By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer LA Daily News | http://bit.ly/meeJYR
06/12/2011 - Some people might not object to a high school science teacher getting paid more for having a master's degree in biology.
Or raising the salary of an educator who has learned another language.
But should teachers be able to boost their salaries for going to the opera to enhance their music appreciation? Or for attending union conferences?
Los Angeles Unified spends $519 million each year - or a quarter of the teacher payroll - on salary bonuses for teachers who have taken additional coursework, according to a report released last week. Those classes range from graduate courses taken at a university to online seminars and art appreciation classes.
The salary enhancements are coming under increased scrutiny by the school board as it faces yet another year of shrinking budgets.
"There is a role for ongoing learning ... but unless there is a direct correlation to student achievement, I don't know if it's worth the investment," said LAUSD school board member Yolie Flores.
The "salary credit" system is not unique to Los Angeles Unified. In fact, most school systems in the country use a similar model. That system bases teachers' salaries on the number of years they've worked as educators and the amount of coursework they have completed - which can be in the form of degrees as well as other types of ongoing education.
Other than union negotiated pay raises and certification in specialities like bilingual or special education, taking additional coursework is the only way teachers can boost their salaries.
And over time the increase adds up.
The average midcareer teacher qualifies for an annual salary of $52,000 a year based on their seniority alone, but they can earn just over $72,000 - an increase of 38 percent - if they take the maximum amount of courses possible.
Officials say the system was created to establish a fair and equitable way to pay educators, that left little room for discrimination or favoritism.
Questioning pay structure
However, dozens of studies have questioned whether that pay structure can actually help teachers with their No. 1 task: improving student achievement.
The latest criticism of that system came from a study produced by the National Council on Teacher Quality, which reported that about 25 percent of LAUSD's payroll budget pays for coursework expenses.
Mincing no words, Kate Walsh, executive director of NCTQ, called the coursework salary credit system "pathetic."
"This is not targeted to anything that solves problems in the classroom," Walsh added.
That study also found that 60 percent of all LAUSD teachers have earned the maximum amount of course credits possible - 98 course credits or the equivalent of three master's degrees.
According to district data, 40 percent of LAUSD teachers have earned master's or doctorate degrees.
A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said paying educators for coursework is a clear way to ensure teachers are always well-trained and prepared.
Duffy also explained that a panel made up of union representatives and district officials helps screen all classes to ensure they comply with the teacher's work contract. The teachers union contract says all courses should be linked to subjects commonly taught in the district to be eligible for credit.
"This program was created specifically as an incentive for teachers and other education professionals to improve and gain new skills," Duffy said.
"Not just any course gets you credits... for the past 20 to 25 years we've worked with the district to bring relevant classes to the mix that meet the needs of teachers and, therefore, the needs of students."
Ways to earn credits
Teachers can earn credit for a myriad of courses and activities - from university seminars to classes led by local cultural groups and even some teachers union conferences - as long as they produce some kind of homework following the activity.
That homework can also range from graduate level research papers to lesson plans. In some cases, drawings of what teachers have seen at a museum have been sufficient.
Teachers can also take the same course more than once, as long as the courses are spread out over five years.
Speaking on condition of anonymity out of concern about being penalized, several teachers admitted that most have taken at least a handful of "easy A" type classes after hearing about them from colleagues.
The search for these types of courses is made even easier by dozens of online education programs that market themselves specifically to teachers. Some of these institutions promise flexible schedules and little to no actual chat time with instructors.
Shoddy courses for credit
In some cases though, they have been found to basically give away course credit to teachers.
The latest example was uncovered by LAUSD officials in October of last year, when some 30 teachers started turning in more than 30 units of college course units in a semester from online Vanguard University.
That courseload is the equivalent of a master's degree - usually completed in two years. The district has since removed Vanguard from its list of qualified institutions.
"People are assuming that these salary credits are actually being given for graduate level coursework, when they are not," said Alan Warhaftig, a 22-year English teacher for LAUSD who was on LAUSD's salary credit panel for 12 years.
Warhaftig, a Stanford graduate and national board certified teacher, said he joined the panel because he believes all teachers should be lifelong scholars.
However, he grew frustrated as he watched educators submit shoddy courses for salary credits. Warhaftig would often deny teachers credit for coursework that he felt did not have any academic merit.
He was asked to step down in 2007 from the panel.
"The issue is the quality of courses submitted - a significant percentage of this (budget) is going to pay for courses no one should have ever allowed to be approved."
"You can take a few courses and then for the rest of your career collect more money without proving that this is giving value to students ... It allows teachers to cheat in a way that they would never allow their students to get away with."
Most courses legitimate
A sample of some 250 courses recently approved for credit by LAUSD teachers shows that most educators are taking courses at rigorous and reputable institutions, including the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles.
Even when classes are legitimate, many teachers complain that completing the coursework takes time away from planning lessons, grading papers and engaging in other student activities on a campus.
Mauricio Regalado, an 18-year LAUSD teacher who will be teaching at the Humanitas Academy pilot school at Valley Region High School #5 next fall, said he's missed out on a lot of extra pay for being too involved with school activities.
"I've taken classes... some are good and some are not so good," Regalado said.
"But I wish we could get to a place though where teachers are rewarded for the things they do to improve their campuses and effect change with their students."
Superintendent John Deasy said he would like to see reforms in the pay system so that, for example, teachers could be rewarded for hosting after-school tutoring programs or mentoring colleagues.
"We really need to question if this is the best way to use our resources and to compensate people," Deasy said.
Deasy, who is negotiating a new contract with UTLA officials now, said he plans to bring this issue forward during talks.
"We don't have unlimited dollars, so the dollars we do have, we want to use to our maximum ability ... rewarding performance, difficulty of assignment and the contributions teachers make to their schools and the growth of other teachers."
smf: You’ve got to give the Gates folks credit, they are getting some ‘bang-for-teir buck’ from the NCTQ study!~ And, of course, there is some truth to the study and some truth in this article and some truth to what the folks interviewed in this article say.
Here’s a point well made:
“Other than union negotiated pay raises and certification in specialties like bilingual or special education, taking additional coursework is the only way teachers can boost their salaries.”
- This is not exactly correct – teachers can increase their salaries by becoming administrators (a traditional career advancement path) a but that takes them out of the classroom and we really should encourage good teachers to continue teaching.
- And Good Teacher = Good Administrator is not a given!
- Also – the first part of the quoted sentence …about the negotiated pay raises?. The negotiations have been going the other way in past few contracts.
Dr. Deasy (that Ph.D. is worth $1102 annually salary credit to a teacher or administrator, a Masters is worth $551 annually – you can’t get both! | http://bit.ly/apq34l) ‘would like to see reforms in the pay system so that, for example, teachers could be rewarded for hosting after-school tutoring programs or mentoring colleagues. ‘
After school tutoring or mentoring colleagues sounds like paying overtime to me, compensating folks for extra work done. That makes absolute sense – as does the discussion of bringing this up in contract negotiations. And gentle readers, that’s what’s going on here. It’s just that the negotiations are taking place in the pages of the Daily News and the LA Times.