bonus points

New York City officials cool to Cuomo's teacher merit pay proposal

PHOTO: Geoff Decker

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s new proposal to help districts pay top-performing teachers more didn’t immediately find any takers among officials from New York City.

In his State of the State address today, Cuomo proposed a “Teacher Excellence Fund” that would allow districts to give $20,000 bonuses to teachers who earn the top rating on their annual evaluations. The bonus amount, which is more than a quarter of average teacher pay in the state, is enough to make teachers work harder, he said.

“You want teachers to perform … then incentivize performance with performance bonuses and pay them like the professionals they are,” Cuomo said.

Such a program could be expensive for the state. About half of teachers in districts outside New York City earned the “highly effective” ratings last year, the first in which the districts offered the designation. Cuomo did not specify how he would pay for the program.

But Cuomo signaled that not all districts would immediately participate in the program, which could curb costs. He also said districts would decide with their unions how to apportion the funds, leaving the possibility open that criteria other than evaluation scores could factor into decisions.

Local leaders signaled that they are unlikely to entertain the possibility of implementing a merit pay program in New York City.

Speaking at a press conference after Cuomo’s address, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he thought teachers should get bonuses if they take more challenging assignments, such as a job in a struggling school with many low-income students. But he said he was not interested in rewarding teachers for top ratings or for improving student achievement on tests.

“I believe it’s appropriate, for strategic reasons, to give bonuses, for example when we have teachers work in some schools that are really struggling,” de Blasio said, reprising comments he made on the campaign trail.

And UFT President Michael Mulgrew reiterated the union’s longstanding stance that a “career ladder” that pays experienced teachers more to help newer colleagues would be preferable to a program that rewards teachers based on their annual ratings. The UFT has criticized the city’s implementation of its new teacher evaluation system, which went into effect this school year.

“First you have to be a highly effective teacher,” Mulgrew said about teachers who would climb the proposed ladder. “But you also have to be able to communicate and work well with other teachers because part of your job would be to help them develop.” 

Despite the weak prospects for local implementation, advocates of overhauling how teachers are paid immediately embraced the proposal.

“With his bold announcement of the Teacher Excellence Fund and $20,000 bonuses for highly effective teachers, Governor Cuomo has positioned New York as a leader in the national education reform movement,” said StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis.

Merit pay has not been shown to boost student performance. A recent $75 million teacher merit pay initiative in New York City ended after it did not lead to gains for students.

But while little evidence exists that financial incentives make teachers better, a more recent experiment, the Teacher Talent Initiative, suggested that incentives could lead top teachers to head to struggling schools. The program paid $20,000 to teachers who were most effective at improving student achievement to take jobs in struggling schools for at least two years, and over 90 percent stayed there even after the extra pay stopped, according to a recent study. The study showed that students’ test score gains ranged from modest, in reading, to significant, in math.

Cuomo’s policy book, released to accompany his speech, suggests that he’ll follow the Talent Teacher Initiative playbook. It stresses that one way districts can design incentives is by creating higher-paying jobs in struggling schools — exactly the possibility that de Blasio said he would consider.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede