I was impressed with the candor at the Professional Association of Georgia Educators session at the Capitol today, most notably from Kelly Henson, the former Floyd County superintendent who now heads the Professional Standards Commission. Henson told 100 teachers in a legislative hearing room this morning that the state is not getting a reasonable return on the bonuses it pays them for advanced degrees.
Given that many members of his audience held master’s degrees, Henson was remarkably straightforward. (You would be surprised how rare that is in the Legislature.) But before I get to Henson’s comments on paying by degrees, I have to share his comment on vouchers.
“Any politician in these times who mentions vouchers should not be allowed in the Capitol,” he said. “It is absurd to talk about public funds going to private schools now. Private schools serve a wonderful purpose, but that wonderful purpose should not be funded with public dollars.”
Now back to degrees, Henson said the state paid out $880 million last year to teachers for advanced degrees. Increasingly, those degrees are coming from out-of-state and online programs that are not rigorous or relevant and are not in content areas.
“We are getting a small return on our investment, but we are not getting an $880 million return,” he said. “”Too many of those degrees are out-of-field and don’t contribute to improved student performance.”
Saying he probably takes 1,0000 calls about advanced degrees each year, Henson said, “I can count on one hand the number of teachers who didn’t start off the conversation with, ‘Will this give me a raise?”’
Now, Henson said he understands that teachers want to earn more money. It’s what motivated him to get out of the classroom in the first place and into administration. But, he said the state has to consider every penny it now spends in the context of one question: Does it improve student achievement?
And advanced degrees often don’t because of the nature of the degrees that teachers are now pursuing, he said.
“Your colleagues are taking the path of least resistance to get a pay raise,” Henson told the crowd. “We are being naive if we don’t admit that the primary reason people get degrees is for the raise. They are not getting degrees in the areas in which they teach. They are getting the easiest and most convenient degrees. They are getting degrees for the raise and not for how much it will impact their performance.”
His agency is proposing changes that will place limits on degrees:
1. Out-of-state and online degree programs must conform with the same rules that in-state institutions do. “They will have to play by the same rules,” he said.
2. If funding is available, his agency will pre-approve degree programs so teachers don’t invest $48,000 only to find out too late that the program doesn’t qualify and won’t give them a raise.
3. So-called “related degrees,” such as teaching and learning and curriculum, must have 12 hours of content credits so that the students of a third-grade teacher getting such a degree see some benefit now, says Henson.
4. When teachers get degrees in a new field, they will only get a raise after that new field is added to their certificate.
When a teacher asked about getting a curriculum degree with the idea of eventually moving to the central office, Henson said, “If you’re a third-grade teacher now, I’m more concerned with your third-grade class now and how that degree will help the class.”
Henson was paired with Erin Hames, Gov. Sonny Perdue’s policy director and a teacher-turned-attorney.
Hames was also candid with teachers, who peppered her with questions about Perdue’s pay for performance plan. Acknowledging that details were sparse, Hames said teachers, superintendents and principals in the 23 districts who joined the state’s Race to the Top application will have a big hand in creating the plan. (Race to the Top requires a pay for performance component, and the systems will be charged with developing and piloting a plan that would be expanded statewide.)
Merit pay was only area where I thought Hames was a bit disingenuous. (Ok, maybe there was one other area. I thought she failed to address the unique calculus that her boss employed to conclude that 80 percent of teachers who took his December survey supported merit pay.)
Here’s where I felt she wasn’t frank. She talked as if the governor’s efforts to draft a statewide pay for performance plan for all school systems were still viable, even though the enabling legislation — Senate Bill 386 — has been pronounced dead by its Senate sponsor.
Hames spoke as if SB 386 was still on the table. (I didn’t get a chance to see her reaction as she turned the floor over to Henson later and he opened his presentation with, “We know that 386 is not going anywhere. It’s dead for this year.”)
Hames maintained there are fair ways to assess teacher performance based on student performance by relying on growth models that look at how much the class as a whole progressed rather than individual students. Teachers asked her good questions on the fairness of increasing expectations while decreasing resources.
Because of cutbacks, teachers talked about not having batteries for science lab stopwatches or any copy paper. At the same time that class sizes are rising, resources are diminishing, they told Hames. How could that not impact student performance? And how, in turn, is it fair to consider pay for performance amid this financial wreckage?
“There are so many unanswered questions,” one teacher said. “I pray the state does not rush into this.”
Hames maintained that education remains “the favored child in the budget….the No. 1 priority,” and has been protected from cuts more than anything else in state government. Henson jumped in to say that his agency suffered a 25 percent cut and that he was personally taking four furlough days next month.
If Georgia wins Race to the Top and the $462 million grant, all systems will benefit, Hames said, in that they will see improvements to data systems and upgrades to standards and assessments.
PAGE intends to post video of this session and earlier ones with Senate and House leaders. I will let you know when it goes up. Folks who were at the event should add details I missed.
(I did not get into Henson’s comments on the CRCT investigations now under way in systems with flagged schools – which ultimately will arrive at the PSC for action. Henson said it was critical to both uncover and punish cheating and to exonerate those systems where no cheating is found to have occurred.)