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.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.