At the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year, a third grade reading teacher who’d transferred from a suburban and mostly white elementary school with an “A” rating to a mostly black elementary school with an “F” rating began to fully comprehend the challenge she faced. Five of her students couldn’t read, not at all. And only a few read on class level. The class couldn’t sit still long enough to listen to her read a book. Consequently, they had no interest in reading. Not even looking at a picture book held their attention.
She joined the school as part of a wave of 952 “super teachers” — professionals Duval County Public Schools had signed to three-year contracts to teach at its 36 lowest-performing schools. Their task: Work miracles. Under the district’s new Quality Education for All (QEA) initiative, these super teachers were paid signing bonuses, some as much as $20,000. If students made leaps in learning under their tutelage, the teachers would receive performance bonuses ranging from $1,500 to $20,000 each year.
The reading teacher says she knows the power of a good story and how one book can capture a child’s imagination and inspire a lifelong love of reading. That’s exactly what she did — and today she says her students made great strides.
“By the end of the year, they were begging me stay in the classroom at lunchtime, to stay on floor and read. I didn’t do it just a little,” she says. “I created readers out of children who had no interest in books before.”
But according to a rubric that Duval County Public Schools applied to its super teachers’ successes, the third-grade reading teacher fell short. She’s not complaining; if she didn’t meet the mark, she didn’t meet the mark. But now she questions the bonus program. She says the program that was sold to her when she transferred to the school and signed a three-year contact is different from the way DCPS calculated the bonus when it came time to pay. She and every other QEA teacher who spoke to Folio Weekly Magazine said they expected that their students’ gains would be compared with the other classes at the 36 QEA schools. Now, the teachers say, the school district has changed its tune and says they must beat the averages district-wide to receive a bonus.
“I think they were very irresponsible. I keep going over and over it. I’ve lost sleep over it,” the third-grade teacher says.
There’s no doubt the reading teacher accomplished what the education philanthropists who put up $50 million for the QEA program hoped super teachers would achieve in their classrooms — improving the lives of mostly poor, majority black student bodies whose kids might not have parents who read to them or played counting games with them, whose families might be struggling with all kinds of pressures, who might be working two or three jobs to try to make ends meet and have who knows what else going on in their lives — because her students blossomed and began to reach their learning potential. No one is saying the district needs a set formula to measure those gains. They are merely saying everyone should understand from the outset what that formula is.
At the beginning of spring break this year, on March 17, DCPS notified 676 teachers (71 percent of its teaching staff) in that first-year class of super teachers that their students had learning gains, which qualified them for performance bonuses ranging from $1,500 to $20,000. The third-grade reading teacher got one of those emails, which stated she would receive $5,000, based on her students’ test scores. (Her students performed at least 1-10 percent above the average, which she says gelled with what she’d seen in the classroom.)
But a second notice sent on March 21 informed 273 of those 676 teachers that the bonus notification was issued in error. The district had miscalculated; thus, the reading teacher, along with 272 others, did not qualify. Neither did a third-grade math and science teacher who’d initially been told he’d get the bonus, too. “Luckily, I didn’t start buying airplane tickets,” he said.
(Based on fears of retaliation, both the reading and math teachers, as well as other teachers critical of the QEA program, spoke to FWM on condition of anonymity.) On April 8, FWM asked the school district to explain exactly what the calculating error was, but the district offered only an email sent to teachers explaining the error and did not provide anyone to explain it in detail by our editorial deadline.
Although he was notified his bonus notification was in error as well, the third-grade math teacher said he’d seen big gains, too. His students had jumped grade levels. Even if some were still behind their grade level, they’d made great strides. Still, his students’ scores fell short of qualifying for the bonus because they would have had to beat the average score of all third graders in the district.
