Teacher incentive program fizzles

The Charleston County School Board voted to nix the Bridge program after Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait (left) said she found “no evidence at all” that it was attracting top teachers. Board Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats (right) said the pay-for-performance plan wasn’t successful enough to justify the continued expense.

Three years and $11.7 million later, the Charleston County School District doesn’t have much to show for its controversial program that linked teacher pay to student performance.

The Bridge program, devised during previous Superintendent Nancy McGinley’s administration and funded by a $23.7 million Teacher Incentive Fund grant, was supposed to encourage and retain quality teachers by rewarding them financially for good performance. Instead, teacher turnover increased at most of the program’s pilot schools, and internal polls showed that teachers weren’t motivated by the sometimes-paltry payouts.

The district has spent more than half of the grant so far, with only $614,900 going to teacher bonuses since 2013. The bulk has gone to pay consultants and a top-heavy bureaucracy of teacher coaches and evaluators to keep the program running.

The school board voted in February to pay one last round of teacher bonuses this fall and let the federal government keep the remainder of the funds. After that, Bridge will die a quiet death.

Well, quiet for some. For Drayton Hall Elementary teacher Patrick Hayes, the founder of the advocacy group EdFirstSC who has railed against the plan since the district won the grant in 2012, it’s hard not to say “I told you so.”

“It’s absolutely eroded trust and morale. There’s a universal sense that people don’t believe we’re doing our jobs,” Hayes said.

While Hayes said most teachers are comfortable with a principal observing them in class, they were often nervous waiting for the next surprise visit from an evaluator hired by the district office.

“When you get people focused on external rewards, they’re so anxious about those rewards, they focus on that instead of the job you want them to do,” Hayes said. “Overall, the notion that we need the adults to feel more nervous so that the kids will do better is flawed.”

McGinley declined to comment for this story.

Bridge started as a pilot program in 13 high-poverty, high-turnover schools, including North Charleston High and Burns Elementary. Using a formula based on student test score improvements, classroom observations and state evaluations, the district started doling out yearly bonuses of $1,000 to $4,000 for high-performing teachers and school administrators at those schools.

According to the timetable for the federal grant, the district was supposed to start evaluating all of its teachers on the Bridge measures this school year and roll out the raises to every school starting in 2016-17. District Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait estimated in February that the rollout would put a $5 million dent in the district’s already-tight budget next year alone. And once the five-year grant runs out, the district would be on the hook to fund the program without federal support.

School board Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats said she didn’t vote to end Bridge because it was an abject failure but because it wasn’t a big enough success to justify the expense.

“With these grants, you have to show such a success that when the grant ends, you’re willing to forgo something you’re doing in favor of that, or find a way to continue paying for it,” Coats said.

Long before Postlewait and the board nixed Bridge, teachers were railing against the program. An October report from the Charleston Teacher Alliance recommended returning the grant money to federal coffers, citing a survey that found just 16 percent of teachers in Bridge pilot schools thought the program was working.

“We are paid for our service, not for its outcome,” said Charleston Teacher Alliance Director Jody Stallings, a Moultrie Middle teacher. “The same is true of soldiers, police officers and doctors, for very good reason. The factors that go into our success depend on so much more than individual effort.”

Stallings said his group tried to convince both the McGinley administration and interim Superintendent Michael Bobby that the Bridge plan was “flawed, wasteful and doomed.” But it wasn’t until after Postlewait took office in July that the tide started to turn against the plan.

Despite Bridge’s many outspoken detractors, a district spokesman wrote that the program “received favorable feedback” when federal Teacher Incentive Fund workers paid a visit in spring 2015. And it did have local supporters, even toward the end.

In November, shortly after taking over responsibility for Bridge from previous district leaders, Project Director Anita Huggins wrote in an email to Postlewait that a panel of five school principals unanimously supported accepting another year’s worth of grant money. Listing some of the principals’ comments, she wrote that returning the funds during an $18 million budget crisis “could be a significant PR challenge” and “could exacerbate CCSD’s culture of ‘not finishing’ anything.”

“Regardless of whether we admit it,” she quoted one principal as saying, “the grant has resulted in an increased awareness of student achievement data.”

By that time, Bridge was already hobbled. In October, the district office had reassigned 10 TIF grant-funded professional development coordinators to school-level positions paid by the General Operating Fund, moving them out of the Bridge program. Postlewait had also begun putting a wide array of district projects under the microscope, from reading interventions to behavior management programs, looking for a “return on investment” to justify their continued existence.

Bridge wasn’t a total loss. The district was able to collect classroom observation and student growth data for “nearly all teachers” this school year, according to a district spokesman, and the program put the district ahead of the curve when the state started requiring all teachers to complete student learning objective paperwork.

Coats said she hopes conversations like the one that brought about Bridge’s demise will become a regular occurrence as the district moves toward a zero-based budgeting system that takes no expense for granted.

“I don’t think Charleston County School District will ever be a truly successful district until we are willing to do that on an annual basis,” Coats said. “Look at programs. Are they working? Should we expand them? Should they continue?”

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.