Epic teacher pay

Epic teacher Katie Biswell reads to students Corinne Schulte, 7 (left); Juliet Schulte, 8; and Luke Schulte, 5, at the public library in Sapulpa on Friday. Biswell earned nearly $40,000 working part time for Epic in 2015-16. Of that, nearly $16,000 was bonus pay and stipends. Clifton Adcock/Oklahoma Watch

Teachers at Epic Charter Schools are some of the highest paid in the state. They are also some of the lowest paid in the state.

The wide variations in teacher compensation at the state’s largest online charter school are due to an unconventional program that allows teachers to earn a bonus of up to their base salary, which would double their pay. So a teacher earning $35,000, for instance, can earn an annual bonus of up to $35,000, pushing total pay to $70,000.

Bonus pay allowed more than half of Epic’s 218 certified teachers to earn well above the average pay for public school teachers, according to Oklahoma Department of Education data for 2015-16. But for some, the gamble didn’t pay off; they earned little or no bonus and their total compensation was less than the minimum salary required in traditional public schools.

Meanwhile, Epic, which enrolled more than 9,000 students in pre-K through 12 this year and is now the state’s 14th largest school system, has average to low school grades and hasn’t seen significant improvement in student achievement.

Epic has been using this model of performance pay — also known as merit pay —since it opened in 2011, an experiment in teacher compensation conducted using state per-pupil funds, which all charter schools receive.

“(Epic’s) pay performance model is one we feel like works, and is allowing us to attract some of the most talented teachers,” said Bart Banfield, assistant superintendent of instruction for Epic.

Merit pay, which rewards teachers for test scores and other student outcomes, is relatively rare in Oklahoma, education groups say. Nationally, it is also uncommon, with just 3.5 percent of schools offering it, according to a 2011 report from the now-defunct National Center on Performance Incentives.

Charter schools are well-suited to experiment with merit pay because their teachers don’t typically belong to unions and the schools don’t have to follow the minimum salaries set by the Legislature.

Some studies have found that performance-pay systems, especially those using standardized test scores, don’t improve student performance.

High risk, high reward

Public school teachers in Oklahoma are among the lowest paid in the country, earning an average of $44,921, including benefits, according to the National Education Association. The minimum starting salary for teachers in Oklahoma with a bachelor’s degree is $31,600, including benefits.

Epic pays its full-time teachers an average of $61,200, which includes base pay, benefits, travel stipends and bonus pay. The school’s highest paid teacher made $92,890 in 2015-16.

At the other end of the pay scale, nearly 30 of Epic’s 132 full-time teachers earned below the state average in 2015-16, data show.

Teachers traditionally see their pay increase as they spend more years in the classroom or earn an advanced degree. Epic uses neither to determine a teacher’s salary. Epic teachers’ base pay is $1,000 per regular student and $1,500 per special education student.

The bonuses, paid out three times a year, are based on three components: standardized testing participation and performance, and whether students return to the school the next year, or retention.

Teacher Kristi Rich, in her eighth year of teaching and sixth year with Epic, earned more than $83,000 in 2015-16.

“If I’m going to go the extra mile, it will result in my families wanting to stay on my roster,” Rich said. “It will result in my students performing well on their testing. It will result in high performance, and my pay is associated with that.”

A handful of teachers, responding to a recent performance review conducted by the state Office of Educational Quality and Accountability, raised concerns about the plan. The agency surveyed more than 100 Epic staff members on a variety of topics. When asked, “What do you like least (about the school)?”, three of the concerned teachers responded:

• “Arbitrary nature of our compensation plan. Bonus structure is a positive and a negative. It provides an added stress that may be unnecessary.”

• “The bonus schedule is complicated, and when administrators share specific data pertaining to it, they don’t clearly explain it (data overload.)”

• “It’s difficult to get clarity with bonus payouts. It sometimes takes months to have a response to an email when inquiring about a bonus calculation error. We need some transparency when it comes to bonus payout.”

Measuring success

The most important question about merit pay is whether it works by improving the academic success of kids.

Teachers are often opposed to pay that relies on student test performance because there are so many variables they have no control over, said Mary Sue Backus, a University of Oklahoma law professor.

“It’s not always a fair measure of whether someone is a good teacher or not,” she said.

Epic’s teachers meet with principals monthly, Banfield said, and are evaluated regularly using metrics the school has developed. Low-performing teachers are directed to online training videos to improve their craft, and first-year teachers are rarely terminated, giving them time to adjust to Epic’s model, he said.

When asked for evidence that performance pay is improving student performance, Banfield cited Epic’s growth in enrollment and internal benchmarks on academic growth.

On 2016 state report cards, Epic’s elementary and middle school earned a D+, pushed above the F threshold by a perfect attendance rate that has raised questions among state officials. A state lawmaker recently filed legislation to address the issue.

Epic’s high school received a C, with low marks for student performance in math and science. Just 19 percent of students took a college entrance exam, such as the ACT, and only a quarter graduated — a rate slightly lower than in 2015.

School officials have long railed against the state A-F report cards, saying they unfairly grade Epic for accepting enrollments all year and taking students who are close to dropping out.

Epic instead points to students’ performance on end-of-year exams. In 2015-16, 88 percent of Epic students were proficient in English II, better than the state average of 82 percent. In math, however, Epic students fared worse than the state average, with 61 percent proficient in Algebra I, versus 78 percent statewide.

Tara Cameron, who has twin second-graders and an eighth-grader in Epic this year, wasn’t aware her children’s teachers were eligible for bonuses based partially on how well her children score on standardized tests. But she has become frustrated with what she said is the school’s emphasis on practice tests instead of curriculum to introduce students to new concepts.

“It’s been such a frustrating year because that (testing) is all they’ve cared about,” Cameron said.

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