Pittsburgh teachers get first bonus money

| Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Principal Valerie Lucas stood in the hallway of Brookline K-8 and shook bags containing bells and miniature snowmen that held fake dollar bills.

She doled the bags out to her surprised faculty. The fake dollars symbolized bonuses that teachers and staff will receive for working in a building recognized with Student and Teachers Achieving Results awards.

Brookline and nine other Pittsburgh Public Schools buildings were named STAR buildings last month for promoting academic growth. Teachers, counselors, nurses and aides at the schools received bonuses of up to $6,000 a year.

More than 500 district employees received about $2.1 million in bonuses this fall. The program is funded 80 percent by a federal grant and 20 percent by the school district.

At Brookline, when the awards were given, “Some cried. Some jumped up in the air. They were overwhelmed,” Lucas said. “The common phrase I heard was, ‘We were just working.' ”

This marks the first year of the incentive program for members of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.

Nationwide, researchers are studying such bonus programs to determine if they improve student performance or create animosity among teachers who do not get the money. Opinions are mixed.

“Many recognize the current way we recognize teachers is broken,” said Matthew G. Springer, director of the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Although more states and school districts are experimenting with incentive systems, “We don't know what's better,” he added.

Springer and Laura Hamilton, senior behavioral scientist at the think tank RAND Pittsburgh, said research shows that offering teachers incentives alone doesn't boost student achievement or improve teaching techniques.

For the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Hamilton is studying the impact of a $40 million grant it gave to Pittsburgh Public Schools for a host of student reforms, including teacher evaluation.

The STAR program will be studied as well, although it is not funded through the Gates grant.

The school district and the teachers' union negotiated details of the STAR program, including how schools and personnel qualify for the award.

The district recognizes schools in the top 15 percent in academic growth statewide. If fewer than eight schools fall in this category, then the district recognizes schools falling in the top 25 percent.

Fulton, South Hills, Sunnyside and Whittier are in the top 15 percent; Weil and Brookline were in the top 25 percent. Pittsburgh Conroy, Oliver and Pioneer received STAR awards for serving students with special needs. Those schools use a different measure, including student attendance and behavior.

While researchers sort out how well teacher incentives work, teachers at STAR schools said the money is nice, but it's teamwork that counts.

“It doesn't take just one player to win the game. It's the team working together,” said Jesse Neiport, a special education teacher at Brookline.

Amy Nichols, a third-grade teacher at Pittsburgh Fulton PreK-8, said the STAR program may encourage teachers at other schools who are not as passionate about teaching as she is to “step up” their game.

Maureen Spadone, a fourth-grade teacher at Brookline, said she was “shocked” when she learned that she won the bonus.

“The monetary incentive isn't what I'm coming here for every day,” she said. Rather, she said, she comes to make students independent thinkers who challenge themselves.

Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, negotiated the bonus system. She said teachers who may not qualify for a STAR bonus can earn an extra $10,000 yearly by working a longer school week and year, assuming more responsibilities as they climb the career ladder.

Superintendent Linda Lane said she likes systems such as STAR, which rewards teams.

“We don't want teachers in competition with each other because when that happens, kids lose in that kind of culture, and other undesirable things happen,” she said. “Teachers can start jockeying for particular children.”

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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