A significant number of Baltimore teachers — in some schools as many as 60 percent of the staff — have received unsatisfactory ratings on their midyear evaluations as the system moves to implement a pay-for-performance contract that's considered a bellwether for a national movement.
Teachers contend that the high number of "performance improvement plans," which can be a precursor for dismissal, is an attempt to avoid paying raises. But city school officials say that putting teachers on such plans is part of broader efforts to help them become more effective in the classroom.
Baltimore is one of a handful of districts at the forefront of a national debate on how to root out the worst teachers and reward the most effective. The city has joined a growing number of districts looking to implement new evaluation systems that link teacher ratings and pay to students' academic progress.
"Nationally, it is indisputably true that the teacher evaluation system is broken, that teachers have not gotten meaningful feedback, or the respect to be given clear standards and expectations," said Dan Weisberg, vice president of policy at the New Teacher Project, a national nonprofit that trains teachers.
Baltimore's school system declined to say how many teachers have been placed on PIPs because of unsatisfactory evaluations. But school and union officials confirmed that in some schools around the city, more than 60 percent of teachers received one.
Tisha Edwards, chief of staff for the school system, said the recent spate of PIPs doesn't mean that more than half of the teachers in certain schools would be fired. However, she said, given the low student test scores around the city, some teachers should expect their jobs to be in jeopardy.
"We do have schools where that should be a reality," Edwards said.
In 2013, every teacher in Maryland will be evaluated based on student performance, as state education leaders continue to hammer out on a new evaluation system that will base 50 percent of teacher evaluations on student achievement. Baltimore was the first locality in the state to include pay for performance in a contract.
PIPs have traditionally represented an agreement between a teacher and a principal on areas of improvement. If a teacher fails to meet the goals, the district can begin taking steps toward dismissal. Edwards said the evaluation process in the past has lacked consistency, feedback and a paper trail of efforts to help teachers improve.
"We have more people on PIPs, and we're proud of it," she added. "We're not saying we're going to fire everybody, but we're using PIPs the way they were supposed to be used, but never were: to communicate where we need to develop, and get better about documenting the development of our people."
But the new approach has spurred backlash from city teachers who feel vulnerable under a contract that, now in its second year, has yet to be fully fleshed out. Union and district officials are still hammering out the most critical piece of the pact: how teachers will be evaluated.
Educators for Democratic Schools, a group of 85 who opposed the contract, believes the district's strategy of giving a large number of teachers an unsatisfactory evaluation midway through the year is intended to make it harder for them to be rated proficient at the end of the year.
Teachers who are rated proficient receive an automatic pay raise under the Baltimore Teachers Union contract, ratified in October 2010.
"We thought it would be great if we all made 80 grand, and we think there are lots of teachers who should, but we never believed there was enough money to support that," said Iris Kirsch, spokeswoman for the group.
Kirsch, in her sixth year as an English teacher, was placed on a PIP along with several teachers at Heritage High School.
"We always said this contract is going to make the evaluation process into a much bigger deal, where personal attacks can turn into pay cuts and threaten people's job security, and that seems to be exactly what is happening," she said.
But Edwards dismissed claims that the new strategy is a cost-saving measure. District officials have maintained that the city can afford the contract, estimated to cost $50 million over three years, though they have never detailed where the money would come from. In other districts, like Washington, D.C., private funds had to be solicited to afford a similar merit-pay pact.
Edwards said the new PIP strategy reflects that "things matter today that didn't matter yesterday."
A national issue
National experts say that the mere increase of PIPs in a school district undergoing such reforms shouldn't raise red flags because they can provide critical information to teachers.