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Merced teachers union backs controversial federal grant proposal

A Merced teachers union has voted to back a controversial federal grant program, but only after extracting district guarantees that student test scores would not be used to evaluate individual instructors.

Sheila Whitley, president of the Merced Union High School District Teachers’ Assn., said Tuesday that 67.6% of 191 teachers surveyed said they would support the Race to the Top grant application as long as the district honored its pledge not to use test scores in individual performance reviews. Both sides agreed to negotiate the possible use of schoolwide or district scores to evaluate teachers instead, clearing the way for Merced to submit its application last week.

The grant requires that a teacher evaluation system using student test scores or other measures of academic achievement be in place by 2014. That requirement is a key reason that most teachers unions have refused to support the federal grant program.

Merced joined Riverside's, Fresno's and a few other California teachers unions in bucking the trend and backing their district grant applications. The Los Angeles Unified School District submitted its $43.3-million proposal last week without support from United Teachers Los Angeles, an omission a federal official said would disqualify it from consideration. The union said it was concerned that the grant would not cover all of the costs of implementing the proposal.

“We received the protections we felt we needed," Whitley said in explaining why the Merced union supported the grant. "It does take trust between the district and association, but you make decisions based on what’s best for students.” 

The 10,000-student Merced district, located in a high-poverty area of the San Joaquin Valley, submitted a $20-million application to close the achievement gap, promote higher-level learning and prepare students for college and careers.

The application proposes better data systems, Google Chromebooks, community partnerships and other initiatives. One of the five proposed programs would give $8 million in financial bonuses to schools or the district overall if they meet student achievement targets. All terms of the incentive program would be negotiated by a bargaining team equally weighted between the district and union.

George Sziraki, Merced’s assistant superintendent of educational services, said he was comfortable evaluating teachers on the collective test scores of their school or the district overall because teaching is a team effort. In his high school district, he said, only 40% of instructors teach the subjects covered by the state standardized test. And the new “Common Core” curriculum standards, with their emphasis on literacy and critical thinking, will make student achievement even more dependent on teacher teamwork, he said.

“A shared approach makes good sense,” he said.

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