Performance pay for teachers was promised by Arizona educators and state leaders when they asked voters in 2000 to approve a state sales tax hike to give public schools more money.
Now three years — and more than half a billion dollars later — critics say the promise has been broken: Too often, teacher performance pay in Arizona isn’t based on performance.
A Tribune review of pay plans for nine East Valley school districts found standards determining who has "performed" are rigorous in some districts, lax in others. Random audits of four school districts by the Arizona Auditor General found a similar range, as well as problems with some districts verifying the pay was earned by those who received it.
In October, the Scottsdale Unified School District fired the principal of Sequoya Elementary School because someone tampered with test scores to ensure Sequoya teachers received performance pay. The district didn’t discover the problem through its own review — but only because an assistant principal reported the discrepancies.
"None of that was the intent of performance pay under (Proposition) 301 in the public’s eye," said state Rep. Linda Gray, R-Glendale and chairwoman of the House Education Committee. "We need to set some guidelines. What the public expected has not been put in place."
John Wright, vice president for the Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, agreed that some state parameters are needed.
"The observation that the plans are all over the map is very accurate," Wright said. "It’s like comparing oranges and kumquats."
The union wants to make sure, though, that anything proposed by the Legislature involves multiple measures of student achievement — rather than basing performance pay on a single test score — and that it also takes into account a teacher’s leadership involvement at the school and demonstration of skills.
"I think the schools have lived up to their commitment of trying to put the best plans in place," Wright said. "But I also think that not all of the plans have met the outcomes we had hoped for. . . . A bad outcome has been all of the anxiety, frustration and throwing up of hands about what we can do, and in one or two schools, some manipulation of the results."
Proposition 301, a 0.6 percent increase in the sales tax, was approved by voters in November 2000 with the revenue earmarked for education. So far, public schools have received more than $567 million from the tax, including more than $226.9 million for performance pay for teachers, one of several accountability measures enacted when the tax was approved.
In December, a legislative committee will review the auditor general’s findings of how school districts are implementing Proposition 301. Based on the audits she’s seen so far, Gray said she will push for the Legislature to develop consistent standards for performance pay and consider requiring the money be based on how individual teachers — rather than schools or districts — perform.
Before and after Proposition 301 was passed, Arizona’s educators fought against having one statewide performance pay system. Their mantra: Local control is best.
"But if local control yields this incredibly wide set of differences, then it didn’t do what it was supposed to do," said Rob Melnick, director of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University.
Melnick served on Gov. Jane Hull’s Task Force for Efficiency and Accountability in K-12 Education in 2001. As part of the group’s teacher pay subcommittee, Melnick reviewed performance pay plans created by Arizona’s school districts.
"We were pretty mortified. It was all over the block," Melnick said. "Some require nothing, and then at the other end, you have a district like Mesa, with a very clear system and real requirements."
The Mesa Unified School District uses several different performance pay plans. Some teachers, for instance, participate in Career Ladder, a statefunded program that rewards them for classroom goals and career development.
Mesa also pays bonuses to employees based on customer service ratings by parents, students and colleagues.
But when it came time to pay teachers for performance using Proposition 301 dollars, Superintendent Debra Duvall was adamant the reward be based on one thing: Improving student achievement.
"Our goal is: You improve every year," Duvall said. "The reason we exist is so youngsters will learn. So when you talk about performance, you shouldn’t be talking about the actions teachers go through, but rather, the outcomes of those actions."
The principal of each Mesa school sets performance goals to be measured by Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards, the Stanford 9 Achievement Test or district tests.
The district office then reviews the goals to make sure each school has set a target that is appropriate. Sometimes, principals are told they set the bar too low.
Mesa teachers receive their performance pay based on school goals. In the Kyrene Elementary School District, teachers get the money based on district goals — goals that can decrease every year.
Kyrene’s plan states that the district must maintain or increase students’ achievement in reading, writing and math. But "maintain " is defined as "plus or minus 5 percentage points of comparison level," while "increase" is defined as "a simple numerical increase."
The Gilbert Unified School District is just starting to base performance pay on student achievement. Assistant superintendent Dave Allison said Gilbert opted to phase in a plan that would measure academic success.
