Governor raves about Dallas ISD teacher incentive pay program. But it’s hard to replicate.

ALIYYA SWABY | 3/11/2019, 12:12 a.m.
When third-grade reading teacher Natasha Boone told her peers she was considering a job at Titche Elementary School, a chronically ...
Natasha Boone high-fives a student while going over a story in class at Edward Titche Elementary School in Pleasant Grove. PHOTOGRAPHER: Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson CREDIT: The Texas Tribune Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson

The Texas Tribune

When third-grade reading teacher Natasha Boone told her peers she was considering a job at Titche Elementary School, a chronically low-performing school known for its low test scores and rowdy classrooms, they all asked, “Why?”

But now the Dallas Independent School District teacher is making around $70,000, including a bonus, to work in a school that she’s helped to meet state academic standards, teaching students who wriggle excitedly before answering questions and stand when they want to speak.

Boone is one of more than 400 teachers participating in a Dallas ISD initiative to turn around chronically low-performing schools by flooding them with the best resources for three years – most importantly, the highest-rated teachers and principals. A 13-year teaching veteran, she is earning a salary at Titche higher than that of the average Texas teacher with more than 20 years of experience.

By many measures, Dallas ISD’s Accelerating Campus Excellence initiative appears to be working, turning around Titche and 11 other schools that were previously failing state ratings – and turning lawmakers’ heads in the process. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has repeatedly celebrated it as the pathway to getting more top-notch teachers in public schools, and lawmakers will likely include it in some way in the school finance reform measure this session.

But as the state Legislature prepares to discuss how to get other school districts to replicate ACE, advocates and superintendents in other districts are already resisting a program that could use test scores to determine which teachers get more money and opportunity. And educators in districts different from the massive, urban Dallas ISD question how ACE-like programs would work in their schools.

Doug Williams, superintendent of the three-campus Sunnyvale ISD, not so far from Dallas, told lawmakers at a recent hearing that his tiny district is too small to put some teachers on track to a much higher salary and not others.

“We believe that our teachers learn best when they learn from each other and when they share ideas and they spend time together,” he said.

Collaborative planning “would shut down if teachers get into a system where they feel like they’re having to compete against each other for additional funds or additional income,” he said.

Recruiting top teachers

Average teacher pay in Texas is in the middle of the pack compared with other states, and experienced teachers report their opportunities for career advancement are limited unless they leave the classroom to become administrators. Lawmakers this session are eyeing potential solutions that could help school districts recruit and retain talented, engaged teachers.

One of the biggest cheerleaders for Dallas ISD’s ACE initiative is Abbott, who has traveled the state touting its success and included it in his proposal for how to improve public schools.

“We must provide incentives to put effective teachers in the schools and classrooms where they are needed the most,” he said in his State of the State address early last month. “The teacher pay system used by Dallas ISD shows this strategy works. When I visited Blanton Elementary in Dallas, I met an outstanding teacher who was only in his third year and already making more than $90,000.”