Divisive incentive

Critics say lawsuit by Sacramento teachers highlights problems with paying educators for high test scores

Teacher Scott Oltmanns doesn’t teach for the money, but was nonetheless disappointed to hear he wasn’t getting the big bonus promised to teachers who raised test scores.

Teacher Scott Oltmanns doesn’t teach for the money, but was nonetheless disappointed to hear he wasn’t getting the big bonus promised to teachers who raised test scores.

Photo By Jill Wagner

Jedediah Smith Elementary School in Sacramento isn’t surrounded by aesthetic beauty. The building—white stucco with blue trim—is simple. Instead of attractive landscaping, the children’s play areas are bordered on one side by a large lot filled with piles of debris, and a noisy freeway on the other. The surrounding neighborhood is a mix of industrial buildings and low-income housing. A large public housing complex faces the school entrance.

Nevertheless, teachers at the school pride themselves on being hard-working. For them, teaching 450 at-risk children in less than ideal surroundings is a labor of love that’s not always reflected in dollars and cents. So when they heard they could be rewarded with up to $25,000 each for a job well done, they were ecstatic.

Scott Oltmanns, a second-year teacher at Jedediah Smith, was particularly excited when he heard the news. Driven by an infectious zeal common to most new teachers, he simply loves teaching fifth-graders. The award money to him was a welcome recognition of that commitment to making a difference, as well as a way to get out of debt.

“I have a wife in school, a young child, and I want to get my master’s degree,” Oltmanns said. “[This money] could have allowed a cushion to continue our education. For others, it would mean getting rid of an old car and getting a reliable one, or putting a down payment down on a house. Teachers aren’t generally paid a lot, though that’s changing now.”

But the recognition of Oltmanns and his colleagues turned into a snub when they learned they were deemed ineligible to receive a portion of the $100 million allocated under Gov. Gray Davis’ Certificated Staff Performance Incentive Awards program. The program was modified in December by the California State Board of Education to require schools to show two years of improved test scores, instead of just one as originally proposed.

Rather than passively accepting their loss, the teachers filed a lawsuit and received a temporary injunction on Feb. 2 in the Sacramento Superior Court, plunging them into the center of a controversy that could hold up millions of dollars of award funds for teachers across the state. A hearing to decide the matter is set for March 23.

While the judge’s ruling allows the state to process the bonus awards, they cannot be sent out. Davis spokeswoman Hilary McLean said the governor believes the awards program is fair and equitable and hopes the legal matter will be resolved before the awards are scheduled for distribution in late spring.

But for California Teachers Association (CTA) board member Paula Caplinger, the lawsuit is proof that such programs are divisive, pitting teachers and administrators against one another in a way that sullies the educational environment. She explained that the State Council of Education, the policy-making body of the CTA, frowns on pay-for-performance for teachers and does not believe “it fits within an educational setting.”

Jedediah Smith sixth-grade teacher Michele Joyce has been teaching for four years. She also disagrees with monetary awards for teachers, but could not hide her disappointment about being denied her windfall. She and her husband had hoped to use the money to put toward purchasing their own home.

“This is pretty emotional for me. I’ll work as hard as I did before, but it takes the wind out of your sails a little bit,” she said. “I don’t really support monetary awards. … I went into teaching to work with children and share my talents with them. I teach to be with kids. I don’t teach to get a bonus award.”

It’s that genuine love for teaching that the CTA wants to preserve. Caplinger, who has been teaching for 29 years, was emphatic as she explained that the eligibility criteria for the awards are based on deceptive information. Students from one year are being compared with a group of completely different students from another year.

Caplinger said it’s ridiculous to give awards based on the score of one test, the Stanford Achievement Test (SAT 9), and to reward people who may have little to do with improving the scores of students that they inherited from teachers in lower grades. Educating students is a team effort over many years, not solo efforts by a handful of outstanding teachers, as the awards program implies.

But what is even more disturbing to Caplinger is that no one consulted the CTA to find out how the teachers felt about the governor’s incentive awards program. Despite that lack of communication, she said, “He knows we’re not happy about it.”

The incentive program was designed to attract teachers to under-achieving schools such as Jedediah Smith, which showed the third-highest test score gains in the state last year. But according to Doug Stone, spokesman for the California Department of Education (CDE), the state board decided that the new regulation would provide more incentive for districts with under-achieving schools to show sustainable multi-year growth which, in the long run, would be to their advantage. The CDE believes its position will be validated in court.

Whatever the motivation behind the regulation, 30 Jedediah Smith teachers equate it to a slap in the face. They insist the lawsuit isn’t about the money because they didn’t learn of the award until August, well after the school started working to improve student academic performance. But according to Title One resource teacher Terri Leach, for some, the money was equivalent to one year’s salary.

As a rule, teachers earn salary increases when they take courses to enhance their teaching. And for a new teacher such as Oltmanns, there’s added pressure to complete the academic requirements to replace your preliminary credential with a professional credential. This requires time and money.

For teachers such as Joyce, the bureaucracy designed to support teachers and the students they serve, has failed her. She said the lawsuit is really about fairness and not changing the rules in the middle of the game.

“It’s sad that it’s come to a lawsuit. I think they realized how much money was involved and they were scrambling for accountability to add on after. I think it’s kind of unfair,” Joyce said. “We did everything Gov. Davis said to do. We raised test scores—or rather the kids raised their own test scores—but it’s not good enough.”

It was principal Patricia Boyd’s commitment to getting the Jedediah Smith back on track that attracted teachers such as Joyce and Oltmanns. Boyd attributes the school’s phenomenal improvement to the staff’s renewed commitment to improving the academic performance of the students.

When Boyd was hired in 1998, Jedediah Smith was in deep trouble. In a school that is 97 percent minority, and where six languages other than English are spoken, students had come to expect teachers to leave in the middle of a school year.

“There were three different bosses in three years. We lost one-fifth of our teaching staff to illnesses like cancer and stroke. There was a lot of chaos going on and turmoil at the school,” said Boyd.

Boyd said schools have ups and downs, like any other organization. “Growth does not always happen year after year,” she said. “And no teacher or administrator would make scores go down on purpose.”

While the CTA supports the governor’s zeal for education, Caplinger said the organization wants to be more involved in developing programs that improve the academic performance of all of the state’s students. It would like to see the award money put into all schools because, as Caplinger put it, “Every school needs resources. The governor has good ideas and his heart is in the right place, but we want him to look to us as the experts in education. … We would like there to be more conversations before he enacts programs. We can help him work out the kinks. Unless you work with students every day, you don’t know what they need,” she said.

But until the matter is resolved in court, the teachers are putting their daydreams on hold. For Oltmanns, that means altering his lifestyle by moving his family out of a rented house and back into an apartment. It means having his wife work part-time in addition to attending college, and caring for their daughter. And it also means taking out student loans to finish their education.

As for Boyd, she hopes the judge will rule in their favor, but she believes there is a larger lesson to be learned here: "We just did what we asked our students to do. We teach our kids to do what’s right and stand up for what they believe in and that’s what we did. It would be nice if we could win, but if not, we can say we tried."