Teachers Maria Ortiz-Garcia and Samantha Keaton had vastly different reactions when Fort Worth ISD announced it would take part in an incentive pay program that would allow some educators to have six-figure salaries.

Maria Ortiz-Garcia is a Spanish teacher at Young Women’s Leadership Academy of Fort Worth. (Contributed by Fort Worth ISD)

Ortiz-Garcia, who teaches Spanish, was excited. Keaton, a social studies teacher, was more skeptical. Keaton knew the hoops to jump through to be part of it would be high and almost certainly wouldn’t take into account the non-academic work it takes to make a whole student.

Ortiz-Garcia started to dig into the nitty-gritty details of the program. Her hope for an even higher salary dwindled.

“I started looking at it, and then it talked about time and (how implementing it would take) basically at least two years,” Ortiz-Garcia said, who stressed she supports the salary supplement system. “That’s when I lost interest.”

Despite their reservations, both Young Women’s Leadership Academy educators see the teacher incentive allotment as a boon for eligible teachers when it rolls out in 2023. The district will benefit, too. The statewide initiative, which districts must opt into, is a way to keep the best teachers in the classroom and attract some of the best educators to its schools to lift student performance in a district where only 35% of students can read at their grade level.

A stable staff at a school creates a better culture for students to make progress and learn, said Jo Beth Jimerson, associate professor of educational leadership at Texas Christian University’s College of Education.

“The fact that you have good quality educators staying in place where they can form positive relationships with each other and have a good school culture and form positive relationships with students and the community is already going to be a step in the right direction,” she said.

Incentive to stay in classroom

The incentive program was introduced in House Bill 3, the massive overhaul of the public school finance system that Texas lawmakers approved in 2019. Incentives are based on classroom observations and student growth in their performance on a standardized test. 

Districts can choose which exam, including the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, to determine its eligibility guidelines. Fort Worth ISD plans to use tests by Northwest Evaluation Association, administered three times a year, instead of the annual STAAR tests.

“The student growth measures sound wonderful, but they’re really tricky in implementation, and STAAR is even more challenging because you don’t have tests in every subject every year,” Jimerson said. “It takes a while to build up enough data for that to stabilize in any way, so it can be really off when you only have one or two years of data.”

The TCU education professor praised Fort Worth ISD for not selecting STAAR to base its incentive pay. The Northwest Evaluation Association tests provide more data to monitor students’ progress and show growth within a single academic year.

Besides testing and classroom observations, the teacher incentive allotment — funded entirely by the state — also considers whether an educator is at a campus serving economically disadvantaged students or a more rural school. Depending on those factors, a teacher could receive even more money.

Teachers will earn one of three designations, which stay with them regardless of the district, from the Texas Education Agency based on those criteria.

The highest classification — and the one that would earn the highest amount of incentive dollars — is master. Teachers with that label could earn an additional $12,000 to $32,000. An exemplary teacher would get an additional $6,000 and $18,000. And a recognized teacher would see an incentive between $3,000 and $9,000.

The average base pay for a Fort Worth ISD teacher is $62,422, excluding supplements, such as those offered for additional degrees. With the teacher incentive allotment, it is possible some teachers could have annual salaries north of $80,000, $90,000 and even $100,000.

Samantha Keaton is a social studies teacher at Young Women’s Leadership Academy of Fort Worth. (Contributed by Fort Worth ISD)

“It is to really honor those teachers who are performing well and entice them and hopefully incentivize them to keep them in the classroom,” Fort Worth ISD Chief of Innovation David Saenz said. “We need the best with our kids.”

Typically, teachers who want a better salary have to leave the classroom and become an administrator. Keaton, the social studies teacher, does not want to leave her students just to earn more money.

“I don’t want to leave the classroom. This is a way of incentivizing teachers who are good with kids, teaching, helping them learn and all of that stuff,” Keaton said. “This is a system that will hopefully keep them in the classroom, so we have stronger teachers in the classroom.”

Incentive rollout

Fort Worth ISD will spend the next five years rolling out the incentive program to teachers. 

During the upcoming 2021-22 school year, the district will collect data to determine which teachers will receive a designation. That information will then be sent to Texas Tech University to be validated. 

“We need the best with our kids.”

Fort Worth ISD Chief of Innovation David Saenz

“Since this is a statewide program, we have to have consistency in ratings to where a district wouldn’t inadvertently start making everybody distinguished just to get people paid or to recruit people,” Saenz said. “That’s why it takes longer; there’s a data validation piece.”

After that, the Lubbock-based institution will give the district a list of teachers who met the designation criteria.

“Texas Tech will review (Fort Worth ISD’s Northwest Evaluation Assessment data) to make sure we’re not over designating or under designating,” the innovation chief said. 

The first eligible batch will be third- to eighth-grade math and reading teachers who could have their designations by the spring 2023 and have their first payout when the 2023-24 school year begins in August of that year. More groups of teachers will be added annually.

“As we move forward, we’re going to have to, of course, expand to high school; we’re looking at measures for that. We haven’t decided what we want to do there yet,” Saenz said.

The district will likely use the STAAR test for courses that have it. Other courses, such as physical education or fine arts classes, don’t have a test. Part of why the district has such a long rollout is to find a way to evaluate teachers in non-tested courses. That is a concern for Ortiz-Garcia and Keaton, who likely will have to wait years before they are eligible for the incentives.

“We want to make sure that we include … as many teachers as possible and if not, all,” Saenz said. “All is our goal. But that means how do we measure the P.E. teacher? How do we measure the art teacher? How do we measure these other teachers that don’t have a (Northwest Evaluation Assessment) test or state standardized tests.”

Implementation must be thoughtful

Students in classrooms without protective screens wear masks. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Jimerson pointed out a flaw with a system like this is that it is hard to pinpoint which teacher is boosting a student’s performance. Good students take a group effort to create. Each subject works with the other to amplify lessons students need for a successful education and life.

“That’s one thing I’ve seen on our campus: P.E. to our kids and being successful in P.E. is just as important as being successful in reading,” Keaton said. “All classes are held at an equal level because you couldn’t take the eighth grade social studies test without being a strong reader.”

Rewarding one teacher over another can de-incentivize collaboration in a school, Jimerson said. 

“Because if I help my neighbor, I might not get the reward that I need for my family, and even in some extreme cases, it incentivizes cheating,” the education professor said. 

Another potential downside to the program could be teachers might be insulted by the use of more money to make them work harder. Teachers are trying their best and doing what they need to do, Jimerson said.

“That’s why it’s really important any kind of merit pay system pairs outcome measures with inputs like professional growth activities. Community engagement and involvement is a metric that could be wrapped into this,” the TCU professor said. “If I am going to root in a community and serve those students, how else am I being involved in that community? Or am I just driving in, doing the job to collect a check and leaving?”

Incentive programs, she said, have to be set up in a thoughtful way so those negative practices are not rewarded. Fort Worth ISD seems to be on the right track to avoid those issues, said Jimerson, who spent 13 years in Texas schools.

“If it’s not thoughtfully implemented, we may just be throwing money at systems and not getting a lot of results,” Jimerson said. “The devil is always in the details with policies and program implementation.”

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter.

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Jacob Sanchez

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. His work has appeared in the Temple Daily Telegram, The Texas Tribune and the Texas Observer. He is a graduate of St. Edward’s University.

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