Oregon School Says 'No' to Grant Tied to Performance-Based Pay

At a time when budget cuts and spending woes have schools scrambling to pay for programs, extracurricular activities and even supplies, it is almost inconceivable that a school district could actually turn down millions of dollars in grant money. But that is exactly what one district in Oregon has done. Why?

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A 'Difficult Decision'

The Oregon City School District website called it a 'difficult decision'. Nancy Noice, president of the Oregon City Education Association, said it was 'heart-wrenching' and 'heartbreaking'.

Still, the district's decision not to abide by stipulations attached to a $2.5 million grant, part of the government's Teacher Incentive Fund, was seen by some as necessary. The strings attached to the grant? That the money be used to pay bonuses to teachers in a performance-based incentive.

But Oregon City school officials balked at the request. Many feel that such bonuses have no impact on student achievement. The district felt strongly enough not to back down even in the face of losing the grant.

Proposal Rejected

This isn't to say that Oregon City didn't try.

The district did suggest pooling the money into a teacher's fund that could be used to reward all teachers. Some suggested the pool be used for teacher continuing education. But the U.S. Department of Education, which strongly supports teacher-performance incentives, refused to accept the proposal.

Noice told OregonLive.com in September 2011, shortly after the announcement was made regarding the reward of the grant to eight Oregon school districts, that 'Oregon City would not use the money for teacher incentives. There's no way that Oregon City is going to go there.'

Debate Surrounds Performance-Based Compensation

The Teacher Incentive Fund is just one competitive grant program offered by the federal government. Another is the Race to the Top Fund, which provides grant money to schools implementing innovative education reform.

But some feel the criteria for these grants, which rely for the most part on student test scores when it comes to measuring student success, simply don't portray teacher performance accurately. And paying teachers bonuses to improve student achievement, they say, is a practice that is largely unproven.

What's more, teacher-performance incentives encourage competition rather than collaboration. Opponents to performance based bonuses say collaboration is more important in a learning environment.

What's Next?

For now, the federal grant meant for Oregon City remains homeless as the Department of Education considers other school districts in the state that will adhere to its rules. The Department noted that other Oregon districts receiving the same federal grant were unaffected by Oregon City's decision.

Meanwhile, reaction to the decision from Oregon City residents was mixed. Those who do not support performance-based bonuses agreed with the school district, while others felt the money should not have been refused.

The district remains committed to its own restructured teacher evaluation model that it began in collaboration with the Chalkboard Project, a nonprofit organization focusing on improving student success in Oregon public schools, and intends to move forward with it despite the loss of those federal funds.

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