By Leslie Trahan
It’s no secret that teaching is a demanding job, and despite the challenges of the profession, large compensation increases have typically been out of reach for educators. A statewide incentive program aims to change that for Texas’ most effective teachers.
The Teacher Incentive Allotment, or TIA, was created in 2019 with the goal of providing top educators the opportunity to earn a six-figure salary. The program was established by House Bill 3, a comprehensive public school funding bill passed by the 86th Texas Legislature.
Through the TIA, districts can receive funding allotments of $3,000–$32,000 per designated teacher. The amount of funding is based on the level of designation each teacher receives, with greater funds being allotted for teachers in high-need and rural districts.
“It puts them on a playing field with other high-paying professions and allows teachers to stay in the classroom and receive high compensation.”
To date, more than 4,000 of the state’s roughly 360,000 public schoolteachers have been designated by the system, resulting in a payout of approximately $43 million to school districts across Texas.
John York, chief human resource officer at Longview ISD, said the program has been “life changing” for teachers in his district, located in East Texas. The district currently has 82 designated teachers. Eleven of those teachers have achieved a six-figure salary for a 10-month contract.
“It puts them on a playing field with other high-paying professions and allows teachers to stay in the classroom and receive high compensation,” said York. “Teachers feel valued and appreciated for the hard work they perform on a daily basis. It is a win-win situation for the students, district, and teachers.”
Measuring Teacher Effectiveness
Grace Wu, director of strategic compensation at the Texas Education Agency (TEA), believes the incentive program could be a powerful part of a district’s recruitment and retention efforts. “One of the things we know is that teachers want to stay in a place where they feel valued, where they feel recognized, and where they feel they are continually growing,” said Wu. “TIA can be a great part of your human capital system because it will help to codify how the district is measuring teacher effectiveness. That really speaks to teachers knowing when they are doing well and what [areas] they need to grow in.”
For this system to work, districts must be able to determine which teachers are most effective. Districts may opt to develop a local designation system that relies on both teacher observation and student growth data. Local designation systems must be reviewed and approved by the TEA. From start to finish, the process of establishing that local system takes about three years.
Lubbock ISD was among the first districts in the state to submit a local designation system to TEA. The district currently has 86 designated teachers and hopes to double that number in the coming year. Lane Sobehrad, the district’s development coordinator, said the flexibility provided by the program means districts can rely on some of their current processes to develop a local designation system. “You’re required to have teacher appraisal and student growth measures, but even those are up to your district as to what you want to use to measure success,” said Sobehrad. “You get to pick the weighting, you get to pick what qualifies as a designated teacher, you get to pick your payout scheme and what teachers are eligible.”
Amy Campbell, director of TASB HR Services, said data validation is often the most challenging part of creating a local designation system. For a system to be approved, the district must collect a year’s worth of data showing a correlation between student growth and teacher effectiveness. Drawing that line can be tricky. “Data need to correlate by teaching area, by campus, across the entire district,” said Campbell. “If I’m a big district with 100 elementary schools, I need to be sure that every principal in every elementary school is rating their teacher roughly equivalent, so I have to spend a lot of time calibrating those raters.”
National Board Certified Teachers
For districts that find this process too cumbersome, there is another route to receiving incentive funds. Teachers may also achieve TIA designation through National Board Certification. Campbell believes this route may be more desirable for many districts because it eliminates the structural work of creating a local designation system. “It doesn’t require overhaul of the teacher appraisals in the district, and it doesn’t require figuring out student growth measures for everyone,” said Campbell. “It is on that individual teacher to achieve that certification and earn the allocation accordingly.”
Although this option is easier for districts, it can be a challenge for educators. National Board Certification is a rigorous professional development pathway that typically requires two years to complete. Many districts use a portion of the TIA allotment funds to provide support for educators pursuing National Board Certification.
Approximately 3% of teachers across the country are National Board Certified. In Texas, this number dips to .3%, representing roughly a thousand teachers across the state.
Sobehrad likens the National Board Certification process to achieving a graduate certificate for educators. He said Lubbock ISD does its best to provide the resources these teachers need to be successful. The district uses some of its TIA allotment funds to sponsor a district-run cohort for educators who wish to pursue National Board Certification. With support from the Texas National Board Coalition for Teaching, the district provides mentors and additional resources to help teachers succeed.
Fourteen Lubbock ISD educators are expected to achieve National Board Certification by the end of the 2022-23 school year. “If they need additional materials or support, we make sure they have those things,” said Sobehrad. “It is a lot of work, but we hope the teachers will see the benefit financially and professionally.”
Using Allotment Funds
The TIA requires districts to spend at least 90% of their funding allocation on teacher compensation. Any funds not spent on teacher compensation must be used to implement a local designation system or support teachers who are trying to achieve designation.
Districts have some freedom in deciding how to spend the portion of their allotment that is reserved for teacher compensation. Although these funds must be spent on the campus where the designated teacher works, they do not have to be provided directly to the designated teacher. Districts can instead opt to spread the allotment out among student-facing instructional staff.
