Billie Earl Dade Middle School is one of several schools where a system based on merit pay for teachers has produced exciting improvements in learning.
Billie Earl Dade Middle School is one of several schools where a system based on merit pay for teachers has produced exciting improvements in learning.
Eric Nicholson

Merit Pay System Is Helping DISD Retain Its Best Teachers, With One Exception

Here’s a decent little window on the wars within our sprawling urban school district right now. The big news is stunning. The small news is infuriating.

A couple of weeks ago, Dallas school district executives gave the board of trustees a full, hard-numbers briefing on outcomes from the district’s 3-year-old teacher merit pay system. That’s the good news.

Dallas schools’ teacher merit pay program, maybe the most advanced and comprehensive of its kind in the nation, has been churning out exactly the results its proponents promised in the hard-fought, often bitter battle to put it into effect. Called Teacher Excellence Initiative, or TEI, the system is doing a great job retaining the district’s best teachers, and it’s doing a great job running off the worst ones.

That’s what it was always all about. When Mike Miles was instituting these reforms as Dallas superintendent from 2012-15, he operated out of massive, noncontroversial data from around the country and world: Teacher excellence or its lack is the most powerful factor in student success.

Sure, yes, where are the parents? The people who say that generally are the people who don’t like the parents. But, OK, let’s agree. Where are they? Now let’s agree we don’t know where they are. Most of us probably don’t want to know. Or they’re at home and they’re bad. Now what? Toss the kids in the dumpster? All we get for that is the next generation of horrible parents.

The data Miles worked used is from public and private schools all over the world where educators have been able to achieve startling results with kids from the most handicapped backgrounds, mainly by putting excellent teachers in front of them but also by getting rid of the worst teachers.

Miles found two big facts on the ground when he came to town from Colorado, neither of which would have surprised anybody who had been paying attention. One, the best teachers in the district were salted away in the system’s very few diverse campuses, where activist middle-class parents had successfully lobbied the system for the best faculties.

Two, there was no penalty for being a terrible teacher. All teachers were paid strictly according to the number of years they had taught. The pay raise for being a lousy teacher for 10 years was the same as the raise for being a good one.

TEI was designed to turn that upside down. It included a massive effort to identify the good teachers. Contrary to the slanders against it from opponents, TEI did not measure teacher excellence strictly according to test scores.

In fact, when Miles was designing it, he created an advisory task force of teachers and asked them how they would measure the effectiveness of their colleagues. The result was a comprehensive, multifaceted evaluation system that blended student test scores with classroom observations, peer assessments, student surveys and other measurements.

The goal, after measuring and identifying the good teachers, was to use pay incentives to steer some of the best to the toughest schools, a project the district is carrying out on an experimental basis with encouraging results. But before scaling up that operation, the district needed to attend to those two other goals — keeping the good teachers, running off the bad.

At its briefing two weeks ago, the board heard Superintendent Michael Hinojosa announce the results: TEI, he said, is ticking like a Swiss watch. The classroom retention rate for teachers in the highest category, called Exemplary II, is 99 percent. The rate for the lowest category, called Unsatisfactory, is 51 percent, meaning 49 percent of those teachers have vacated their classrooms.

The district also found a positive correlation between teachers' TEI scores and student achievement; it found virtually no correlation between teachers' years of service and student achievement.

“I think the debate is over,” Hinojosa told the board. “The data speaks for itself.”

In an obvious reference to critics who had claimed the new system would run off the best, brightest and most experienced teachers, Hinojosa said: “We cannot have legislation by anecdote. We cannot have a few people telling us how bad it was for them, but yet we look at how good it is for the system.”

His words were a balm for many who have worried what Hinojosa’s posture would be regarding school reform. He had been superintendent here before when he was brought back for a second crack at the Dallas job after the stormy Miles regime. From the outset of his second tour of duty, it was clear some elements in the business community, especially in the school construction industry, hoped he would bring a period of calm before the next bond election. He did.

Did that mean Hinojosa also would seek appeasement with the two main elements opposed to merit pay and school reform — the teachers unions, which view seniority pay as a holy grail, and the elected leaders of black southern Dallas, who see school reform as an assault on a jobs-oriented system of political patronage? They feel they won that system for their constituents through long social and political activism, and they don’t intend to give it up without a fight.

Plenty of people were determined from the beginning to kill merit pay and still are. When Hinojosa took over from Miles, the question was on whose side of that ditch he would ultimately stand. Looks like the merit pay side.

His words at the recent briefing could not have been clearer, nor could the data. In an eight-level ranking system, the two ranks just below the top are at retention rates of 95 percent and 96 percent.

The outcomes blow out of the water several doomsaying criticisms. The highest ranks in the excellence scale also are consistently the highest seniority ranks. So, yes, experience counts if you’re good. TEI is not a subterfuge for running off high-seniority teachers and replacing them with pliable greenhorns.

Seniority also counts if you’re bad. While most of the lower ranks on the excellence scale show a progression related to experience — higher seniority, higher excellence — the exception to that rule is the rank at the very bottom. The lowest rank on the excellence scale, Unsatisfactory, has almost twice the average seniority of the rank just above it, called Progressing I.

The nudge, the prod, the incentive to stay or go is in the pay rate. Under the old system, the teachers in the lowest rank would have been paid a salary two-thirds of the way up the scale because of their seniority. Under TEI, they are at the bottom of the pay scale — $53,000 a year versus $83,000 for teachers at the top. Maybe that’s why so many at the bottom are leaving.

At the recent briefing, Joyce Foreman, a trustee who represents one of the city’s most challenged regions, painted the difference in pay from top to bottom as an injustice: “I look at the increase in the raises for Exemplary I and Exemplary II, almost $20,000 in one year’s time. But we in fact have teachers that have not had a raise in fours years.

“Where is the equity in it?” she asked.

With not one word to what school reform means for poor children, Foreman went instead to her first concerns — jobs for adults and school district contracts. She asked what efforts are being made to recruit from historically black colleges, and she said she would be pleased to see the district spend more on advertising in minority-owned newspapers.

And what has Foreman’s protective advocacy for bad teachers meant to her school trustee district? Well, she got her wish: Schools in Foreman’s district have one of the highest retention rates for bad teachers in the city — 63 percent versus a districtwide average of 51 percent.

But the real wakeup is in her retention rate for teachers in the highest rank. While the districtwide average for that rank is in the upper 90 percent range, the rate for Foreman’s schools is 0 percent. Of course, it's hard to retain what you don't have. Foreman, who has consistently fought all school reform efforts, does not have one teacher in the highest rank in her district.

For several years, a number of national child advocacy groups have come together around a central theme for explaining the magnitude of what’s wrong with big minority and poor urban school districts. The phrase they all come back to again and again is “the kindergarten-to-prison pipeline.”

When poor and minority kids are not taught aggressively and well — if they leave the third grade unable to read fluently — the real outcome, the flesh-and-blood outcome, is horrible numbers consigned to lives of hell on Earth, serial incarceration, addiction, biting poverty, broken hearts and broken wills.

Especially when the new merit pay system offers such encouragement, Foreman’s position is appalling.

Oh, well. The good news is the good news. Let’s concentrate on that and keep walking forward no matter what.

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