Sunday, May 21, 2000

CPS teachers weigh merit pay plan

Some concerned about possible bias in evaluations

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        As teachers in Cincinnati Public Schools gathered in break rooms or chatted in hallways the past week, they questioned the district's new performance-based pay plan with a fervor usually reserved for their students.

        And while many teachers haven't decided whether they'll approve it, these ini tial questions show that union and district officials have a hard sell coming this summer.

        “Who specifically is going to do the evaluations in the classrooms, and how can we make sure this is fair?” asked Jan Closs, a Withrow High history/English teacher who has been in CPS since 1983 and a teacher for 34 years.

        “We need to take a long, hard look at this before we vote on it.”

        Many teachers expressed the same skepticism, with concerns focusing mainly on how the system can avoid bias against teachers based on such things as race, union or personal politics, age and the quality of their students.

        Other teachers are almost cynical when theorizing that the district will intentionally keep down evaluation scores to save money.

        Those in favor and opposed alike wondered how a performance-based pay system will impact the inner workings of their schools, especially when teachers and parents know what teachers earn.

        “We never thought it would be easy,” said CPS associate superintendent Kathleen Ware. “But this system will be far more objective than any other system we've had ... and we think we can make it work.”

        The CPS board on Monday unanimously approved the new system, in which administrators and trained peer evaluators rate teachers in 16 different areas.

        Those scores then are applied to a pay scale, and teachers would be evaluated at least every five years — every other year if they choose. In the non-evaluation years, teachers do a self-appraisal and pick areas where they need work.

        The system is the first of its kind in the country, although it still needs approval from the 3,600-member Cincinnati Federation of Teachers before it can be implemented. That vote will take place in early September.

        Heading into what will likely prove to be an interesting debate on the plan, many teachers expressed doubt that the evaluation forms remove subjectivity.

        “What we're looking at is payback time,” said Withrow High philosophy teacher Rick Johnston, who helped run a furniture company for 11 years before entering teaching in 1985.

        “As a former businessman, I support the idea of getting paid for the work you do, but in this district, people will get either re warded or punished based on their previous relationships, and we're blind if we think otherwise.”

        One of the main concerns for teachers at Pleasant Ridge Elementary, one of 10 schools that has been testing the system for the past year, is that they will be judged on how well their students do — not on how well they teach.

        “It's like golf, but we're not getting any kind of a handicap,” said Donna Kinney, a 17-year kindergarten teacher. “There are schools like Walnut Hills where you can throw books at kids and they get As, and here you have to work harder to get less results.”

        Another of Mrs. Kinney's concerns is that principals already overworked will either ignore pending evaluations or rush through them. She said she has yet to receive hers, although it was due to the district May 15.

        “CPS historically implements new ideas before everything is in place, and make the rules up as they go along,” Mrs. Kinney said. “If the same goes with this, well, they're messing with people's lives and salaries.”

        Pleasant Ridge assistant principal Bonita Henderson said the overall response to the plan has been favorable, although she admitted that her main problem has been added paperwork.

        “But it's worth it when I've got teachers coming up to me saying that some of the things the evaluation makes them do makes them a better teacher,” Mrs. Henderson said. “My momma was a teacher, and if she had this sys tem, she wouldn't have gotten an ulcer the way she did.”

        CFT president Rick Beck said the union will be watching the five-year phase-in of the plan closely to monitor any patterns based on race, age or school location.

        Despite the overall skepticism, several teachers remained in favor of the plan, including Withrow High drama/English teacher Laurence Boyd.

        “A young ambitious teacher deserves a reward and encouragement, and shouldn't be told he has to wait 20 years before he can make a decent salary,” Mr. Boyd said. “The bottom line is that there are teachers who are not good teachers, and this helps us identify and purge them as well.”

        Veteran special education teacher Amanda Bowers has been meticulously adhering to the plan as part of the test, conducting her own self-evaluation — mostly 3s and 4s, the highest grades available.

        She hasn't yet seen the evaluations done by both her supervisor and a lead teacher, although she said her peer evaluator has given her positive feedback.

        “I cannot fathom that,” said Mrs. Bowers, when asked what her reaction would be to a lower-than-expected evaluation score. “But I guess anything is possible.

        “All I would ask for and any teacher would ask for is to be informed throughout the process. I haven't made a decision on it yet, but if they can promise that, they'll have won half the battle.”

Many schools look at teacher rewards

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