Marietta’s “high stakes” proposal: Overhauling how teachers are paid

The tiny school system in Marietta is dipping a toe into a national controversy over teacher compensation, and might end up becoming a model for the whole state.

Georgia, the 2010 recipient of a four-year federal grant to establish education reforms, told the U.S. government this summer that it couldn’t follow through on a promise to link teacher pay to effectiveness.

But Marietta might go there.

Next year, the city district of about 8,000 students in Cobb County may stop awarding automatic pay raises to teachers who get advanced degrees. Officials would use the money saved to bump up the pay of teachers who take on more leadership roles within their schools.

Marietta is one of two school districts — the other is much larger Fulton County — given federal money to study teacher compensation. The money was distributed within the past year by state officials who see the two districts as ideal testing grounds for compensation overhaul.

Marietta and Fulton are charter districts, so they don’t have to follow the state formula for teacher pay. (Charter districts get organizational flexibility in exchange for meeting specific education goals.)

“Since they are not required to use the state salary schedule, they are a perfect laboratory to research and implement merit pay,” said Susan Andrews, a Georgia Department of Education official.

Rising costs and tightened public funding have forced school districts to reconsider how they spend. Salaries are a big slice of the pie.

Like many districts, Marietta pays more than the minimums set by the state, though the amounts vary broadly by the level of experience and education. A Marietta teacher with two years or less experience and a bachelor’s degree earns $38,500, topping out at $61,471 at the 30th year. A doctoral degree would add nearly $15,000 to the pay of a relatively inexperienced teacher and more than $26,000 to a veteran educator’s pay.

Education Resource Strategies, the Boston-area consultant hired by Marietta, recommended an end to automatic raises for advanced degrees. Instead, the school system should reimburse tuition and use the money saved to give bigger salaries to educators who take on extra assignments, such as coordinating teaching teams in their schools, the consultant advised.

This month, the Marietta school board authorized the superintendent to float the proposal among employees.

“What we’re talking about doing is freezing our teachers’ pay where it is today and taking away future guaranteed increases,” Marietta school board member Jill Mutimer said.

Fulton, which is employing the same consultant, doesn’t have a plan for the public yet.

Georgia officials are watching.

THE PROMISE

In 2010, Georgia, in partnership with 26 local school districts, won a $400 million federal grant known as Race to the Top. The prize, payable over four years, is designed to support new approaches to improve education, one being a pledge by winners to establish merit-based pay for teachers.

This summer, however, Georgia Schools Superintendent John Barge told federal officials that the state was not ready to implement merit-based pay by next year as promised. Marietta and Fulton were not among the 26 school districts in that mandate, but their money to study compensation is from the same grant.

Local school systems that had hoped to overhaul compensation next year are still wondering how to proceed. A big hangup is the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations, said Sloan Roach, spokeswoman for Gwinnett County schools, one of the original 26 districts in the Race to the Top partnership.

Proponents of using test scores say teachers should be held accountable for student performance. But critics say that’s unfair, given the influence of factors such as household income and parent participation. Another unresolved question is how to measure the performance of teachers in subjects such as music, for which the state does not test students.

Marietta is plugging along on its own. The plans for next year do not call for pay linked to evaluations, although that would come eventually, Superintendent Emily Lembeck said. It’s a financial necessity given dwindling tax dollars for public education.

The current model for paying teachers is “archaic,” Lembeck said, and doesn’t reflect how much — or how little — each educator does for students. New teachers encounter low pay and face decades of “step” increases. Pay based on effectiveness would allow higher salaries for deserving teachers earlier in their careers, she said.

Lembeck hopes to gather enough input from staff by October to begin detailing a compensation overhaul. She’d like to get a proposal to the school board for an up-or-down vote early next year.

THE PUSHBACK

The district may encounter opposition. In 2000, the American Federation of Teachers passed a resolution opposing “pay-for-performance schemes” for public schools.

“There is evidence to show that pay-for-performance damages the workplace atmosphere and quality of services,” said Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers.

Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said Marietta has a “high stakes” proposal. “Failure will take a heavy toll in potential employment legal actions, teacher morale and staff attrition, not to mention serious loss of faith on the part of the taxpayers,” he said.

Stephen Frank, a partner at Education Resource Strategies, Marietta’s consultant, said similar proposals have been put into effect outside Georgia, but conceded: “It’s just too early in these reforms to know what the long-term impact is going to be.”

Elizabeth Denney, who has three boys in Marietta schools, said it’s obvious to her which teachers work harder, and she’d like to see them earn more. “I want to throw flowers at them and say, ‘You’ve made such a difference in my kids’ lives,’ ” she said.

Denney said she is unsure how school officials can systematically measure such performance, but said the strong teachers stand out.

“Everybody knows who the good people are,” she said. “It’s really not a secret.”

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