As the 86th Session of the Texas legislatures continues barreling along, one of the elements that continues to be a focus is funding education. There are different versions being bandied about in the Texas House and Senate, but everyone seems to have aligned on the idea that more money should be going into public education and that we probably need to be paying educators more.

The model in Texas that seems to be continually brought up is the Dallas ISD Teacher Excellence Initiative (TEI) and their Accelerating Campus Excellence (ACE) plan. The rollout of ACE in 2015 has driven positive results for DISD, which has led to a few other districts emulating the model, but even in DISD, the model itself may not be sustainable due to cost. One other likely reason the DISD programs have gotten so much attention is because Mike Morath is the head of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and he was formally a school board trustee for Dallas ISD. It makes sense you would tout a program you helped shape.


Here is the ACE Overview from the DISD webpage:

Dallas ISD’s Accelerating Campus Excellence (ACE) plan accelerates school transformation through three primary factors: strong school leadership, effective teachers, and high expectations for both students and staff. The ACE plan incentivizes top teachers and principals to work at the district’s highest-need schools to ensure that effective teachers are in the classrooms where they are most needed.

Since the programs’ inception in 2015, ACE schools have improved in all areas. Academic performance has increased in core content areas, attendance has improved, and parents feel more positive about their child’s school.

In 2016, Texas Education Agency (TEA) accountability ratings showed that six of the seven ACE schools moved from Improvement Required to Met Standard. Furthermore, these campuses collectively received nine distinction designations.

ACE uses a financial carrot of a few thousand dollars to motivate teachers to volunteer to work at high need schools. The idea is to get the teachers and campus leaders with more experience to step in and help right the ship. This is much better than threatening to remove resources when a campus struggles. I still have questions about sustainability and the details of how you make it go, but all in all, I applaud the idea of providing more and better resources to a campus in need.


Let’s pivot to TEI. I will be very up front. I’ve been paying attention to this plan since it rolled out, as I was a school board trustee for Granbury ISD when it came out. I didn’t think it was a solid long term model then. I don’t think it is a solid long term model now. I’ll walk you through how it works and give you some of my perspective along the way.

A traditional salary scale has increases built in, year after year, on a defined step. You come into the district at a certain level, based on years of experience, and move up only when the scale says you do. Some districts still leverage this model, others use the scale only for your entry into the district, and others have tossed out the scales all together. Dallas ISD took a totally different approach on their Teacher Excellence Initiative (TEI), with the intent being to reward the “best” teachers with the highest pay. How are they set up?

For most teachers, they are evaluated in three different areas:

  1. Teacher performance

Based on what category you fall into, the weighting for each of those three categories varies. (screenshot below and others throughout this article are taken directly from the Dallas ISD TEI Teacher Guidebook 2018–2019)

Teacher Performance

Educators are measured in four different domains.

In domain 1, which is focused on creation of lessons, and domain 4, which is focused on personal accountability and development, evidence is collected throughout the year. For domain 2, which is looking at how you present information, and domain 3, which is focused on the environment for learning, the instructor is observed throughout the year by evaluators.

Dallas ISD weights the domains differently:

“Domain 2 and 3 have been assigned greater weight since these indicators are the classroom indicators of instructional effectiveness. This reflects our belief: Effective instruction makes the most difference in student academic performance. The seven indicators have been given a weight of 3.3 as these seven are the focus of frequent spot observations and help focus the district as a whole on high- leverage practices.”

There are guidelines for the observations to ensure that a consistent method is applied

Everything gets added up in each domain, weights get added, and a total score is assigned. I honestly don’t have any real concerns with the way this part of TEI functions. This makes sense, as you are looking to give teachers real feedback on how they are performing in their classroooms.

Student Achievement

When it comes to Student Achievement, different classes and grades have different templates attached. Here are two examples from the TEI Teacher Guidebook.

You can see the Elementary School, Grade 1 template doesn’t include a STAAR section, as the STAAR test isn’t given to first graders. For Middle School Mathematics, on the right, they have the Teacher STAAR as 15% of the Student Achievement section. Also notice there is a School STAAR section, which makes up 5% of both charts, and will show up on ALL achievement templates. This 5% is generated based on how the overall campus does on any STAAR tests administered. This puts a single high stakes test driving between a minimum of 5% of a teachers Student Achievement Score (and it isn’t even their students, but the whole campus) and maximum of 20% (with 15% coming from the students you teach).