Campbell said most districts give the funding directly to the designated teacher, but the decision is complicated, especially in rural areas. “It’s really messy in smaller districts to dole out that money,” said Campbell. “If you have 50 teachers in a district, it’s hard to say only three of you will be compensated $30,000 more this year, especially when that extra $30,000 could mean that a teacher makes more than the superintendent that year.”
Dallas ISD was one of the first districts in the state to receive TEA approval for a designation system. In fact, the district’s locally created incentive program served as the model for TIA. Suzy Smith, executive director of performance management for Dallas ISD, said having a system already in place and being part of a large district with a lot of resources has helped get the program off the ground, but nonetheless, there have been difficulties. “It’s challenging to design systems that can get valid data about teacher performance across all those different assignments,” said Smith. “How do I come to a valid evaluation of a teacher outside of a tested subject? When you tie compensation to it, it becomes even more charged.”
Catherine Robert, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Texas at Arlington, worries that the inequitable distribution of compensation could cause internal disputes within districts. “Teaching is a group project. You do need a strong team. You do need to reward your people,” said Robert. “But there are much easier ways for additional compensation that would create fewer hard feelings and more equitably award pay for the hard work they’re doing.”
The question of equitable distribution is further complicated for districts because the TIA does not easily accommodate every type of teacher. Patty Quinzi, director of public affairs and legislative counsel for the Texas AFT, a statewide union with 66,000 members, including educators, school employees, and retirees, said the requirement to tie student growth to teacher performance means many educators will not be eligible for the allotments.
“There is a big gaping hole in this process for teachers who aren’t in a tested subject,” said Quinzi. “How are you gauging the success of kids in their classrooms? There are so many different elements and so many different people who go into a child’s success. It’s very unfair to pick and choose who should get rewarded when what we should do instead is provide a solid foundation salary that is comparable to jobs in the private sector that teachers could get with the skills that they have now.”
At a session on the TIA at the TASA Midwinter Conference in January, Madeline Anderson, Ore City ISD’s curriculum director, said her district relies on portfolios to determine student growth in those hard-to-measure subject areas. Anderson said Ore City ISD “felt it was a moral imperative to include everyone.”
Although Lubbock ISD opts to give the 90% reserved for teacher compensation directly to the designated teacher, Sobehrad admitted that it is a complicated decision. He said the district is comfortable with this path “because our stakeholders helped us make this decision and our goal is to get as many teachers as possible eligible for TIA so that nobody is left out.”
The district is currently working on adding more teachers to the program, including some career and technical educators and some fine arts educators, who would not typically be able to achieve a TIA designation outside of the National Board Certification route. Sobehrad said it’s been a “monumental task” for the district because “not all of these courses have assessments that are good vehicles for a pre- [and] post-test kind of setup, where you can establish growth measures. There is not a STAAR test for us to look at.”
Allotment Amounts Per Designation Level
The TIA allows teachers to receive one of three levels of designations. District allotments vary based on the designation and on whether the campus is high needs and/or rural. National Board Certified teachers automatically receive a Recognized designation.
(Average allotment is $6,181)
(Average allotment is $12,576)
(Average allotment is $22,537)
A Path Forward
Although the TIA was established in 2019, the long lead time for the program means there is no data yet to show whether it impacts recruitment and retention. Most of the districts that participated in the first phase of the TIA already had incentive programs in place that they were able to use as a foundation, but the data from those early programs is not necessarily transferrable. TEA plans to take a closer look at retention and recruitment after the program’s 2021-22 school year data become available.
“If it pays teachers more, it’s worth the effort for [the] central office.”
Robert said the lack of data showing that the program works is troubling. “The high cost of administering this overly complex system is my biggest concern,” said Robert. “It would have been better to have more data before engaging at the full state level.”
“There’s no doubt it’s harder to work in an at-risk campus and that it’s harder to keep teachers in a rural campus,” said Robert. “But there are much easier ways for additional compensation that would create fewer hard feelings and more equitably award pay for the hard work they’re doing.” Robert said she would prefer to see the state “give stipends to every teacher at a high needs or rural campus above and beyond what they make.”
But in the absence of those other solutions, districts will need to determine for themselves whether TIA is a good fit.
“It can be tempting to seek out these payments for teachers because we all want to reward our best and brightest especially now, but it is a heavy lift for a district,” said Campbell. “It takes a lot of time and planning and staff resources. Before you jump in with both feet, just make sure you are ready. Be sure it makes strategic sense for your district, that it makes sense resources-wise, and that you have buy-in and have completed a fact-finding mission first.”
For Lubbock ISD, the key to success with TIA was assembling a stakeholder group immediately. “Our initial group was about 48 or 50 people with all kinds of content area expertise and roles in the district — teacher, instructional coach, administrator, etc. We wanted all levels of experience, age, gender ethnicity, disability,” said Sobehrad. “We put all the requisite factors in because TIA was an unknown entity and we wanted to make sure all the voices were at the table with us when we were presented the option for what that framework might look like.”
Sobehrad acknowledged that a great deal of administrative work goes into creating a district plan for TIA, but he believes the payoff is too big to be ignored. “If it pays teachers more, it’s worth the effort for [the] central office,” said Sobehrad. “That cost benefit is easily justifiable if you get people across the finish line.”
Leslie Trahan is the content strategy manager for TASB.