/As Gov Tate Reeves works to save School Recognition Program, critics say it ‘intensifies already serious inequality’

As Gov Tate Reeves works to save School Recognition Program, critics say it ‘intensifies already serious inequality’

July 29, 2020 CLARKSDALE — Five years ago, New York native Nicole Moore graduated from college in Atlanta, packed her bags and moved to the Mississippi Delta to teach. The Teach For America member was assigned to Coahoma Early College’s High School. This school was previously a low-performing agricultural school. According to the Mississippi Department of Education, less than a third of students are proficient in reading. This was a difficult task for Moore. Moore and her coworkers made a promise to increase student achievement at the school. Students saw results in just two years. The school was initially rated D. However, it’s accountability rating rose to a C. This is a significant improvement. Two years later, Moore received a $1,000 reward for her hard work in 2019. Moore was among thousands of teachers who received money from the School Recognition Program. This merit-pay program was created by the state Legislature in 2014. It rewards educators and schools for their student achievement. Officials claim that the program is a performance-enhancing incentive for all teachers. The program is currently at the centre of a power struggle between legislative and executive branches, which is why the K-12 budget was not appropriated in this year’s budget. Gov. Tate Reeves vetoed $2.2 billion of the appropriation because he claimed that the budget bill didn’t fund the program. “Schools are improving in many ways. Our education attainment is up. “And this School Recognition Program was a major reason why,” Reeves wrote in an earlier Facebook post. He stated that it was the only state-wide performance reward program. It works. But, critics say that it creates confusion and sometimes even decreases educators’ morale. It is not clear who gets the money or if the program is racially balanced. Mississippi Today found that 53% of the funds went to schools where at least half of the student body is white. Jackson Public Schools is the only Black district among the ten that received the most money through the program. Senator Derrick Simmons, D. Greenville, stated that he strongly opposes policies that use public money in a manner that increases already grave inequality. “The School Recognition Program” is one such policy. The program has been inequitable since its inception. Sen. David Blount (D-Jackson), is vice-chair for the Senate education committee. He says the program should be eliminated because it creates inequity within the system. Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today. Report For America. Blount stated that the way money is distributed on a building by building basis “there’s little accountability.” “I believe it’s flawed in it’s basic concept and it gives an disproportionate amount to the wealthier schools in the state,” Blount said. Mississippi Today spoke to educators from across the state, who stated that they appreciated the money but that it wasn’t the only motivator to improve student outcomes. Honey LeBlanc is a long-serving teacher in Long Beach School District. She received $1,500 each year. Her friends call it “the Delta book money,” because it provides textbooks to already highly performing schools in privileged areas. It is enough to be able to recognize the things we do every day? No. It is fair. She said, “No.” She said, “To give money and to be recognized is great… but me getting that money?” There are many other districts in need.” Amanda Reiser, an Oxford Middle School teacher, stated that the program is “completely flawed” in her opinion and does not motivate teachers. She said, “We are inspired to keep our student growing and improving.” Would money be beneficial? Yes, it would. It should be available to all. All that money, divide it up and keep the teacher (shortage rate) low.” O’Bannon High School teacher Tyjawanda, a 21-year veteran of classroom teaching, received approximately $1,000 in 2018. She believes that the program motivated teachers in her school district to do better, but she also understands how unfair it can be for educators whose hard work may not translate into test results. She said, “I am aware that I have worked hard in the past to help my students pass the state exams and reach the goals we set at that time.” We felt that we were not getting any recognition or rewards for this. It is a great idea to recognize teachers who work hard and help students achieve. Research has shown that merit pay systems do not have an effect on student outcomes. In 2013, a study comparing teacher incentive pay programs in Tennessee, Texas, and New York found that teachers want the incentives, but feel they are unfair. The survey found that 80% of respondents believed teachers should be recognized for their outstanding teaching skills. Ninety percent of respondents felt that rewarding teachers based upon test scores was problematic. Fivety-five percent thought the system was fair. However, 48% were unsure of the criteria to earn a bonus. Matthew Springer, coresearcher and associate professor of education evaluation and public policy at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, stated that there needs to be a stronger system for evaluating teachers, schools, and teams. He told Mississippi Today that the overall school accountability grade was not the best system and was a concern. “The other issue is that giving resources to schools is important. We know that teachers are the most important determinant of student success in schools. I am