PORTLAND — Since 2006, the average teacher and ed tech salary in the city has increased 22 percent, from just over $50,000 per year in 2006 to more than $61,000 this year.
Part of the reason for the growth is the “lane change” system contained in the contract, which is aimed at providing a financial incentive for continuing education.
The program, called Professional Learning-based Salary System, awards a teacher credit toward salary increases based on various forms of professional learning, from college courses to workshops to self-study programs.
Teachers say it rewards students with more learning, too. But the city’s scores on standardized student tests remain the lowest in the area.
According to a study done by the University of Massachusetts, commissioned by the Portland Education Association and paid for by the National Education Association, 58.6 percent of Portland teachers and other unionized staff have had at least one lane change.
“I think when we started this new salary system, we knew it was new, we knew it was controversial,” PEA President Kathleen Casasa said.
Casasa said an independent evaluation of the salary system was part of the plan from the beginning.
“We think the premise is very sound and a good one. Now we need to know if its showing any results,” she said.
The study found that although the program was incredibly popular at first, the number of proposals for study that were submitted has dropped off. That’s partially due to limits in the number of lane changes allowed – now only one every four years – and partially because many of the union members interested in the program took advantage of it as soon as it became available.
“We think that’s good, both because it’s more sustainable in terms of district financing of the program, and it still meets the requirements of teachers being lifelong learners,” Casasa said.
Superintendent of Schools James C. Morse Sr. said that when the program was initially implemented, it cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars. However, the contract has been updated to limit how quickly teachers can move through lane changes, which has led to increases of approximately $50,000 per year.
“I see it as much more sustainable,” Morse said. “I still see it evolving.”
Morse said he does not blame the salary system for ed tech layoffs last year, and instead said that decision was based more on maintaining class sizes.
Casasa said union members took a pay freeze in this year’s contract with the understanding that some of the laid-off ed techs would return to their jobs.
“I think our ed techs know we support them,” she said.
The program has undergone several changes since it began in 2006, including the limits on lane changes, and a new focus on Portland-specific education, such as specialty training in English language learners, working with children below the poverty line and special education.
“We could never hire enough (English language learners) staff to meet our needs,” Morse said. “So what do you do? You train the staff you have.”
Casasa said that starting next year, teachers must have met at least one of the education requirements set by the district in order to make a lane change to a higher salary.
Portland’s teachers report overwhelmingly that the program contributed greatly or somewhat to student learning, but test scores in the No Child Left Behind Act paint a different picture.
Student test scores have continued to remain below federal requirements, with only 36 percent of Portland students meeting or exceeding standards in math, and 48 percent in reading, last year, according to state Department of Education reports
East End Community and Riverton Elementary schools have both been designated Schools in Need of Improvement based on testing, and the entire district was labeled a Continuous Improvement Priority School district in math last year.
“Test scores are a splice in time. They don’t tell the whole story,” Casasa said. “We certainly recognize and want to see our students performing better and meeting more standards, but we use other pieces of evidence as well.”
According to the state Department of Education, Portland High School had the lowest graduation rate in the area last year, down 6.5 percent to 69.4 percent of students graduating in four years.
Casco Bay High School saw its graduation rate drop nearly 9 percent last year, the biggest drop in the area, to just under 73 percent, while Deering High School saw a small increase to 83.4 percent.
Casasa said teachers measure student success by individual teacher assessments, students’ portfolios and presentations.
“I think our community would want to look at assessing students in multiple ways,” she said.
Morse said that overall, the salary system has been a worthwhile endeavor and that it has produced a highly qualified staff that he can turn to for expertise in a wide range of issues.
“I think it’s been worth the investment as the system has been refined,” he said.