New Orleans — A fourth grade teacher at Pierre Capdau Charter School got a $43,056 bonus — more than 75 percent of her annual salary — based solely on improvements in her students’ test scores last school year.

Deborah Williams wasn’t the only teacher at Capital One New Beginnings Charter School Network who took home a sizable bonus this winter, records show.

In all, five teachers were awarded more than $24,000 apiece, totaling $167,669 — nearly half the allotment available to all New Beginnings staff. And according to the original terms of the program, they should have gotten more.

Williams said Friday afternoon that her take-home pay was much less than $43,000. After deductions for taxes and retirement, she took home $23,735, according to New Beginnings’ CEO Sametta Brown.

Despite the bonuses, Capdau is still rated a D by the state. The year prior, it was a D-minus.

The sizable payouts show how one charter school organization has tried to get its teachers to perform in the face of high-stakes student testing, which factor heavily into evaluations by the state. If a charter school doesn’t demonstrate that its students are improving on year-end tests, the state can revoke its charter.

While Williams’ students boosted their average test scores by 88 percent over the course of the school year, they didn’t show the highest increase among all classes.

That distinction belonged to Ashleigh Pelafigue, whose students posted a 165 percent gain. But because she teaches kindergarten — and those test scores don’t factor into the state’s evaluation — she received just $4,086.

Vera Triplett, the former New Beginnings CEO who set the bonus system in motion, said she equally values all teachers but wanted to offer higher incentives to those teachers under the most pressure.

“Their risk is higher,” Triplett said, “So I think the reward should be higher.”

Though school leaders discussed a bonus system in 2011, records show Triplett first detailed them in a May 2012 memo stating that bonuses would be calculated solely on gains in student test scores over the course of the school year.

New Beginnings — a group of charter schools that serves almost 2,000 students in three elementary schools and one high school — allotted about $722,000 of a $2.3 million federal grant for a bonus system at its elementary schools, Capdau, Medard H. Nelson and Gentilly Terrace.

Williams’ bonus was just below the average teacher’s salary of $45,781 at New Beginnings, according to the organization’s audit for the year ending June 30. Her base salary in 2011-12 was $56,000, according to school records.

Triplett’s memo said that teachers would receive a bonus only if they returned to New Beginnings the following year. She then left New Beginnings in June.

Brown, her successor, started in September. On Dec. 31, she decided to adhere to Triplett’s pay scale and award the bonuses, though she made “a few changes in terms of a cap and the recalculations.”

She explained that “It was a promise made to staff, and I’m pleased we were able to live up to that promise.”

The staff decided to split the $722,000 equally over two payouts: half in December, for the 2011-12 school year, and half later this spring for bonuses earned for the current school year.

The Lens initially requested the formula for the bonuses in November 2011. Stephen Osborn, then chief operations officer for New Beginnings, responded that the information was “proprietary.” Eight months later, The Lens received a copy of Triplett’s memo.

It said that all teachers had been given a classroom score, an average of their students’ previous test scores, at the beginning of the 2011-12 school year. Depending on the score, teachers had to improve it by either 5 percent or 10 percent. However much scores increased, teachers would receive the same percentage in bonuses.

Bonuses for kindergarten, first- and second-grade teachers, however, were capped at $5,000.

Teachers in third, fourth and eighth grades were eligible for an additional $2,500 if they met growth targets.

At ReNEW schools, a similarly-sized charter school network in New Orleans, $2,500 was the largest award a teacher could receive, and it was not dependent on what grade they taught.

Triplett said in February that she prioritized certain grades because their test scores factor into the state’s School Performance Score — a state-issued score that determines what letter grade a school will receive for the year.

Williams, a fourth-grade teacher, received the biggest bonus at New Beginnings, although her students didn’t show greatest growth. On top of that, she received the additional $2,500 because she taught in a high-stakes testing grade.

Williams said she had no idea that she received the highest bonus, and she complained about being singled out. “You have everyone thinking I’m a bad teacher, we have a bad school and I received all this money. … I feel that I am a good teacher, and I was no part of deciding how much I received.”

The December payouts ended up being about 20 percent lower than initially promised because the calculated bonuses exceeded the $361,000 allotted for the 2011-12 school year.

The Lens emailed all teachers, including Pelafigue and Williams, whose names are listed on the New Beginnings website. Five teachers responded, but just one was willing to go on the record.

Walter Bridges, a second-year teacher at Capdau, said he had been told he would get a bonus but later learned he wouldn’t.

Bonuses have become popular as education reformers focus more on student outcomes to measure teacher success.

But such bonuses are not normally based on a single factor, according to Laura Hamilton, a senior behavioral scientist at RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research and development think tank.

“There’s a feeling in the field now that you should use students’ performance as one measure, but it shouldn’t be the only measure.”

Complex bonus formulas, she said, are meant to control for variables that are outside of a teacher’s control, such as student demographics. Many bonus formulas add in additional measures, such as teacher observations or student surveys.

Hamilton said she had never heard of a teacher getting a 75 percent bonus.

Brown said such incentive programs “will allow us to attract the best” teachers, but Hamilton said research indicates they can have limited results.

“There’s no evidence that tying bonuses to student achievement itself is an effective way to improve student learning,” Hamilton said, regardless of whether they’re based on the performance of an individual teacher, a team, or an entire school.

Moreover, Hamilton said such bonuses could encourage teachers to overemphasize testing subjects or cheat.

When first interviewed in December about the bonus system outlined by her predecessor, Brown said she would consider changing the formula in the future.

“I believe in using several factors to determine incentive,” Brown said. “I don’t perceive that future bonuses will amount to 50 percent of their salary.”

Wednesday, as The Lens prepared to publish its story, Brown said she was working on a new formula with input from teachers and administrators, but she didn’t want to disclose its details until the following week, after she has a chance to share it with employees.

This story is published in cooperation with The Lens, an independent, nonprofit internet news site, http://www.thelensnola.org