School proposal criticized; Perry defends incentives derided by teachers, poorer districts

By Terrence Stutz and Joshua Benton
Staff Writers

Page 1A

Gov. Rick Perry spelled out more of his $500 million plan to improve public schools Tuesday as key parts of his proposal came under fire from teacher groups, property-poor school districts and the state comptroller.

The governor’s latest school funding ideas, unveiled before an expected special legislative session this spring, proposed cash incentives for good teachers and more money for schools that successfully teach algebra and educate students with limited English skills.

“I believe that it is good public policy to reward proven teachers that embody excellence in the classroom with financial incentives,” Mr. Perry told several hundred school administrators at a conference in Austin.

“We should not be afraid to single out our top educational professionals for additional pay out of fear of bucking the status quo.”

On Monday, Mr. Perry pitched the first components of his plan, including financial incentives for schools that cut their dropout rates and improve test scores. Under pressure from school districts and a lawsuit against the state, the Legislature is expected to overhaul how Texas funds public education.

Tuesday, the governor was greeted with scattered laughter when he told administrators that districts would have to match state funds to qualify their teachers for the proposed $5,000 bonuses, with half coming from the state and half from the local school district.

Teachers could earn another $5,000 from the state if they are assigned or choose to teach in a school that has a record of low achievement.

Teacher groups immediately ripped into the idea.

“The citizens of Texas want to see a highly qualified, certified, well-paid teacher in every classroom, and the governor’s plan won’t get that done,” said Texas State Teachers Association President Donna New Haschke, insisting that all teachers need more.

Working on commission

Brock Gregg of the Association of Professional Texas Educators said teachers “do not need a carrot dangled in front of them in order to do their best. Texas’ dedicated educators did not enter the teaching field to work on commission.”

But Bill Hammond of the Texas Association of Business supported the idea, contending that performance incentives work for companies and will work for public schools. He called the plan “far-reaching” and “visionary.”

State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn was among the critics of Mr. Perry’s proposal. The two Republicans have been at odds on a variety of issues over the last several months.

“I am afraid that the governor’s plan leaves too many children and teachers behind,” Ms. Strayhorn said, adding that she thinks the various incentives may widen the funding gap between high-wealth and low-wealth districts because higher-wealth districts are in a better position to qualify for the incentives.

“It may work in some instances, but it appears that it widens the gap on funding equity,” she said. “The state has to pick up more of the tab, and we’ve got to have equity.”

Scott McCown, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities and one-time judge in the state’s school finance litigation, said the plan would turn back the clock on funding equity in Texas, giving rich school districts more and poor districts less.

Perry rejects barbs

Noting that Mr. Perry wants to eliminate the “Robin Hood” system, under which high-wealth districts are forced to send money to poor ones, Mr. McCown said: “If you offer an incentive system in lieu of an equitable and adequate system, it will be a disaster. It will be extraordinarily less equitable than what we now have.”

Mr. Perry rejected the criticism that his proposal would harm funding equity among school systems.

“There are a number of districts that are not rich that are looking forward to the opportunity of taking advantage of these incentive-based programs,” the governor said. “They’re willing to perform for those dollars so they can help their children.”

Mr. Perry said he was “stunned that anyone would say they don’t want any of these dollars.”

“Once people have really taken a look at this, you’re going to hear a lot of teachers, administrators, parents and taxpayers say this is good public policy that is going to make our schools better,” he said.

The head of the major association of property-wealthy school districts said he thought the plan would reward those districts more than poor ones.

“I think it probably would cause some sort of equity problem – I don’t know how big of one,” said Clayton Downing, executive director of the Texas School Coalition. “It’s only common sense. Your districts that score high now and are exemplary will see most of the benefit.”

Dr. Downing, a former Lewisville superintendent, said he didn’t object to incentive programs in theory. But he said he is frustrated that the governor was focusing on incentives instead of funneling more money into basic school funding.

“We honestly do need more capacity and more money – for all kids, not just rich districts or poor districts.”

Texas would not be the first state to reward schools for strong academic performance. The Florida School Recognition Program, for instance, offers an extra $100 per student to schools that have high average test scores.

A wider gap?

Critics there have said the program widens the gap between rich and poor. One newspaper analysis found that two-thirds of the program’s money was going to schools with above-average wealth.

“It’s the middle class pulling resources to itself,” said Walter Tschinkel, a Florida State University professor who has been critical of the program. “I’m not opposed to rewarding schools for performance. But this doesn’t measure performance. It measures primarily the starting material schools are handed.”

Dr. Tschinkel said that more than 70 percent of test score differences in Florida schools were attributable to the socioeconomic status of students, not school quality.

A spokesman for Mr. Perry said critics of his incentive programs “need to explain why they believe some Texas students cannot achieve a high level of excellence.”

“To say that one particular group of students can’t compete is truly the hard bigotry of low expectations,” said Robert Black, the spokesman.

The governor’s incentive pay program for teachers would be set up with a $200 million fund that would be used to give half of the $5,000 bonuses for teachers who demonstrate excellence in the classroom. Awards would be based on individual campus achievement and flow through the district directly to teachers locally selected for effectiveness.

Terrence Stutz reported from Austin and Joshua Benton from Dallas. Staff writer Christy Hoppe in Austin contributed to this report.

