Toni Coleman, Center Hill High School economics teacher, helps her 12th grade class with one of their final class projects in Olive Branch Tuesday, May 7, 2019. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Last month, bus driver and sixth grade special education teacher Chris Nichols received a bonus for helping his school improve a letter grade. The $1,320 stipend came from the School Recognition Program, which provides a financial reward for teachers and staff.

For Nichols, who teaches in the Itawamba County School District, this extra cash also caused some guilt. Though he was happy to have it, his colleagues who are teacher aides and assistants weren’t eligible for the funds even though they “work just as hard” as teachers, he said. The program’s guidelines allow only “certified staff” to receive an award.

“These people are even more underpaid than our teachers, barely making over $1,000 a month and they’re working 40 hours a week,” Nichols said. “So seeing those test results (rise), I feel like those workers should get credit when it comes time to get that money. It goes beyond what (students) receive from the teacher in the classroom.”

Nichols’ concerns echo criticism from school officials, teachers, education advocates and lawmakers about the controversial program, which provides financial rewards for educators in school districts with an A rating or districts that move up a letter grade year over year. The question of equity in the program is compounded by a new complication caused by the coronavirus: Is it fair to reward districts based on letter grades that are not up to date?

When schools closed in March 2020, the Mississippi State Board of Education canceled state testing. This meant that there were no test results to base that year’s accountability ratings. The state board allowed districts to retain their rating from the previous year (2018-19), which creates a problem for lawmakers as they determine how to handle the School Recognition Program without new accountability ratings.

This is not going to change any time soon. This month, the state board voted to allow schools and districts to suspend the assignment of letter grades, which measure school and district performance, for the 2020-21 year.

A December 2020 report conducted by the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) committee warned lawmakers that they do not have up-to-date information to make funding decisions. The committee’s recommendations included that the Legislature should require the Mississippi Department of Education to enforce the program’s rules and clarify who exactly is eligible to receive these monies, among other things.

While the 2021 legislative session is currently underway, legislators are unsure if they’re going to make any changes or continue to fund the merit-pay program.

Senate Education Chair Dennis DeBar, R-Leakesville, said “a placeholder” bill was filed in case legislators opted to make any changes to the law “especially in light of the PEER committee report.” He said that bill could be used to enact a plan to award good teachers in bad districts, though he gave no details. He did seem aware of the language in the law saying a plan should be developed.

When asked if the Legislature might decide not to fund the program in light of no new accountability data, he said, “Everything is on the table.”

House Education Chair Richard Bennett said he and the committee are looking at PEER recommendations, and they are trying to figure out how to deal with the accountability and COVID-19 issue. He said he knows there’s a problem with fairness with accountability being grandfathered.

“We are trying to work with the governor’s office, trying to come up with a way to do it this year. We don’t want it to go away, but because we don’t have the accountability – we’re trying to figure out what to do,” said Bennett, a Republican from Long Beach. “We want to do something, and we definitely want to save the program. It might be possible we give everybody a one-time bonus, if the money’s there. We don’t know yet.”

Bennett said because of COVID-19, the House leadership is trying to limit legislation and its time at the Capitol. This might make it difficult to do an overhaul of the program this year, he said, in part because lawmakers are limited in time on the floor.

“I don’t want to take up something too controversial because it wouldn’t be fair not to give everyone a chance to debate the issues,” Bennett said. “We’re going to do the least amount of things we can with legislation this year so we can get out of here.”

DeBar, Bennett and two other Republican lawmakers each filed bills this year to bring the program forward for possible amendments.

A spokesperson for the Mississippi Department of Education said the department will follow the direction of the Legislature.

Accountability ratings aside, educators and advocates have other issues with the program.

Erica Jones, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, said she is not a “big fan” of the program and feels it’s flawed. She said it doesn’t help with teacher retention. She proposed using the money set aside for the program instead be used to give an “adequate pay raise” to educators to help attract and retain teachers.

“Some of our educators would never receive (the stipend) based on specialty and region,” Jones said. “Before COVID, we were facing a teacher shortage, now with COVID, it’s even harder for us to locate educators in the state.”

In July 2020, Mississippi Today published a story outlining issues with the merit pay program. While many teachers Mississippi Today spoke with said they were grateful for the money, critics say it causes confusion and in some cases actually decreases morale for educators.

The program’s intent to incentivize teachers based on accountability ratings has caused problems, including infighting at the district level about how the money is distributed and who is eligible to receive the funds. Last year the Mississippi Department of Education started to require that schools give this money out equally, though Mississippi Today’s analysis found not all schools seem to be doing this.

It isn’t uncommon for eligible staff to give some of their money to colleagues who did not receive anything. Wanda Quon, principal of Pecan Park Elementary, an A-rated school in the Jackson Public School District, said teachers did this in her school.

“This was something done on their own. They decided together that, ‘Hey, we’re not in this alone,’” Quon said, referring to certified staff who shared the money they received with teacher aides and assistants because “a big part of our school family” wasn’t eligible for the funds.

Other teachers say the students are doing the work, so they should be rewarded, too. Since there are no rules in the law about how teachers should spend the money once they receive it, North Forrest High School U.S. History teacher Laura Holifield and several colleagues took the merit pay they received and created a scholarship for seniors to help with college expenses.

“If it weren’t for the kids, we wouldn’t have gotten (the money) in the first place,” she said.

Additionally, the coronavirus pandemic has altered the way teachers deliver education to students, making it difficult to measure and reward teachers for student performance. Some teachers still struggle to reach and teach kids, said Nichols, the teacher and bus driver in Itawamba County. This makes it harder to measure accountability and determine how much money schools should get from the program, he said.

“You still had teachers that were working hours and hours and hours to try to get instruction out there virtually any way they could,” Nichols said. “Teachers are really trying to make a difference in trying to reach their kids. They don’t need a letter rating hung over their heads. The teachers are more worried about what I can do to really help my kids today.”

It takes more than certified staff to “coordinate that school improvement effort,” said Harrison Michael, principal of Callaway High School. It takes building trust and relationships “inside and outside those four walls” with community, parents, and school staff. His school improved from a D to C.

So, how do you choose what teachers should or shouldn’t be rewarded?

Cathryn Warren, an elementary school teacher in Lamar County School District, said it’s challenging because of a number of factors at play in meeting standards like student population and resources.

“A lot of the time on these high stakes tests, it isn’t necessarily the content of the test. It more so has to do with the student’s ability to take a test, which is even more frustrating,” she said. I know great, phenomenal teachers. (For) districts that may be lower income, or (if) the population is completely different … I don’t think you should disqualify them for their efforts.”

School administrators and teachers said this stems from not giving “specific guidance” on who’s included and who’s not. Jackson Public Schools Chief of Finance Sharolyn Miller said it becomes cumbersome when schools divvy money to their discretion. For example, certain schools may include nurses in eligible staff whereas another school doesn’t, she said.

“We just need to know for sure, what is a certified person? There are a lot of people who hold a license. They will call me and say,’I have to have a license for my job … so does that mean I’m a certified person?’,” Miller said. “I think the MDE heard the cries of staff and school school districts that said define it, but the law needs to be changed to reflect that.”

Geoff Pender and Bobby Harrison contributed to this report.


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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.