More than 3,000 top teachers will benefit this week from what Gwinnett school chief J. Alvin Wilbanks considers a “revolutionary” way to reward top classroom performers.

Does Gwinnett bonus plan penalize teachers in high poverty schools? 

District says it worked hard to create fair, teacher-focused process

Gwinnett County Public Schools devoted a lot of time and effort to creating a teacher bonus process that would be fair.

Yet, some teachers are questioning whether the bonuses were skewed to teachers at more affluent schools.

As my AJC colleague Arlinda Smith Broady reported today, more than 3,000 top teachers will benefit this week from what Gwinnett school chief J. Alvin Wilbanks deems a “revolutionary” way to reward top classroom performers. 

Many revolutions have causalities, and teachers at poor Gwinnett schools contend it’s them.

First, here is how Broady describes the complex bonus criteria: 

Based on performance during the 2018-2019 school year, the awards will be distributed Wednesday in a one-time payment. In all, 3,144 teachers representing 138 schools will receive $12,377,863.68. There are three levels of awards: $6,208.80, which is 10% of the average teacher salary; $3,725.28 (6% of the average teacher salary) and $1,862.64 (3% of the average teacher salary). Those payments are above the pay scale implemented last year, which gives automatic salary increases for education attainment and years on the job, a type of teacher pay system many school districts use.

The criterion given the most weight is teachers’ annual performance evaluation. The next most heavily weighted metric is student growth, measured by comparing baseline-setting tests at the beginning of the year to end-of-course tests. Student growth is only a factor on one of the two paths to the performance bonuses, however, because teachers in some areas may not have enough students tested to provide a significant average.

Gwinnett established two pathways to the bonus pay to ensure that “as many teachers as possible are eligible,” said Jeff Matthews, assistant superintendent for leadership development. “We used a very deliberate, teacher-focused methodology that was validated by internal and external parties to make sure that it’s sound and fair.”

So, what is the problem?

“Most of the teachers getting raises don’t teach in high poverty schools,” a teacher told me. She said she and her colleagues at a school attended by kids for whom English is a second language are discouraged their efforts and challenges went unrecognized.

Janet Brown-Howard, the CEO of Gwinnett Professionals for Human and Civil Rights, told the AJC: “Many teachers in some Title I schools believe they are at a disadvantage from the beginning. They feel disrespected and unappreciated for factors beyond their control that influence student performance.”

School board member Everton Blair supported the Gwinnett bonus plan but told Broady the formula is problematic, explaining:

Because the formula includes a measure that prioritizes overall school assessment, it could encourage teachers to move to higher performing schools. It also furthers the stigma that lower quality teaching is happening at certain schools, which we know does not even begin to broach the significant and concentrated challenges that our most dedicated teachers are facing at Title I schools.

Gwinnett teachers are taking to the social media platform Reddit to vent. Fueling the discussion is a detailed breakdown of the raises by the data-savvy spouse of a Gwinnett teacher, who concluded that teachers assigned to wealthier areas are more likely to receive a bonus. For example, his calculations show nearly half of teachers Brookwood High School earned raise and more than a quarter are getting the largest bonus.

He contends: 

A brief look appears that Brookwood, Grayson, Mountain View, & North Gwinnett made out like bandits, while South Gwinnett and Shiloh came out on the bottom. South Gwinnett, despite having roughly 460 eligible teachers, only received 3 Tier 1 Bonuses (0.65%) compared to North Gwinnett that had 120 out of 495 Teachers get the Tier 1 Bonus (24%).

Take a look as the 84 comments are enlightening. 

Teacher bonus and merit pay efforts are often divisive. There are also questions about whether such incentives improve student outcomes. 

meta-analysis by researchers at Vanderbilt concluded that merit pay programs had a modest positive effect on student test scores, equivalent to adding three additional weeks of learning to the school year.

The Vanderbilt analysis cautioned: 

Not all merit pay programs yielded equal results, however. Program impacts varied depending on the design of the incentive pay scheme. For example, merit pay programs rewarding teams of teachers produced an effect almost twice as large those rewarding merit raises on rank-order. That finding lends support to the shared nature of teaching and learning in schools.

Educator Peter Greene addressed merit rewards in a Forbes essay this year where he said the premise behind the concept is insulting:

It imagines a world of teachers who sit at their desk thinking, "I have the perfect lesson for effectively teaching pronouns right over there in my filing cabinet--but I'm not going to get it out until someone offers me a bonus."

Merit pay for teachers has been tried many times over the last several decades. It never works. It doesn't raise test scores, or improve teacher attraction and retention. It doesn't improve morale. A district can garner better results by spending the money to raise base wages, or to decrease class sizes and provide other supports for classroom teachers.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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