By Heath Jones
I love my school, my administrative team, my colleagues, and my students. I am proud to work for Gwinnett County Public Schools. I believe GCPS truly strives to support teachers and do what is best for students. Nevertheless, that does not mean that I agree with every decision, strategy, or policy decision that they make. I have opposed this program from the start, but I have always tried to be rational, thoughtful, and factual in my rhetoric.
I believe I work in one of the best schools, in one of the best school systems in the country. The teachers, administration, and staff in our building are some of the most caring, hardest working, and generally best people I know. Lastly, I am not a disgruntled employee. I am a teacher who is passionate about my profession and I LOVE my job. I believe that public schools are one of the most foundational and vital elements of our society, culture, and country. We must get it as right as possible for our kids. So, with all of that being said, here goes…
Our school system announced three years ago that they would be implementing a new teacher incentive program known as Teacher Performance Awards. An evaluation instrument was developed to score teachers on their performance and their students’ achievement in their classrooms.
These scores would be used to rank teachers across the system and within each school. There would be three levels of award. Roughly $6000 would go to the top 10% of teachers across the system based on their evaluation score (Category 1). After this 10% was taken off the top, the next level award of $3750 would go to the top scoring 10% of teachers within each individual school (Category 2). Finally, the next 10% of scores (11%-20%) within each school would receive $1800 (Category 3). A minimum of 20% of the teachers in every school would receive some award.
Some schools did not have any of its teachers selected for the system level award, meaning only 20% of their teachers received an award. To keep the awards within the planned budget, scores were taken out to 6 decimal points. That would be to the millionth of one point. A millionth of a point would be the difference between thousands of dollars for teachers. It’s one thing to miss receiving an award by 10, 4, 2 or even .5 of a point, but can you imagine missing out on an award because you were 1 millionth of a point below the cut line? I can only imagine that they carried scores out to this decimal point because it was necessary. So, there are surely some teachers who missed the various cut lines by this tiny fraction.
I am not a proponent of pay incentives for teachers, and I have made no secret of that to friends, colleagues, and administrators. I could write for days about why I don’t support this approach, but to save a lot of time I will summarize: Performance pay for teachers does not result in significantly improved outcomes for students. Just because I oppose this program doesn’t mean that I do not support my school system or that I am being critical of my employer.
I truly believe that GCPS places learning and achievement for all students at the top of its list of priorities. It has been justifiably recognized on numerous occasions as a model school system and for its educational leadership at both the state and national levels for the success of its academic programs. Part of the success of GCPS is that it continually looks for ways to improve teaching and learning. Sometimes a new strategy or program works, and sometimes it doesn’t. My personal belief is that this is not an effective strategy.
After three years of work to get ready to implement the program, each teacher in the system received a personal report of their final evaluation score and whether or not they had received an award. I found out that I had received a category 2 award meaning that I was in the top 10% of my school and would receive a $3,750 one-time bonus. Most of the teachers that I know could put that money to good use in their households. I have a daughter who will be graduating from high school this spring, so any additional money that our household can generate will come in handy.
Nevertheless, as I sat and stared at my computer screen looking at the report, I didn’t feel a sense of accomplishment or excitement. I began to wonder who else had, or had not, received an award.
Later that evening I ran into a few colleagues who taught at a nearby school and had not received an award. I did not disclose that I had received one, and mainly just listened to what they had to say.
My daughter had been in both of their classes, and they are two of the best teachers that she has had while in high school. I knew that they were outstanding teachers who routinely went above and beyond expectations to support their students. Their reaction would best be described as resigned disappointment. But it was also interesting to listen to the conversation.
In the reports that we get, we see our final evaluation score (out to the millionth of a point), and the minimum score needed to reach each of the three award levels. Much of their reaction was questioning how to improve their scores to reach the benchmarks.
What had their colleagues who had received an award done that they could learn from? The only problem is that the award winners are not publicly recognized. So, how can they know who the models are? Who are the exemplars that they could observe and learn from? It would require an additional blogpost to address this issue, but I digress.
I did not sleep well that night. I knew that I had received this award, but was now even more acutely aware that there were other teachers who were at least as deserving of the award, if not more so, than I was. Additionally, I was now the benefactor of an incentive program that I had vigorously opposed. The money would be perfect to buy the laptop that my daughter wants for college along with some recording equipment (she will be a music major), appropriate spirit wear for the new undergrad, and enough left over to put a little cushion in her bank account for the first semester, but I just can’t do it.
Many will call it insanity, but for me it is about my personal integrity. My father always taught me that integrity was about saying what you mean, and meaning what you say. If I believe what I believe about education and teachers, and I want to continue advocating for these principles, I can’t accept this money for myself. To my colleagues who may be reading this, please understand that I am not suggesting that what I did is what anyone else should do, or that teachers should not accept the awards. This was a personal decision that was right for me.
So, what did I do? After talking to my spouse and with her support, I decided that I would not keep the award for us. I wanted to use the money in a way that would directly benefit students and teachers at my school. When I arrived at school Wednesday (after confirming that the money was in my bank account, $3,100 after taxes), I went to our bookkeeper and wrote a check for $1,500 with the instructions that $1,000 be designated for the teachers that work with our students with low incidence disabilities (autism, cerebral palsy, vision/hearing impaired) and $500 would go to our art teacher. Specifically, the teachers would decide how to spend the money for the students in their classroom. I spent the remaining money on my own classroom. I teach music technology courses, and purchased supplemental software and digital audio equipment that students could use in the music lab to make music.
I think this would be a great performance incentive for teachers, and I think teachers would love it. Instead of giving cash bonuses to teachers, give them the same amount as a cash grant that they could spend however they like in either their classroom, department, or school. I believe that could really impact student growth and achievement in a meaningful way. Progress is seldom easy, but I have great confidence in our school system, community, administration, staff, and colleagues that we will continue to improve and get it as right as we can for our students.