This is an element of the program that is so hard for me to swallow. As a teacher, you have no control over the students you get year to year. To base 20% of your overall rating, which is absolutely going to impact how much you can be paid, on how your kids and the whole campus, perform on a high stakes test seems ludicrous. Trying to compare what happens in a classroom to what happens in a business, where I can control the quality of my incoming raw materials and change suppliers if I get a bad batch, just makes no sense.

And here is the other element that gives me pause, appearing here, and popping up later: target distribution.

There are metrics populated throughout the student achievement section. Teachers get measured on how they did against a metric. Once everyone is measured, points get awarded. But, this isn’t something established beforehand, where if you score 90 or above you get 4 points. They wait until all results are in, and then overlay a forced bellcurve on top of the points, only applying fixed percentages into each scoring category.

Think about it this way. If I had 100 students take a test, and they all scored 85 or better, I would think everyone did really well. Everyone got a B or better. I’m really successful as a teacher, ensuring all of my kids are getting it. But now we are using targeted distribution to actually allocate points for the test. The three students with the lowest scores, even though they got a B on the test, would get zero points. The twelve students with the next lowest scores, even though they got a high B on the test, would only get 1 point. 8 students received a 100 on the test, so they get 10 points, but the 12 students who scored a 99 get 8 points.

Why would we be doing this? If my teachers are all doing great in a metric, why would I use targeted distribution to create winners and losers? The answer doesn’t come in the metrics, it’s in the final ratings, which impact pay. Targeted distribution is used there too.

Student Experience

For grades 3–12, students are surveyed. It’s 15% of a teachers evaluation. It uses targeted distribution as well. Just like with the metrics, you may do really well in the survey, but if others score higher, you may not earn many points. 15% of your overall rating, and hence your pay, is based on surveys from students. Really.

Overall Evaluation & Effectiveness

Targeted distribution is all over this process. When it comes to overall evaluation ratings, there are percentages for each category.

  • 3% of teachers will be Unsatisfactory

By limiting how many teachers are allowed into each level, you control your costs. Dallas ISD may be loaded with fabulous teachers, but only 2% will be able to reach the top tier. Others will be excluded, not because they aren’t an incredible teacher, but because the system is designed with gates.

Governor Abbott, in his State of the State address, spoke of a 3rd year teachers in Dallas ISD who was making $90,000. This created a bit of a stir, which I’m sure was the Governor’s intent. But the reality shows that this IS NOT POSSIBLE in the DISD system, and either the Governor was intentionally misleading you, or got fed bad information. But in either case, NO 3RD YEAR TEACHER IS MAKING $90,000.

Here are the rules on the requirements to reach each level in the DISD system, including years of service.

Using the rules above, it’s easy to calculate minimum years of service needed per threshold, assuming a teacher meets the targeted distribution ratings to move up.

  • Novice / Progressing I: First 2 years of service

Distinguished Teacher Review (DTR) requires teachers to assemble a application / portfolio, showing “examples of their Leadership, Lifelong Learning, and Contributions to the Profession”. DISD expects 20% of teachers to achieve this designation. To reach Proficient II or higher, the DTR must be successfully completed.

Strategic Compensation

Now let’s get to the topic everyone really wants to know about: Pay. For teachers, who work a 187 day contract, the rates do look attractive. The numbers at the far right of the table below jump out. For a teacher, the idea of making $74,000, $82,000 or $90,000 sounds awesome.

Let’s reconsider the whole targeted distribution thing and really understand the implications.

  • 3% of teachers will be Unsatisfactory, making $47,000

I’ll pause the list here to point out that I’ve already covered 80% of the teachers in DISD. This means that only 20% of DISD teachers make more than $56,000.

  • 12% of teachers will be Proficient II, making $60,000

Does the possibility exist of a $90,000 teacher (after at least 7 years in the district)? Yes, but they are a pretty rare unicorn.

Are there solid things to learn from the Dallas ISD model. Things like ACE, giving more help to campuses who need it, are excellent. Things like the Distinguished Teacher Review resonate strongly with me, as a teacher who is going above and beyond should be recognized. A model that has 20% of a rating tied to a flawed assessment instrument, a model that could have 15% of a rating relying on survey responses from 3rd graders, a model that says only 2% of teachers can make the upper levels purely for financial reasons, likely doesn’t keep teachers in the longer term. The monetary carrot may pull people in initially, but once they understand the system, will they stay?

Texas should be considering plans that ensure that teachers, especially our best teachers, are able to make a higher salary. We shouldn’t be racing to embrace every aspect of Dallas ISD’s TEI just because Mike Morath is pushing it. We should be looking at options from all over the state, as many districts are doing innovative things. More to come.

I chart Texas Politics at and write about things that matter (to me at least) whenever the muse hits.

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