Four years ago, Gates Elementary on San Antonio’s east side was on the state’s list of failing schools. Only 15 percent of its students were reading at grade level.
Now Gates is one of the fastest improving campuses in the San Antonio Independent School District. School officials credit its success in part to teachers like Kayla John.
During guided reading earlier this winter, the fifth grade teacher divided her class into groups to practice reading a poem aloud.
“Some people do read differently,” she said. “While this group was reading, towards the end they started to what?”
“Read faster,” her class replied.
John is what the district calls a master teacher. SAISD pays her an extra $15,000 a year because she has a track record of success.
In exchange, she stays an hour late three days a week to tutor her students and plan with other teachers. She also participates in additional training.
“I don’t know how I’d be able to do it without all this extra time. At least do all the things I want to do with my class,” John said.
And, of course, the extra cash in her pocket pay doesn’t hurt either.
Superintendent Pedro Martinez said the Master Teacher Program helps the district make academic gains by giving strong teachers a reason to stick around.
“It’s a challenge for us because so many of our teachers don’t live in our district, so it’s very easy for other districts to recruit them, especially when they’ve developed experience,” Martinez said.
San Antonio is one of five school districts praised by Governor Greg Abbott during his State of the State address for finding creative ways to help more students read on grade level and graduate ready for college or a career.
All five: Dallas, San Antonio, Longview, Premont and Pharr-San Juan-Alamo — offer some form of performance-based stipend or bonus.
Abbott said Texas needs to reward successful teachers to help districts like them continue to improve.
“We must provide incentives to put effective teachers in the schools and classrooms where they are needed the most, and we must create a pathway for the best teachers to earn a six-figure salary,” Abbott said Tuesday to applause.
But not everyone is on board with the idea of merit-based pay. Louis Malfaro, the president of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said it’s offensive to teachers.
“It offends teachers to be told that we want good pay for teachers — but only the best teachers — and we define best as those teachers whose students get high scores on the state’s standardized test,” Malfaro said.
Malfaro said his members are okay with districts providing teachers incentives to work longer hours in high-need schools. But they’re not okay with the state test being the measure of success because they don’t think it’s an accurate reflection of a teacher’s quality.
“There are just a whole host of reasons why using that single metric is problematic,” Malfaro said.
Leaders in the state House and Senate are still working on their major school finance reform bills. But they are expected to file a bill that would give districts additional funding if they choose to use an evaluation system to increase the salary of high performing teachers.
That’s a big deal for school districts trying to pay teachers incentives on their own.
Half of San Antonio ISD’s funding for master teachers comes from a federal grant. Superintendent Martinez would like to grow the program from around 500 teachers to 2,000. But that grant expires in two years.
“The reason the state funding is so important is that if the state puts this in place, not only does it allow us to grow the program faster, but we can also grow it at scale, district-wide, with a sustainable funding source,” Martinez said.
However, before Martinez can ask the state for help, lawmakers have to decide they want to pay for it.
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has prioritized an across the board $5,000 raise for teachers. In an op-ed for the Dallas Morning News, he said he also supports funding for merit pay. But as it stands now, the Senate version of the appropriations bill doesn’t include the money to pay for it.