Following an outcry from teacher organizations, Charleston County School District officials have asked the Department of Education for a slowed-down timetable on a controversial program that will use student standardized test performance to evaluate teachers. The Department of Education has not yet replied to the request.
The program, called BRIDGE (it's not an acronym for anything, just BRIDGE), is a professional development model for teachers and principals. Consultants who are helping to set up the program for the district were hired via a $23.7 million federal Teacher Incentive Grant. CCSD was the only district in the state to receive such a grant.
For the 2013-2014 school year, BRIDGE is only a pilot program in 14 low-income Title 1 schools across Charleston County, and salaries will not be affected during the pilot. But under the current timetable, the district plans to "implement performance-based compensation structure in all CCSD schools" in 2016-2017, according to documents provided by the district.
Each year, once the program is rolled out, teachers will be evaluated based on classroom observations (35 percent), the state-administered Assisting, Developing, and Evaluating Professional Teaching program (30 percent), and something called individual value added (35 percent). That last component, which uses a complex formula to compare students' performance with those of their peers in classrooms of similar demographics, is the part that has drawn intense criticism from state and local teacher advocacy organizations.
State law requires that schools give teachers annual pay increases based on years of experience, and teachers who earn master's degrees can also expect to see a bump in their salary. Some teachers and advocates worry that those promises, which were recently broken when state legislatures waived the law during tight budget years, will be broken once BRIDGE takes full effect.
Monday afternoon, CCSD Superintendent Nancy McGinley held a meeting at the district office with 19 teachers who had voiced either support or disapproval of the BRIDGE program. Among them was Patrick Hayes, a third-grade teacher at Drayton Hall Elementary School and founder of EdFirstSC who has been railing against the proposal in e-mails to his supporters. He described the meeting as "a very authentic conversation on all sides," but he says he's still concerned about the effects of BRIDGE, particularly because early grant application documents indicated that the school district intends to stop paying teachers for years of experience and advanced degrees.
"At times, we have been encouraged to ignore this and focus on the fact that this is a pilot year and that nothing has been finalized," Hayes said in a press conference Monday. "But the fact that that is the blueprint that we're starting from is of great concern, as is the extensive record of failure of merit pay initiatives around the country."
But McGinley says the details of BRIDGE are not yet set in stone, and plans will be made with input from teachers.
"In the grant, it talks about ... in the fourth and fifth year of the grant that the district would move away from that recognition of teacher experience and advanced degrees and to reward a value-added measure," McGinley says. "What has not been decided and remains to be discussed is, where does the school board stand relative to the future? And are they talking about existing teachers? Are they talking about teachers who are new to the system? Many of those questions have yet to be explored and discussed, and they need to be thought through thoroughly with the teachers and their concerns out in the open."
Nationwide, merit pay schemes have met mixed success. District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee set up a merit pay system in D.C. schools and resigned in 2010 after catching heat for firing 200 teachers based on student performance. A broad-based 2013 study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (PDF) showed that student achievement gains on standardized state tests can be used as a reliable measure of teacher effectiveness. But a 2011 Harvard study by Roland G. Fryer looked New York City's $75 million teacher incentive pay program that started in 2007 and found that, "If anything, teacher incentives may decrease student achievement, especially in larger schools."
One teacher in favor of BRIDGE spoke at the press conference Monday: Amanda Hobson, a personal mastery facilitator at Charleston Progressive Academy. "I think the TIF grant is written in a way that supports student growth, which is ultimately what we need in Charleston County and across the nation," Hobson said. "Because a teacher's main responsibility is to educate her students, evidence of student learning should be reflected, and we should be looking at that in evaluations."