By Abby Spegman

The Bulletin

Arriving at the end of a five-year experiment with federal backing to improve teacher effectiveness, local schools have done away with the most controversial aspect: paying teachers based on student test scores.

Back in 2010, Bend-La Pine, Redmond, Crook County and four other schools districts in Oregon were picked to share a $24.4 million federal grant, coordinated by the Chalkboard Project, a Portland-based education reform group. (Two districts, Lebanon and Oregon City, later pulled out.) The districts were already working with Chalkboard on its CLASS Project — for Creative Leadership Achieves Student Success — that looked at new models for teacher evaluations, professional development and compensation.

With the federal Teacher Incentive Fund money, the districts were able to introduce evaluations that involved more classroom observations and provide more support to teachers, including mentors and instructional coaches.

But the grant came with requirements that weren’t central to the CLASS work — namely that districts pay teachers and principals based on student achievement.

“That did change the landscape a bit in terms of what we set out to do,” said Lynn Evans, human resources director for Redmond School District. “In the CLASS model, that was the last component districts would discuss, and certainly the most controversial and challenging.”

Surveys of principals and teachers showed results from the grant work peaked midway and fell by 2015. In Bend-La Pine, teachers’ perceptions about the grant ended lower than they started.

In a report released last month, Chalkboard and the education research firm Education Northwest concluded: “(W)hile teachers felt strongly that leadership should be recognized with compensation, teachers were least likely to approve of compensation for the things that TIF awards: high observation-based evaluation scores and evidence of student growth. In other words, the levers used by TIF weren’t necessarily the right ones to motivate teachers.”

“There are so many variables that impact student performance on a high-stakes exam,” said Bend-La Pine Deputy Superintendent Jay Mathisen. “To start paying teachers for the scores on a single high-stakes exam is just not a good use of money.”

Only teachers and principals at two-thirds of Bend-La Pine schools were eligible for the bonuses under terms of the grant. When district leaders proposed making more people eligible (and paying for their bonuses out of the general fund), they faced opposition from the teachers union, which argued accepting what it considered merit pay would set a dangerous precedent.

“It was distasteful to folks that some people were getting bonuses and some people were not. … Some people said, ‘I got a bonus this year and I didn’t get it last year and I’m doing the same teaching. How does that work?’” Mathisen said.

While Bend-La Pine has done away with bonuses based on test scores, it has introduced a compensation model for new teachers that rewards professional development over years in the classroom and level of education. About 70 teachers are being paid using that model, which allows them to skip a step based on a positive performance review.

The district is also continuing a new mandatory mentoring program developed under the grant that matches first-year teachers with mentors. Grant money covered training for the mentor teachers and paid them for taking on that role, a cost the district is now covering.

Redmond has also ended the bonuses, though the practice seemed to have gone over better there, according to Evans. Teachers at four schools — Redmond and Ridgeview high schools, Terrebonne Community School and Vern Patrick Elementary School — were eligible for the bonuses, the last of which were paid in the fall.

“I think rather than a villainous concept, additional compensation and recognition of great performance turned out to be appreciated by most people,” Evans said. But after the grant ended, she said, “There’s no way we could continue to allocate funds for that.”

The district has continued with the new teacher evaluations developed through the grant. Administrators at all schools were trained to give these evaluations, and that training will continue.

Crook County has also done away with the bonuses, though it will continue with the new evaluations and a mentoring program there for new teachers. Unlike Bend-La Pine, teacher perceptions of the grant work rose steadily over the five years, according to Chalkboard.

“We picked up a lot of information about what works and what doesn’t work about how to rate teachers,” said Doug Smith, chairman of the Crook County School Board. “I don’t think we’re going to end up with a fund that says ‘Do good and we’ll pay you more.’”

— Reporter: 541-617-7837,

aspegman@bendbulletin.com

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