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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

That teacher is Josue Tamarez, who is making an $82,000 base salary and enough in bonuses to bring his total pay up to $94,000. But he’s in his eighth year at Dallas ISD, including three years in Blanton Elementary, an ACE school. (A spokesperson for Abbott indicated the governor meant Tamarez had spent three years at an ACE school.)

“I think I was an effective teacher,” said Tamarez, now a teacher at Cesar Chavez Early Learning Center, newly an ACE school. “At the same time, I knew it would have taken me years and years to make a decent amount of money.”

How do you find the most effective teachers to put in front of students in low-performing schools? Dallas ISD uses an existing merit pay system, which rates all teachers based on student feedback, observations of their classes and student standardized test scores. The higher the rating, the more money a teacher makes, with a $90,000 base salary for the highest rated, who are labeled “master teachers.”

District administrators then recruit the highest-rated teachers to their ACE schools, sweetening the deal by offering bonuses of $8,000 to $12,000.

Tamarez is considered an “exemplary” teacher, just below the highest rating. The average Texas teacher with six to 10 years of experience is making $52,056, according to state data – nearly $30,000 less than Tamarez’s base pay this year.

Educator advocacy groups that oppose incentive pay for teachers worry that rewarding some teachers and not others – especially without an increase in average base pay – would create a toxic environment that prevents collaboration. Some also argue that using standardized test scores to determine salaries promotes focus on test taking in the classroom.

“We do not believe teachers should be paid based on their students’ standardized test scores,” said Louis Malfaro, who heads the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the loudest critics of merit pay.

‘Begging to stay in class’

Titche Elementary had failed state ratings for 11 of the last 12 years, despite multiple efforts at improvement, when Dallas ISD administrators decided to implement ACE there last year. Just a quarter of students were reading on grade level in 2017, and even fewer were on grade level for math.

Facing the potential of forced school closure, the district pumped about $1 million into the school to replace 92 percent of its teachers, hire a new principal, beautify the campus, extend the day by an hour and offer free after-school meals to all students. Since then, the percentages of Titche students passing state reading and math tests have soared, bumping the school up from a failing to passing state rating.

After next school year is over, at the end of the three-year ACE run, Titche will no longer have staff bonuses or the extra hour of instruction, but administrators will continue the additional investment in staff and hope the upward trend will continue.

“These schools have really been known to be failed schools. And if you really have ownership in the district, you wanted that to change. You just didn’t know how to make it change,” said Principal Damien Stovall.