That’s not the way teachers say the bonus system was explained to them when they signed their contracts in September 2014. They expected that their students’ scores would be compared to the other QEA schools. Both the math and the reading teacher said there is no way they could take students at a low-performing school where some start the year unable to read or do simple math and expect that, by the end of the year, they’d be competitive with students at any of the schools further up the economic chain where children might start kindergarten already reading and doing simple math. The reading teacher said that, even if in her teaching experience she’d always been a top performer, she wouldn’t necessarily expect her class to outperform other third-graders throughout the district — at least in their first year. Against the 36 other low-performing schools, though, she’s quite sure they would shine.
“I knew it was going to be difficult, but I was confident in myself. I needed to build readers and I did. It was a magical thing that happened. I could sit back as an educator and think, ‘Wow, I did it,’” she said. “But it needs to be a realistic goal. Everyone knows what the QEA schools are up against. That’s why they started the whole program.”
Duval County Public Schools spokesperson Laureen Ricks points to the 403 QEA teachers who did beat the district average and made the cut as evidence that the goal is attainable. “It doesn’t mean [the teachers who did not receive bonuses] are not fantastic teachers. Their scores are not above the district average. But more than 400 teachers did receive the bonus. I get that they’re upset. There are treasured educators who are qualified and effective educators. I can’t say that enough. But this was an objective process and their scores didn’t qualify them.”
DCPS asked high school math teacher Lorlesha Bryant (who received the top bonus of $20,000 for her students’ performance) to speak to FWM about the program. Bryant, who’s taught Algebra I at Andrew Jackson High School for five years, said she thought she’d been judged against other QEA schools. She always gets high scores from her class, she says. In 2014-’15, her students ranked 25 percent above the district average in math; as a QEA teacher, she received a $20,000 reward. She said it’s made her rethink her aspirations to become an assistant principal, at least for the next couple of years. “As long as the bonuses keep coming, I may have to stay in the classroom,” Bryant joked.
Bryant correlated comparing QEA schools to the entirety of district schools with expecting a small rural high school basketball team to beat a big city one.
“It’s the same thing here,” she said. “If it’s been academically hard for you for all of your schooling to be compared against someone who’s been successful all of their schooling, it wouldn’t be fair. Teachers may not be getting their kids to perform like the students out at Fletcher High School, but in competing against other kids in the same silo [other QEA schools], they are making progress.”
That’s what the program is meant to do, she said. Bryant admits she didn’t get into details when she signed the QEA contract. Other teachers said they had no informational session with either the school system or the union before signing the contract. An email provided by one teacher regarding the contract directed her to meet with her principal to discuss its terms. That email never mentioned district averages. The school district now says that a memorandum of understanding negotiated between the school district and the teachers’ union was posted online for teachers to review and that it specifically stated they would be compared against district averages. The district also said there were three informational sessions on the contract in April 2014. FWM asked DCPS for the email to Bryant that informed her of the April information sessions or to any teacher referring them to the online document that explained the bonus formula was a district-to-district comparison, but the school system said that FWM had reached the limit of public records it would provide without charging an hourly rate for an employee to retrieve requested records. None of the teachers who spoke to FWM saw the online document and none knew about the Q&A sessions. When they signed the contracts, their understanding was that QEA schools would be compared with other QEA schools. FWM also asked for the total dollars the district would pay in bonuses for the 2014-’15 school year, but again was told the magazine would have to pay for that information. (Florida public records law allows a government agency to charge if the records requested will require an extensive use of clerical or supervisory time.) So far, FWM has received a document that showed the 952 teachers who’d signed QEA contracts by subject and the 403 who’d received bonuses by subject, but retrieving those records tipped any further requests into the “extensive” category.
After receiving a quick recap of who’d gotten bonuses, the math teacher noted that math and reading coaches, physical education and art teachers, reading interventionists and school counselors fared much better in the bonus tally than classroom teachers. Of the 92 third-grade elementary school teachers with QEA contracts, for instance, 45 earned the bonus. Of the 22 elementary math coaches, 17 did.
But perhaps the worst outcome of the whole QEA program so far is that some super-motivated teachers, the best in the system, are disenchanted and feel this local district is cheating them.
“God forbid if a teacher ran her classroom like that. It would not be tolerated,” the reading teacher said. “I think the district was dishonest. There’s something fishy there.”