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Teachers question test bonuses

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet staff
Tuesday May 08, 2001

For meeting or exceeding state goals for improved standardized test scores, most Berkeley schools and teachers will divvy up more than half a million dollars in award money in the weeks ahead. 

Twelve Berkeley schools will receive awards ranging from $30,000 to $95,000, depending on the number of teachers at the school. Half the money goes to staff bonuses of $591 apiece, while the other half goes directly to the school to be invested in academic programs. 

So how are the chronically underpaid teachers celebrating the windfall? 

At Jefferson, Malcolm X and Thousand Oaks elementary schools, and possibly others, most teachers plan to reject their respective $591 bonuses in protest. 

“I plan to give the money to CalCARE (a grassroots group opposed to the way standardized tests are used in the state) because I want to make the strongest possible statement against the whole system,” said Thousand Oaks third grade teacher Terry Fletcher. 

For Fletcher and many other teachers throughout the Bay Area, the California standardized testing system was offensive enough before the test results became tied to monetary awards under the 1999 Public Schools Accountability Act.  

The heavy emphasis on the test results as a measure of school success has skewed the whole teaching process, the argument goes, causing teachers to “teach to the test” and abandon other classroom activities that are more rewarding to students.  

“I’ve had to drop projects that maybe were time consuming, but are very meaningful to students,” said Fletcher. The third grade teacher said she spends hours teaching her students simply how to understand the test format, when she might have been teaching the actual concepts instead. 

Frustrated teachers also frequently point to research that suggests the tests are a better  

indicator of a student’s economic status and race than the quality of instruction from one school to the next.  

So why on earth, these teachers want to know, would the state of California institute merit pay based entirely on this one, completely suspect measure? 

“That SAT 9 is a very good test,” said Patrick Chladek, manager of the awards unit for the California Department of Education. “It measures educational achievement.” 

Chladek said the School Site Employee Performance Bonuses, as they are called up in Sacramento, are intended to award teachers for a job well done and create a general incentive for improved test scores. Nearly 70 percent of California’s 3,000 schools will benefit from the awards this year, Chladek said. 

(A one-time only program, the awards are based completely on schools’ improvement in standardized test scores between 1999 and 2000.) 

But Berkeley teachers have their own theories about the motives behind the program. 

“This is kind of an effort to buy our compliance with these tests,” Fletcher speculated Monday. 

“It’s union busting,” said Jefferson school physical education teacher Judi Doyle. “It goes against collective bargaining, which is the way we get paid...It’s pitting school against school and teacher against teacher.” 

At Malcolm X school the teachers are most upset by the suggestion that their colleagues at schools that will not receive performance awards, because their standardized test scores failed to improve sufficiently, are any less deserving than other Berkeley teachers. 

“It’s definitely an unfair and divisive practice,” said Malcolm X teacher Jennifer Adcock. 

At a recent staff meeting, Malcolm X teachers indicated overwhelmingly that they would like to see their bonuses put into a pool from which they would be redistributed equally to all Berkeley teachers, Adcock said.  

Even Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School Principal Neil Smith, who looks forward to spending half of his school’s $95,000 award to boost the reading and math programs, admits to being mystified by the legislators’ logic in designing the awards program.  

“How can so much rest upon one test?” he asked. 

Berkeley Federation of Teachers President Barry Fike agreed. 

“If you want to hold teachers accountable, you do it by ongoing and constructive evaluation in the classroom,” Fike said Monday. “But that’s not happening.” 

If the $591 bonuses aren’t sufficiently egregious for some, teachers point to yet another award program under the 1999 Accountability Act, which sets aside $100 million dollars in awards for those schools whose test scores improve most dramatically from one year to the next. Berkeley’s Cragmont Primary School ranks 22 among these schools, having miraculously improved its state Academic Performance Index rating by more than 100 points (on a scale of 1 to 1,000) from 1999 to 2000.  

Cragmont teachers, administrators and counselors will likely receive bonuses of $10,000 apiece for this feat, some time before then end of the current school year. 

“It brings to clarity the absurdity of the situation,” Adcock said of these bonuses. 

Berkeley School Board President Terry Doran said he would like to see the awards go to the school district, rather than to individual teachers. 

The state’s emphasis on standardized testing may not have made Berkeley teachers teach to the test so far, Doran said, but a “race for bonuses” under the awards program could make such an outcome all but inevitable. 

“It’s hard for a teacher to resist doing that if a colleague from another school gets a $10,000 bonus and they don’t,” Doran said.