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Another impressive model is the Teacher Advancement Program, or TAP, created by the Milken Family Foundation in 1999 and now in place in 180 schools in 14 states and Washington. TAP is more than a merit-pay program. At TAP schools, some of which are unionized, raises are based on the teachers' performancewhich is measured by a combination of structured observations made four to six times a year and student test results, using a Sanders-style value-added formula. The best TAP teachers can climb the professional ladder in three ways: remaining in the classroom but becoming a mentor to others; leaving one's own classroom to become a full-time teacher of teachers, or master teacher; or taking the traditional route into administration.
The element of TAP that gets the most praise from teachers is its rigorous approach to helping them build and refine their skills and learn from one another. To do this, TAP teachers meet in small groups led by a master teacher for one to two hours a week, generally during the school day. That degree of supervision can be a tough sell to veteran teachers. "I hated it tooth and nail," says Cathy Dailey, who has been teaching science at Bell Street Middle School in Clinton, S.C., for 21 years. "All of a sudden I had to articulate my goals and know that someone was going to come in and watch me." Dailey particularly disliked being forced to reflect in writing on how well her lessons went. "I'd rather you beat me with a stick!" she says. But six years after TAP was introduced, Dailey admits that it has made her more versatile and effective. "I wouldn't be nearly the teacher I am today if it weren't for the big T-A-P," she says. "I do many more labs and more hands-on lessons. I'm always looking for new ideas on the Internet." She even likes writing the reflections. "You really evaluate what you did and how effective you were," she says. "Sometimes I give myself a pat on the back, and sometimes I think, Oh, boy, you've got to change that."
Since Bell Street Middle School adopted TAP in 2001, it has doubled the percentage of students scoring at an advanced level in math and reading and reduced the percentage scoring "below basic" in math 46%. Meanwhile, teacher turnover has fallen from a disastrous 32% a year to less than 10%. Jason Culbertson, who heads TAP in South Carolina, says such improvements in student achievement, quality of teaching and teacher morale are typical. A recent analysis involving 610 TAP teachers in six states, conducted by the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, the nonprofit that runs TAP, found that 38% of TAP teachers produced above-average gains in student achievement in a single year, vs. 26% of teachers in a control group.
This school year South Carolina extended the program from 18 schools to 43, including all 10 schools in rural, impoverished Marlboro County, where 20% of teachers are not even certified. The challenge is funding, says Culbertson. South Carolina's TAP schools draw on a variety of federal, state and foundation funds to pay for stipends of $10,000 for master teachers and $5,000 for mentors and bonuses that range from $350 to $9,500. Culbertson is always looking for ways to attract more talent. His latest project: refurbishing an old Marlboro County mansion as an almost rent-free home for top teachers. "I treat the job more like a crusade," says the 28-year-old former social-studies teacher. "My goal is systematic change across the state."
It's a good goal for an entire nation in need of better-quality teaching. As U.S. school districts embark on hundreds of separate experiments involving merit pay, some lessons seem clear. If the country wants to pay teachers like professionalsaccording to their performance, rather than like factory workers logging time on the jobit has to provide them with other professional opportunities, like the chance to grow in the job, learn from the best of their peers, show leadership and have a voice in decision-making, including how their work is judged. Making such changes would require a serious investment by school districts and their taxpayers. But it would reinvigorate a noble profession.
With reporting by Rita Healy/Denver, Hilary Hylton/Houston and Kathie Klarreich/Miami