really focused on getting top-quality teachers in high performing schools.” Schools and districts in Mississippi receive an A-F letter grades based on proficiency in science, math, and reading. Letter grades allow parents and the general public to quickly see how schools are performing. Teachers and administrators can also be rewarded with ratings. The School Recognition Program provides $100 per student for teachers in schools rated A or schools that have a rating of ‘D’ or better. Schools rated ‘B’ receive $75 per student. The recognition program has received $71 million from the Legislature since 2017. According to Mississippi Today’s analysis, $25 million was received by nearly 21,000 teachers and staff from more than 500 schools in fiscal 2020. An award cannot be given to administrators. The program’s intention to reward teachers who have achieved high accountability ratings has led to problems over the last three years. This includes infighting at district level about how money is distributed and who is eligible for the funds. School officials, legislators, and educators advocates disagree with this statement. Kelly Riley, the executive director of Mississippi Professional Educators, stated that merit pay is not just about a school’s success, but also about the individual teacher’s success. “We don’t have to do anything that threatens teacher morale. We’re already experiencing a teacher shortage.” The program’s first two years saw local districts create a teacher committee to determine how and who to distribute the funds. Teachers say that one of the problems is that the money doesn’t reach schools until the next year’s accountability ratings are released. This hinders retention. Teachers in Desoto County and Rankin County, Madison County and Harrison County, Harrison County. Harrison County, Lamar County. Jackson Public School, Jackson County. Ocean Springs schools. The majority of the earnings. It is not clear how many teachers and staff received rewards in the first two years of this program. Not all districts provided that information. This lack of clarity is due to teacher committees’ decisions about how to distribute funds in the first two years of this program. There’s no record of which teacher or staff member received what amount, according to Pete Smith, chief of communications and government relations at the Mississippi Department of Education. Smith stated that Smith didn’t believe the forms asked for the number of teachers who would be receiving the money. Smith said that the forms did not ask how many teachers would receive the money. This is a common complaint of program critics, who claim the School Recognition Program is flawed. Erica Jones, president of Mississippi Association of Educators said that teachers didn’t have any guidance about how to distribute the money. Mississippi Association of Educators Jones stated that teachers are concerned about how the money is being distributed. “I have a colleague from Hinds County and they decided that the funds should be distributed by grade level.” Maurice Smith, North Bolivar superintendent, said that in his district, two high school merged to create Northside High School. However, during consolidation, the principals failed to submit the district response form on time. Smith explained that teachers were given the same amount and not specific amounts. Teachers were frustrated that they couldn’t make the final decision. Smith stated that he believes the program is a good idea but it needs to be “tweaked”. The program is under scrutiny by lawmakers. Legislators have presented amendments to the bill in the past. These included clarifications about who can get the money and the ability for superintendents to approve who can. These amendments were rejected by the committee. The 2017 opinion by the attorney general stated that licensed and unlicensed employees of school districts could be awarded the award. This included all other staff like counselors, librarians, specialist, alternative school teachers, and even administrators. According to the Legislature’s request, the MDE issued updated guidance last year stating that only current and certified staff from eligible schools should be granted the money and that it must be evenly distributed. The most recent year saw 60% of school districts evenly distribute the money, while 36% did not. Only 4% of the information submitted was not complete. It is not mandatory to pay school staff members who have left the district. The bill was co-authored by former Rep. John Moore (House education chair), who said that the program was inspired in part by a pilot program for performance compensation during Gov. Phil Bryant’s tenure. This caused “too many competition with teachers” at schools so they decided to reward all schools. Rogelio V. Moore, AP Moore, called it “a great programme” and schools that don’t receive the money should simply “raise their letter grades.” He said that bonuses of $2,000 or more could be a nice Christmas gift and that they were a good incentive for teachers. “Some teachers give part of the money to their (teaching assistants) teachers.” This program’s future is uncertain because lawmakers must still address the education budget but cannot return to Capitol due to a legislative COVID-19 epidemic. Teachers feel that the program should be preserved if it is to survive. Toni Coleman, a teacher at Center Hill High, said that those teachers who did not receive money were being punished. “When they are constantly being chastised for funds and pay rises and any kind of recognition other than poor recognition, what’s the point?” READ NEXT : Aallyah Wright: My report on the School Recognition Program story