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Patrick aide backs teacher pay overhaul

Challenges system of rewards in Mass.

US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings (right) visited Edward W. Brooke Charter School in Roslindale yesterday, where she looked in on second-grade classes and handed out copies of the book 'Horton Hears a Who' by Dr. Seuss. US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings (right) visited Edward W. Brooke Charter School in Roslindale yesterday, where she looked in on second-grade classes and handed out copies of the book "Horton Hears a Who" by Dr. Seuss. (Mark Wilson/Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / May 7, 2008

Governor Deval Patrick's top education adviser came out in favor yesterday of changing the way public school teachers are paid - backing higher salaries for those who take posts in the most challenging schools; who teach hard-to-staff subjects such as math, science, and special education; and who work in schools with dramatically improved performance.

In broaching the subject, Paul Reville, chairman of the state's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, challenged the long-held, union-supported pay structure that rewards teachers for longevity over actual performance.

"The larger challenge is to take on the monolithic pay notion and differentiate pay based on skill, knowledge, and assignment, and establish a concept that everyone doesn't have to be paid in the same lock step and lanes," said Reville, who will become Patrick's education secretary in July.

Reville stopped short of supporting merit pay for individual teachers based solely on their students' MCAS scores - long a subject of contention among educators and union officials - but provided the most detailed account to date of the administration's philosophy on teacher pay as a way to improve student achievement.

Faculty who work together to boost test scores, graduation rates, and attendance should be rewarded, he said.

The concept of rewarding individual teachers for improved test scores has long been supported by reformers, but drawn the ire of unions, which was the case again yesterday.

Anne Wass, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the largest teachers union in the state and a strong Patrick supporter, rejected any merit pay based on students' test scores - even if given to all teachers at a school. She also rejected the notion of singling out individual teachers for increased pay - even by subject area.

"We see it as a divisive force in the building, pitting teacher against teacher instead of helping all the students in the school," Wass said. "No one individual teacher really has control over a child's total life."

The only changes the union would support, she said, are increasing the salaries of all those in high-poverty, low-performing schools as an incentive for teachers to work there.

Patrick opposes merit pay for individual teachers but supports rewarding all teachers in a school that raised test scores.

Reville's more detailed comments are in line with this general philosophy, which Patrick outlined during his campaign, according to Patrick spokesman Kyle Sullivan.

Patrick is expected to unveil his plans for education reform next month. "Those ideas are consistent with the governor's approach to merit and are ideas worth exploring," Sullivan said.

Reville made his comments during a visit to Massachusetts by US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings that included a stop at the only school in the state that is participating in a federal pilot program that rewards individual teachers based on their students' performance.

Spellings also met with Reville and a small group of other education officials at the State House yesterday to discuss proposed changes to the federal No Child Left Behind law. Massachusetts was her 21st stop on a state-by-state tour to solicit feedback before amending regulations by the end of the year.

If schools are to improve the achievement of their lowest-performing students, they should get the best teachers into the neediest schools by rewarding them with higher salaries, Spellings said several times during her conversations yesterday. There is an increasing appetite for pay-for-performance discussions in Congress, she said.

"If you have a PhD with lots of experience, you're in 'Cream Puff High,' " she said, referring to a school with high scores and few problems. "If you're brand new, you're sent to a challenging school. It should be the other way around. We have to start putting our money where our mouths are when it comes to rewarding teachers."

The federal government has spent $99 million on teacher incentive grants in the last two years, issuing 34 grants for merit pay in 19 states. Half a dozen Massachusetts school systems and charter schools have applied for the money, including Boston and Springfield, but Edward W. Brooke Charter School in Roslindale was the only one that received it.

The money is not to be used for "combat pay," a term for teachers who work in high-poverty, low-performing schools, nor can it be used to pay teachers extra to fill hard-to-staff subjects, Spellings said. The grant will only reward teacher performance, either on an individual or school-wide basis, she said.

"This is a totally new vista in public education," Spellings said. "This is top performers getting more money. It's not just by virtue of assignment or locality."

The Brooke K-8 charter school used its $298,000 grant to award teacher bonuses based on a formula weighing school-wide and classroom MCAS scores, as well as teacher attendance. Student achievement was the biggest determinant of the bonus amount each teacher received, said Jon Clark, the school's executive director and middle school principal. The average bonus, he said, was about $3,000.

His teachers, who are not unionized, said the extra money made them feel appreciated, especially because at a charter school with extended hours, they work longer days than most of their regular public school counterparts.

Allison Friedmann, a fifth- and sixth-grade science teacher, said her $4,600 bonus made her feel more like a professional. In her previous job in the Chicago public schools, she said, "It was frustrating when teacher got paid solely for longevity and not their actual quality of work."

Her colleague Trish Kelleher, a fifth-grade social studies teacher who did not recall the amount of her bonus, said the extra money "shows that they respect and value us, and that helps motivate us to keep doing it."

Several other charter schools award bonuses to individual teachers whose students post significant improvements on MCAS, and Springfield is experimenting with a voluntary merit pay system that ties veteran teachers' pay to how well their students perform.

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.

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