Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Critics say Mississippi program meant to reward student achievement is unfair and exacerbates rural inequalities

Mississippi's legislature created the School Recognition Program in 2014, a merit-pay plan that rewards teachers with cash bonuses for improving student performance. Critics say the program is confusing, sometimes decreases morale for teachers, and may unfairly penalize teachers at schools where students underperform because of systematic inequalities—often in poor rural communities where Black students are a majority, Aallyah Wright reports for Mississippi Today.

"Under the School Recognition Program, teachers in A-rated schools or schools that improve from a ‘F’ to ‘D’ or a ‘D’ to ‘C’ receive $100 per student, and ‘B’ rated schools receive $75 per student," Wright reports. "Since 2017, the Legislature has funneled about $71 million into the recognition program. In fiscal year 2020, nearly 21,000 certified teachers and staff in more than 500 public schools collectively received $25 million, according to Mississippi Today’s analysis of program records. No administrators can receive an award."

The controversial program is now "at the center of a power struggle between the executive and legislative branch, and it’s the reason why the K-12 budget has not been appropriated this year," Wright reports. "Gov. Tate Reeves partially vetoed about $2.2 billion of the appropriation last month because, he said, the budget bill did not fund the program."

Reeves said in a Facebook post that the state's schools are improving in many areas and that the SRP was "a big reason why." However, "research shows merit pay systems have no effect on student outcomes," Wright reports. And a Mississippi Today analysis shows that 53 percent of the programs funds have gone to majority-white school districts.

Some teachers Wright interviewed said they appreciated the bonuses, but said they felt conflicted because poorer school districts need the money more. Some also said that money is helpful, but doesn't motivate teachers. "We’re inspired to keep our students growing and improving," said middle school teacher Amanda Reiser. "Would money be helpful? Absolutely … I feel like it needs to be across the board. Take all of that money and divvy it up to everybody and keep our teacher (shortage) rate low."

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