Some teachers wary as Gwinnett sets out to reward its best

More than 3,000 top teachers in Gwinnett County Public Schools will soon benefit from what their superintendent calls a “revolutionary” effort few school districts undertake, to regularly give the teachers who teach best more pay.

It’s an idea often discussed or urged as a means to get and keep the best teachers. But it arouses suspicion and opposition from teachers wary that “pay for performance” would be based on factors that don’t truly reflect the quality of their work — mainly test scores. And some say Gwinnett’s plan puts teachers in high-poverty schools at a disadvantage.

“We sought to develop a system that benefits teachers and increases the district’s ability to hire the best and brightest for our schools, while also encouraging the very best teachers to stay in Gwinnett,” said Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks. “We believe our compensation system, and specifically the Performance-Based Awards will provide greater opportunities for both existing and new teachers.”

No teacher will see a reduction in pay because of the system, he said.

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.”

But not everyone sees it that way.

Janet Brown-Howard , the CEO of Gwinnett Professionals for Human and Civil Rights, a county-based nonprofit, said she received several teacher complaints about the plan, including that “they have no recourse when they receive an evaluation that is underrated or unfair.”

She said the “performance awards have left many Gwinnett County teachers with a feeling of discouragement when they received a zero for their award amount. 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,” said Brown-Howard, the former president of Gwinnett NAACP.

Title I schools have a high percentage of low-income students.

One elementary teacher said, according to Brown-Howard, “The awards suggest that teachers who work in Title I schools are not top teachers. We work the hardest with the hardest to reach students. That effort receives minimal rewards!”

School board member Everton Blair echoes that complaint. Although he voted for the merit pay, Blair doesn’t believe the system is fair.

“The formula is problematic on multiple fronts. 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,” he said. “This reminds us of the separate and unequal nature of challenges in our public systems today.”

He said, “I’m all for rewarding teachers for doing a great job and giving them their much-deserved praise. But a system of recognition and monetary compensation should serve to encourage equity and not further exacerbate inequities. I would prefer a framework that rewards our teachers who consistently choose to take on the most challenging and hard-to-fill areas (like in special education, non-AP/Gifted education, English learning, math in upper grades, reading in early grades) and provides them with deep professional opportunities that scale their excellence and commitment to quality teaching and learning across the district.”

Equity was a concern as the district developed the plan, said Sloan Roach, a district spokeswoman. “Many groups expressed lingering concerns about whether the compensation model would favor the already highest-performing schools and inhibit collaboration within schools if only top teachers across the district were to receive awards.

“This feedback, along with the core beliefs that there are great teachers in every school and that individual schools have different characteristics and clientele that make them unique, convinced Mr. Wilbanks and district leaders to structure the performance-based awards to recognize not only the district’s top performers, but also the top performers in each school. This is why the district established three categories of teacher performance.”

Another worry, perhaps more acute in metro Atlanta since the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating scandal, is that pay-for-performance tied to test scores creates an incentive for dishonesty.

Gwinnett says it has checks and balances to prevent that.

“Administration guidelines are in place that must be followed and signed off on by all teachers and administrators … If there is an anomaly found, it is reported to our Division of Human Resources and a thorough investigation is completed,” said Roach.

Wilbanks contends the award system isn’t perfect, but with very few school districts offering additional pay for above-average performance, he said what Gwinnett’s doing is to be commended, not condemned.

“We feel we have made an excellent start on a teacher-reward system that states loudly and clearly that we appreciate our teachers and their work. That said, we know that in this first administration of the awards we may identify ways to further improve the system.”

And if the budget allows, he hopes to increase the amount of the awards and expand the percentage of teachers who receive them.

“The district was able to accumulate and reserve this amount annually over the three-year implementation period. Savings of budgeted dollars allowed us not only to accrue the annual amount required to fund the (performance based awards) within the current operating budget, but also to accumulate a small reserve earmarked for future sustainability of the awards program,” said Roach. “Our initial goal is to plan to recognize approximately 30% of our teachers each year, knowing that will cost a little over $12 million annually.”

Where Georgia teacher pay ranks

According to, a data collection agency that focuses on employee compensation, the average Georgia public school teacher makes $56,911 annually. That’s within a wide range $49,685 to $65,702, but higher than the state average for all workers — $52,749. Advocates for increased teacher salaries argue that doesn’t include extra hours — sometimes working 10- and 12-hour days as well as weekends. Nor does it factor in advanced degrees and mandatory professional development training.

Performance pay plan vetted

Gwinnett County Public Schools provided this information about these outside groups that helped validate its Performance-Based Awards

The District Management Group: DMG works with 147 school districts in 27 states to help bring about measurable, sustainable improvements in student outcomes. DMG was provided with the business rules and technical requirements for the awards system, as well as the raw data used in calculating awards. They developed their own calculation model, and it matched the district’s internal calculations 100%.

IBM: The district’s strategic partner served as a third-party evaluator for the student growth metric calculations, redeveloping a calculation model for this specific metric. It also matched the district’s results 100%.

Technical Advisory Committee: A group of measurement and testing experts that meet regularly with the district to share current research and best practices in areas of testing and measurement. They are a combination of university faculty and measurement consultants. During the development of the awards system, the TAC suggested analyses that could be used to examine the fairness, reliability, and validity of outcomes. They reviewed the results of those analyses, providing suggestions and determining that the level of review in Gwinnett was comparable to the analyses used for state accountability systems found in some state departments and better than those found in others. After repeated reviews of results, they continued to conclude that there did not appear to be any systematic bias.

Source: Gwinnett County Public Schools

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