Average teacher salary surpasses $40,000

Page 2B

For the first time, the average Texas public school teacher makes more than $40,000 a year, according to an annual survey released last week. But teacher salaries are growing at the slowest pace in at least a decade.

The study – jointly conducted by the Texas Association of School Boards and the Texas Association of School Administrators – reports that the average teacher’s salary increased about 1.5 percent, from last year’s $39,972 to $40,571.

But that increase is the lowest in the 13 years that the groups have been tracking salaries.

“There’s just not a lot of new money to go around this year,” said Mary Elizabeth Regan, who coordinated the report for the school board association.

Ms. Regan said that an average returning teacher actually saw a raise of about 2.7 percent. The 1.5 percent figure is artificially lowered because schools typically replace high-cost retiring teachers with low-cost rookies, keeping overall salary figures down.

North Texas teachers fared slightly better than their colleagues. Teachers in the Dallas area averaged $42,130, while Fort Worth-area teachers averaged $41,476. Average starting salaries for area teachers were $2,000 to $3,000 above the state average.

Joshua Benton

Column: Computers not a classroom cure-all

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

It’s pop quiz time. Fill in the blanks: What technological advances are these people talking about?

1. “I believe that _________ is destined to revolutionize our educational system.”

2. “The time may come when a _________ will be as common in the classroom as is the blackboard.”

3. “In our schools, every classroom in America must be ________.”

Put your pencils down. The answers: 1. “The motion picture” (inventor Thomas Edison, 1922). 2. “Portable radio receiver” (educator William Levenson, 1945). 3. “Connected to the information superhighway” (President Bill Clinton, 1996).

My point? Every few decades, some new device comes along promising to be a cure-all for our educational ailments. And in just about every case, the results have fallen short of the revolution promised.

For the last decade, that can’t-miss technology has been computers. Last year, Texas’ public schools spent $300 million to $400 million on computer technology and training, according to Anita Givens, the state’s director of educational technology. These days most classrooms have at least one computer, and some have one for every student.

But some critics are starting to wonder whether the enormous investment has, again, been a waste of time and money.

“The computer culture has essentially polluted the culture of education,” says journalist Todd Oppenheimer.

Late last year, Mr. Oppenheimer published the stimulating book The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom and How Learning Can Be Saved.

I’m sure you can deduce from the title where he stands. But for folks on either side of the debate, it’s a provocative read that gets at a core issue: What, exactly, do we want our children to learn in school?

Here’s a summary of some of Mr. Oppenheimer’s claims:

*Computers encourage shallow, superficial work. Writing a 10-page report takes research, thought and hard work. But making a PowerPoint presentation on the same subject takes only cursory knowledge.

He quotes one high school student who spent 17 hours on a major civics presentation: seven hours on research and writing, 10 hours finding the right clip art and fonts for his PowerPoint.

“Some kids think you can find two Web sites about your topic on Google and they’re done with their research,” he says. “That’s where your work should be starting, not when it ends.”

*Computers break down too often, and schools don’t have staff trained to fix them. As a result, teachers end up getting distracted from their jobs, reinstalling broken device drivers when they could be teaching. (I can verify this one; I’ve seen many dozens of classroom computers “resting” while awaiting repair.)

*Kids need to learn how to do things the hard way before they do them the easy way. There’s a reason we learn our multiplication tables before we’re handed a calculator; we need to understand how things work before we start taking short cuts. For that reason, Mr. Oppenheimer is passionate about taking computers out of elementary schools, where he believes hands-on, nondigital learning is essential.

“The computer world is all about speed, quick and easy,” he says. “The school world is all about slowing things down, not skipping steps.”

In sum, he wants computers out of elementary schools, limited in middle schools, and pulled out of high school classrooms and put into special computer labs.

Even ed-tech’s biggest proponents agree with some of what Mr. Oppenheimer argues. “I think he’s right that teachers need more training and support to be able to use the tools they have,” said Alice Owen, executive director of technology for Irving schools. “It’s a difficult change for teachers. It changes your classroom dramatically to bring in computers.”

Irving now gives laptops to all its high school students, at a cost of more than $10 million. Dr. Owen says computers in the classroom aren’t the magic potion some hyped them up to be in the 1990s. But used effectively, she says, they can do wonders.

“We’re giving kids an opportunity to do things they wouldn’t be able to otherwise,” she said. “Kids have a greater appreciation for school. Those kinds of motivational gains you just can’t deny.”

In any event, Mr. Oppenheimer is about to get his wish.

State budget problems have forced cutbacks on technology spending across the country. One national survey found that funding for an average state ed-tech program dropped 25 percent from 2002 to 2003.

The Texas Legislature killed one of its major technology grant programs last year, and Ms. Givens said some schools could cut back tech spending by 50 percent or more.

“Yes, there are teachers who use computers pointlessly,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean you get rid of the computers. You teach teachers how to use them better.”

Joshua Benton covers primary and secondary schools for The Dallas Morning News. He can be reached at jbenton@dallasnews.com.

When the earth moves, UTD listens

Page 1B

Did the earth move for you? Now you can get confirmation.

Geoscientists at the University of Texas at Dallas have installed a seismograph that will measure the magnitude of any earthshaking events in the area.

North Texas is pretty stable, so the device is more likely to pick up shimmies in hot spots like Mexico.

If there’s a big quake, it’ll be depicted on the seismograph’s monitor in the Founders Hall lobby.

Joshua Benton