The Baltimore school system is paying bonuses to teachers and administrators at struggling schools that reduce suspensions, drawing criticism from union leaders who say the program could provide a financial incentive to ignore problems and jeopardize school safety.
In addition to cutting down on suspensions for nonviolent incidents, the program pays bonuses for helping to reduce truancy and absenteeism.
The school system has moved away from zero-tolerance discipline policies — a nationwide trend aimed at disciplining students in school rather than keeping them out through suspensions, which have risen in Baltimore over the past two years.
But the effort has been contentious as city educators grapple with using out-of-school suspensions only as a last resort while maintaining a safe learning environment.
Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said she fears that the bonuses could exacerbate the problem of educators feeling pressure to keep suspension numbers down, sometimes at the expense of maintaining order in the classroom.
"I'm worried about the safety of our teachers," English said. "When you offer a bonus for something like that, you are putting a price on what's going to happen around safety in a school. Money changes people."
The program has doled out bonuses ranging from $5,000 to $9,500 to 72 teachers and assistant principals and $3,000 to two principals.
"We understand this program is controversial," said Tisha Edwards, chief of staff for the school system. "But we have consistently said in this administration that kids need to be in school, and this program supports our theory of action."
The program launched in January 2012 using $695,000 in federal Race to the Top funds that Baltimore received from the state to attract and retain quality teachers and administrators in the state's worst schools.
The bonus program only pays out to teachers with satisfactory evaluations and attendance rates. Teachers also had to agree to return to their schools the following year.
Some outside education experts cautioned against a rush to judgment about the financial incentives, saying they could encourage teachers to learn the reasons behind a child's bad behavior.
"It's really hard work to take out time to figure out what's going on in a child's head, and anything that jump-starts that is a good thing," said Jane Sundius, director of education and youth development programs at the Open Society Institute in Baltimore.
"In the beginning, a teacher may not want to suspend a student for the money," she said. "But if they're not doing anything to change the child's behavior, they'll decide very quickly that it's not worth it."
Edwards acknowledged that city educators have struggled with the changes, but pointed out that test data show the achievement of students who are not in school lags their peers.
For example, students who attended school regularly scored 22 percentage points higher in math and 17 percentage points higher in reading on the 2012 Maryland School Assessments. Out-of-school suspensions are also tied to high dropout rates and low graduation rates.
"We've had this conversation every year," Edwards said. "It's a tension all the time. We just have to keep working at it."
English said that while she doesn't support using suspension as a first resort, a string of school violence in recent months served as a painful reminder that "there are some children who need more help than teachers can give."
English said she believes teachers across the district are under-reporting incidents, even "hard offenses," such as physical abuse, that trigger automatic suspensions.
"To me, verbal abuse is worse," English said. "The reality is that you cannot get away with these things when you go out in society. We're setting children up for failure when there are no real consequences for this behavior."
Targets are set
For teachers and administrators to receive the bonuses, their schools had to meet district-set targets in truancy and chronic absenteeism — and increase the number of families who return school climate surveys that ask questions about safety and learning.
Only nine schools, called "turnaround schools" that have faced federal and state intervention for historically low performance and high suspension rates, were eligible for the bonuses.
The suspension reduction targets applied only to nonviolent offenses like cutting class, inciting or participating in a public disturbance, classroom disruption, insubordination and disrespect.
Of the schools eligible for the grant, only two — Calverton and Commodore John Rodgers Elementary/Middle Schools — met the targets, and leaders at both said the program increased a sense of shared responsibility and accountability among teachers and students.
"The grant made us prioritize what's important," said Tanya Green, principal of Calverton, a long-troubled school that has noted significant progress in recent years. The district "never said not to suspend kids but rather be smart about what you're suspending for."
When she took over the school in 2008 and overhauled its administration, Green said, one of her key strategies for cutting the school's suspensions in half was changing staff attitudes about student behaviors, which also helped the school meet the program goals.
Last year, the school met its target of reducing "soft" suspensions from 23 to nine over six months. It rewarded good behavior and used alternative punishments, such as lunch detentions, that keep kids in school.
Teachers and school staff also made home visits, which contributed to a combined 4 percentage-point reduction in truancy and absentee rates.
Green said teachers were skeptical of the program at first.
"We asked them to imagine the impact they could have on a student where instead of saying, 'Get out of my classroom,' you say, 'You're going to eat lunch with me,' " she said. "We all had a lot more patience by the end of the year."
The principals said they also paid bonuses to every staff member in the school, though only teachers were eligible, including attendance monitors and others who were integral to meeting goals.
"It's probably one of the things I'm most proud of, because when you're talking about a school-wide effort, it takes a team," said Marc Martin, principal at Rodgers, which reduced soft offenses from 15 to six over six months, and the absentee rate by 4 percentage points.
In addition to alternatives like Saturday school detention, the school provided hourly updates to some families about their students' behavior, negative and positive, as a reinforcement strategy. And teachers picked up truant students every day.
Martin said that while the money mattered, Rodgers' staff is accustomed to taking on additional work with difficult students.
"The worth and the value of the program is that it put front and center what our goals were," Martin said. "But we aren't in a profession where we receive bonuses for meeting targets. It made everyone feel valued."
Under schools CEO Andrés Alonso, the system has sought to reverse a trend of using suspensions as a first resort, as was the case when the district logged 26,295 suspensions in the 2003-2004 school year.
The number fell precipitously in the years that followed, to 14,744 when Alonso arrived in 2007. Under his administration, the number dropped to a low of 9,712 in the 2009-2010 school year, before rising to 11,068 in 2011 and 11,394 in 2012.
In addressing principals at the beginning of the school year, Alonso threatened a moratorium on all suspensions for "soft offenses," which he said had been driving the uptick.
But Jimmy Gittings, president of the city's principals union, said district officials often reject principals' requests for suspensions, a requirement for longer-term suspensions. He said he believes that attaching a financial incentive will make school leaders less likely to even request them.
"In most cases, the students who need to be suspended from schools are not suspended," Gittings said. "They don't do what the principals are requesting, and it is causing mass disruption in the schools."
The district is using a new strategy this year called "climate walks," in which independent evaluators help school administrators and teachers understand their suspensions through data and observations about relationships, teaching and learning, physical environment, and safety.
Karen Webber-Ndour, who oversees the district's office of student support and safety, said the strategy has been successful in demonstrating that little things — like the way staff communicate with each other — can make a difference in student behavior.
"When students see how adults talk to each other with respect, display kindness, they amend their behavior accordingly," she said. "It is so elemental on some level, but it is time to get back to basics."