Test results showing Alaska students perform poorly in comparison to their national counterparts naturally leads to questions about how to hold the system accountable when students fail.
One Alaska school district that offers extra teacher pay when teachers and students perform well now has a two decade-long track record, and its system is often studied for what it does right.
The Chugach School District encompasses the small schools in the Prince William Sound communities of Whittier, Chenega Bay, Tatitlek, and a dorm and residential school in Anchorage.
There are just more than 400 students in the district, according to Superintendent Michael Hanley's most recent numbers. They have a staff of 21 spread across four schools, with nearly 300 of the students home-schooled.
The Chugach example was highlighted in the "Teacher Salary & Benefits Schedule and Teacher Tenure Study in 2015," conducted by the University of Alaska Anchorage Institute for Social and Economic Research. In the district, teachers are evaluated three times per year, at the beginning, at the end and in November.
Because the performance bonuses are based on the collective average scores of the teacher, the study found, "It incentivizes teachers who score well in their evaluations to reach out to and mentor those not scoring well, while incentivizing those who are scoring lower to ask for assistance. The superintendent has seen peer evaluation become a lot more important in the district than before."
Hanley, who formerly served as the commissioner of education, said the system is a competency-based model and student-performance based. That means both the teachers and the students are being evaluated for success in the classroom.
Teachers can increase their annual paycheck by $2,000 per value achieved. There are seven values that are measured in benchmarks achieved by the students and teachers, so it's possible to earn $14,000 of extra merit pay per year, Hanley said. Not only teachers, but principals and superintendents also share in the bonuses when the seven values are achieved.
On performance pay, Hanley said, "We averaged $12,000-$13,000 payouts over the past 20 years, some years lower and some higher. The Chugach School District was one of only a few in the country to have a merit-based system like this. When we first did this 20 years ago, the district was recognized as the first in the nation."
A recurring question about Alaska education policy is whether schools should be held accountable for student achievements, and if they are, will test scores go up?
Alaska students rank near the bottom in national testing results, including the Performance Evaluation for Alaska Schools, or PEAKS. Results from spring 2017 testing throughout Alaska school districts showed more than half of all students from grades three to 10 aren't up to proficient levels in math, English and science.
Another test, the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, showed only 28 percent of Alaska's fourth-grade students performed at or above the proficient level in reading on NAEP testing. For eighth-graders, only 26 percent showed proficiency in reading. In math, fourth-graders scored at the 32 percentile and eighth-graders at 29 percent. They were tested only in these two subjects.
The Chugach School District saw positive testing results in a carefully orchestrated system that involved the community, teachers and students, Hanley said. It might not work in a large school district, he said.
"The school district was in the lowest quartile of the state compared to all the other school districts when we started this. Our communities drove the communication about wanting more. They wanted the students to do better," Hanley said. "(This system) removed the organizational barriers that harken back to a factory organization where students were grouped by age."
Teachers started to transition from the "factory" model, he said.
"That's where at the end of the school year, you picked up books and went to next grade. Some were ready to do that three months earlier and some still aren't ready to do that, and a third are just right. We erased all those and put student learning first," he said.
Teachers teach in teams and track with students from grade to grade. Each student works with teachers to set out his or her own goals in an individual learning plan, or ILP.
"In small schools like ours, we can be nimble," Hanley said. "The community, teachers and administration all work together. We see good longevity, not much turnover. Teachers have a lot of ownership and students see flexibility in how they learn."
All of the Chugach schools use the performance-based model. After it was adopted, the "district moved to the top quartile and now we're more in the middle of the pack," Hanley said.
The ISER study concluded that the collective evaluation of teachers encouraged working together for improvement.
"Having other teachers play either formal or informal roles as mentor empowers them," according to the study. "(The superintendent) sees mentor teachers' performance increase just because they are teaching others. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle of continuous improvement."
Like much of the state's students, the Chugach kids scored below average in math but higher than others in English on the PEAKS exam in 2017.
"That was the first time the PEAKS test was used. I'm not putting a lot of weight on it but I'm not dismissing it either," Hanley said.
In the seven values scoring, students are tracked in a different way — not in grades — to record when they pass the required eight levels of English and 10 levels of math.
Through education grants, they developed the Aligned Information Management System, or AIMS, to track levels of proficiency rather than through simple grading. This provides more specific information, Hanley said.
Hanley is currently in conversations with a school in Michigan that wants to build a similar school performance based model, but he doesn't hear much from Alaska schools, he said.
For the most part, grading teachers on how their students perform had dismal results in Alaska, said National Education Association Alaska Chapter President Tim Parker. The performance-based system most recently was tried in Alaska through the No Child Left Behind.
"That was 100 percent unsuccessful," he said.
In order to achieve good results, "it encouraged people to cheat or teachers taught to the test and threw out PE, music, art" in order to emphasize the test subjects, Parker said. "It put super high pressure for tests that were not good measures of how students were learning. You have to look at it from the student's point of view.
"They're feeling the pressure. We had kids throwing up before the tests."
Due to the dismal results, the notion of performance-based pay for teachers has been largely discarded as a venue for public policy on education in Alaska and elsewhere, Parker said.
"There are a few people left who advocate for that, but most people see it's not the right way to go," he said.
Other ways to increase quality teaching — and therefore student performance — do offer teachers merit pay under the current system. If teachers seek out and earn National Board Certification, a voluntary advanced teaching credential that goes beyond state licensure from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, they can earn another $2,000 per a year. Higher pay is also offered for teachers with master's degrees, he noted.
"That does impact learning, we've found," he said.
But in order for the discussion to lead somewhere fruitful, the ISER study concluded, "it has to consider the thoughts of teachers in helping to shape the system."
Hanley cautions that there isn't a magic recipe for how a district should do this, noting that it might look different in different districts.
The district ownership of the system by teachers, "much more than salary, (has resulted in) a key reason staff turnover in Chugach School District has declined," the ISER report concluded.
The superintendent credited the district's decision to allow teachers to help build the system, creating the feeling that "this is our system, we built it; it works the way we want it to, and if we want to change it someone will listen to us in making those changes.'"
Naomi Klouda can be reached at email@example.com.