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Lucia Mar school district eyes an incentive-based pay system

Teachers in the Lucia Mar Unified School District could soon be seeing changes in their paychecks. On Jan. 28, members of the district’s teachers association approved a proposal to consider an incentive-based pay system for six of its schools.

Launched in 1999, the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP) is a school reform program that, among other things, compensates teachers and school administrators based on how well their students perform on state standardized tests.

The district must participate in TAP in order to receive $7.2 million through the U.S. Department of Education’s Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) grant, which it was approved for last year.

District officials selected six schools—Dana, Dorothea Lange, Fairgrove, Nipomo, and Oceano elementary schools, and Mesa Middle School—to potentially participate in the program. There are also two alternates: Grover Heights Elementary and Judkins Middle School.

Andy Stenson, the district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, told New Times the schools were picked based on how many of their students accept free and reduced-price lunches. According to grant parameters, at least 50 percent of the student body has to be considered financially “at-risk” to qualify.However, to implement the program and accept the TIF money, approximately 75 percent of the teaching staff at each school must vote in favor of the TAP program. The site votes have been tentatively scheduled for Feb. 25, Stenson said.

If approved, third- through eighth-grade teachers at participating schools would have extra incentives added to their base pay.

“Note that this isn’t incentive-only pay,” Stenson said. “Teachers will receive their contract pay even if students aren’t doing well.”

Test scores alone won’t determine how incentives are distributed. Approximately half would be based on teacher evaluations, 30 percent on individual classroom test scores, and 20 percent on school-wide performance.

The rubric for classroom observations, Stenson said, is a very comprehensive one with 19 scoring areas, including how clearly a teacher explains learning objectives to students, how organized the teacher is, how well a teacher motivates students, and more.

The teachers would also meet for an hour of professional development with an appointed “master teacher” and other teachers in their grade level to discuss instruction, curriculum, and other topics.

“That’s a form of support that doesn’t currently exist,” Stenson said.

If approved by the sites, the program would go into effect for one year.

Teachers association president Lloyd Walzer said that enthusiasm for the program varies throughout the area.

“Some people feel strongly that merit-based pay doesn’t work and that it singles out teachers as the problem,” Walzer said.  “Some see it as the future and a way of calling out bad teachers.”

He also said that while negotiating the agreement, union representatives wanted to make sure the program wouldn’t affect the district’s general fund.

Donna Kandel, an AP Calculus teacher at Nipomo High School, is worried about TAP, even though her school isn’t a potential TAP site. When she first heard the district was considering the program, Kandel started doing some research.

First, she discovered the co-founder of TAP’s parent organization The Milken Family Foundation is Michael Milken, also known as “The Junk Bond King.” In 1989, Milken was indicted on 98 counts of racketeering and securities fraud. He entered a plea bargain and was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison, of which he only served two years. That discovery motivated her to look into the backgrounds of other TAP officials and the overall TAP model.

“It’s more of a corporate model,” she said, adding that she thinks the recent phenomenon of forming partnerships between the corporate and education worlds is “a step in the wrong direction.”

“There’s this temptation to buy into a pre-packaged program for education reform,” she said, “and I think a lot of it comes from political pressure.

“People want a silver bullet that will solve all of the problems, but there is no one answer ... there is no ‘one size fits all’ model,” she added.

Kandel also said she’s frustrated that more of the TIF money isn’t going into the classroom.

“I’m an AP teacher, and we don’t have any money for AP classes,” she said. “We’ve also lost our choir program, a full-time music teacher, and a full-time art teacher. None of that is being addressed through the grant.”

According to assistant superintendent Stenson, about 82 percent of the TIF money will be used to hire more teachers and literacy specialists. The remaining funds will go toward teacher bonuses.

Stenson said he thinks TAP is a very strong program, and that TAP teachers usually become more deliberate in what they do and more efficient with their time.

“I agree that the level of scrutiny on public schools has never been higher than it is right now,” he added, “but [TAP] rewards teachers for the hard work they’re doing right now. It’s not to say teachers aren’t working or doing their jobs; it’s a pat on the back for a job well done.

“This is the climate right now. The public wants to hold us highly accountable to improve the teaching process and student learning,” he said. ∆

Amy Asman is managing editor of the Santa Maria Sun, New Times’ sister paper to the north. Contact her at

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