"We wanted to give teachers a comfort level that we’ve thought it through," Allison said, adding that the district also wanted to wait and see how changes would shake out in Arizona’s accountability system for labeling schools. "I’m glad we didn’t just jump into it."
Currently, Gilbert teachers are required to help develop a school action plan that targets student achievement, identify and document a "classroom assessment," and provide an "evaluative reflection" on the action plan. For doing that, they receive a projected stipend of $930.
In addition, Gilbert teachers can participate in the district’s knowledge and skills program. Each teacher completing the 15-hour program receives a projected stipend of $620 — about $41 for each hour.
Also this year, Gilbert schools are conducting a "practice run" for how they will measure academic success, "but there will remain no requirement for any monies to be dependent upon the measurement," the plan states.
Starting in the 2004-05 school year, Gilbert plans to allocate a projected stipend of $390 — about 20 percent of performance pay — for a school’s academic achievement.
"Our plan is quite different than other school jurisdictions," Allison said. "Others went immediately into a measurement system. But I’m glad we phased it in. It’s worked out well."
Teachers at Mesa’s Dobson High School were shocked by the differences in what is required of them — and what is required of Gilbert and Kyrene teachers.
"I’ve been totally unaware that there are so many different ways that districts pay this money," said Melissa Bianchi, an English teacher.
English teacher Elizabeth Viator added, "It gets so complicated. . . . Pay me for the professional that I am, and if I’m not doing the job — fire me."
SMOKE AND MIRRORS
In the Chandler Unified School District, each school sets goals using the AIMS and the Stanford 9 tests, and then develops an implementation plan. Teachers get 50 percent of their performance pay if they complete requirements in the plan — even if the school doesn’t reach its goals.
They get 75 percent "based on approximation of goal completion or strong movement toward the goal." For example, if the school’s goal is to increase the percentage of students scoring above the national average on the Stanford 9 from the 68th percentile to 72nd percentile, and the students score at the 70th percentile — teachers get 75 percent of their performance pay.
The remaining 25 percent is paid if the goal is reached.
Assistant superintendent Susan Eissinger said the Chandler plan will change over time.
"We’re working on how we want the plan to look this year," she said. "I truly believe the way we’re using this in Chandler . . . is what voters intended."
In audits of two school districts — Buckeye and Sacaton — the state auditor general said officials did not adequately document that employees met performance measures or verify results.
"Requiring more significant student improvement, verifying that teachers’ selfreported results are accurate, and requiring teachers to meet some portion of their personal goals would strengthen the district’s performance pay requirements," the Buckeye audit states.
The Scottsdale district, which has not been audited yet for Proposition 301 spending, is beefing up efforts to verify results after doctored test scores allowed teachers at Sequoya Elementary School to receive performance pay that should have gone to other schools.
The governing board voted to fire principal Maureen Booth and she remains on paid administrative leave pending an upcoming hearing.
Spokeswoman Carol Hughes said she could not address specific questions related to Sequoya. But, she pointed out, the statement of charges against Booth states that after the district became aware scores were altered, it proceeded to do an internal investigation.
Before then, she said, "we hadn’t been doing a specific audit."
The Sequoya situation has prompted changes, however. Not only is the district now auditing all Scottsdale schools to verify past scores, it plans to beef up such efforts in the future, Hughes said.
"We’re in the third year of this experiment called Proposition 301," she said. "Everything is evolving."
Some business leaders say the experiment is failing.
Jim Perlow, vice president and general manager of Phoenix- based Jet Products Co. Inc., and one of many business leaders who have pushed for improvements in Arizona’s public school system, said Proposition 301 "hasn’t lived up" to its promises.
But he stressed that Arizona’s teachers are not to blame.
"Teachers want to do a good job," he said. "It’s the administrators that are the problem. They all want to go in their own direction with their own ideas."
The result, he added, is a "hodgepodge" performance pay system that lacks the accountability business leaders and the public were promised.
"It’s got so many smoke and mirrors, there’s no way to keep track of it," Perlow said. "And when there’s no way to track it, there’s no way to hold them accountable."