know, we don't ask. We're working on a specific part of pay-for-performance and that's what we're trying to make better." The test results in two years will be used to determine teacher pay the following year. And so it's a sense of the inevitable that goads these teachers to at least try and make these work.