California missed out on cash and clemency, politically unable to tie teacher pay to student performance. Delhi Unified delivered, however, with its unique teacher contract, which opened the door to an $8.1 million federal grant that saved jobs and will raise teachers' pay if students improve.
Delhi is among the first in California to link earning to learning, a controversy widely credited with torpedoing the state's bid for extra federal education funding. The U.S. Department of Education is expected to issue a formal denial soon of California's plea for a reprieve from No Child Left Behind sanctions. The state failed to meet the requirement to link student learning to teacher earning.
"California has already left millions of badly needed federal dollars on the table, by failing to submit competitive applications for Race to the Top funding," Erin Shaw of the advocacy group StudentsFirst said earlier this month. "It's time to change the system that rejects accountability and continually risks classroom resources that rightfully belong to students."
The California Teachers Association has steadfastly refused to agree to incorporate test scores as a measure of classroom performance. Delhi's 120 teachers, however, were 93 percent behind it. That percentage voted for an effectiveness incentive in their contract last spring.
The district's Teacher Incentive Fund grant money offers the carrots of bonus pay and extensive training to bolster the meat-and-potatoes work of classroom teaching.
"I really believe that this is a game changer for our district," Delhi Superintendent Brian Stephens said. "Man, I wish I would have had this 20 years ago."
The grant paid to bring back three furlough days this year, all of which are being used for staff training on evaluating teachers and measuring student grasp of lessons.
"It's an eye-opener for our teachers. It's an eye-opener for our administrators. It's a different way to do business," Stephens said of the training on how teacher evaluations are conducted.
Liz Rojas, president of the Delhi Teachers Association, participated in the evaluation trainings by Teaching Learning Solutions, which partnered with Delhi on the grant. She said she likes the evidence-based approach to evaluations, a complete turnaround from the hated clipboard-clutching visits of the past. She said teachers are working with administrators to put evaluations in place. "It's not a 'gotcha.' It's going to help us," Rojas said.
Switching evaluations from "gotcha!" is critical as performance hits the pocketbook — "unheard of" in California, Stephens said.
Unheard of since the 1980s, at least, when "merit pay" left a bad taste nationwide and little appetite for reforms, notes a report by the Community Training and Assistance Center, a nationwide nonprofit also working with Delhi. Early efforts had little or no teacher input, often basing bonuses solely on a principal's say-so.
$1,500 to $3,500 bonuses
Fast forward to fresh approaches to performance pay, measuring professional prowess not by what impresses other grown-ups, but by what works for kids. Delhi's grant is one of only two Teacher Incentive Fund awards to California districts this year, designed to fund game changers.
The performance bonuses range from $1,500 to $3,500 per year for teachers and principals who qualify based on a mix of classroom observation and student gains, Stephens said. Fall benchmark tests set the baseline, and spring tests track student progress. The goal is to beat expectations of an average year and help kids catch up.
"The great thing about this is it doesn't matter where your kids (start)," he said.
That's crucial in Delhi, where three out of four students come from low-income families and four in 10 still are learning English. Just over half met state standards in English last year. Less than half made the grade in math. Statistics such as those give teachers pause as they weigh linking those students' test scores to their paychecks.
"At first, a lot of teachers were kind of leery of it," Rojas said. Some feared the evaluations would be just a way to get rid of teachers. "It isn't that at all," she said; remediation is built into the system.
"Not everyone's perfect. If there are teachers who need more coaching, they'll have that," Rojas said.
Although incentive pay grabs the spotlight, other nuts and bolts of student improvement are part of the package. An approach called "Student Learning Objectives," or SLOs, the next buzz-acronym in education reform, also is part of the grant, and Delhi staff got that training from the Community Training and Assistance Center.
The system has teachers lay out a list of specific goals for their lessons. Student mastery of daily material then becomes a concrete way for teachers to monitor their effectiveness.
To put the whole plan in place for the grant, administrators, teachers and support staff leaders held dozens of meetings last spring. But that hopeful, collaborative effort moved forward against a backdrop of pending layoffs as the district reined in its deficit spending.
"There I am, a first-year administrator, and I had to lay off 17 teachers," Stephens said. "The budget was out of balance."
Today, all but one of the 17 teachers has returned or found new employment. Attrition opened slots and the grant funded teacher coaches, who step in with ideas and feedback as classroom challenges arise.
Through it all, the district's factions hung together. That union buy-in was key to the district's success in landing the grant, said Joan McRobbie, senior associate of National School Reform at CTAC.
"Kudos to them for putting it together. There were over 100 applicants (for the federal grants) and they came seventh," McRobbie said. "It's a huge opportunity."
Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2339, and on Twitter, @NanAustin.
ABOUT THE EVALUATIONS
The model for teacher evaluations in Delhi Unified is designed to give feedback using data, not opinion. The goal is to make classroom evaluations more even-handed, credible and, therefore, more helpful. Following are examples of an evaluation based on data (A) and opinion (B):
A: Ten students stayed on task throughout the lesson. At three groups, students held on-topic side conversations, but returned to task without prompting. Pulling out worksheets caused four groups to lose at least 14 seconds in attention. Three students daydreamed except when Teacher ABC walked by them, looking over at other student's papers when asked to answer questions.
B: Overall, the class was alert and focused on the well-organized presentation.
ABOUT THE GRANT
The U.S. Department of Education awarded Delhi Unified $8.1 million in September to train its teachers, expand their role and institute incentive pay based in part on growth in student achievement. The small district southeast of Turlock was the only California school district outside Los Angeles Unified to receive one of the 35 Teacher Incentive Fund grants awarded nationwide this year. The five-year grants target high-needs schools, aiming to increase effectiveness of teachers and principals, and create sustainable performance- based compensation systems, according to the Department of Education.