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Wage Incentives for Teachers Will Not Pay Off in the Worst Schools

August 21, 2000|RANDY ROSS | Randy Ross is vice president of the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project (LAAMP)

Go with Door No. 1 and with certainty get a $2,000 bonus. Opt for Door No. 2 and get a $5,000 bonus, but only if you fly to the moon. Which door would you open?

That's the scenario that comes to mind in reflecting on the Los Angeles Unified School District's well-meaning proposal to pay teachers bonuses for improvements in student achievement. The plan--which the board still must vote on--would provide school-wide bonuses of $2,000 per teacher to schools that meet state-set growth targets for school performance.

The underlying primary objective of the plan is to get more top-notch teachers in low-performing schools and keep them there. Teachers in the lowest-achieving schools would each get an additional $3,000 if their schools, among other things, met their state growth targets.

On the surface, the overall bonus of $5,000 would encourage more high-quality teachers to commit to the lowest-performing schools. Yet a close look at the proposal reveals that an effective salary incentive policy can be politically and intellectually slippery.

United Teachers-Los Angeles opposes the plan, arguing, among other things, that merit pay foments unhealthy competition among teachers. The union is right in sounding the bell about the potential negative effects of intra-school competition. However, the designers of the district's proposed plan apparently were mindful of this dynamic, for they did not taint their framework with provisions that stir competition among teachers within schools. Student-performance bonuses would be given only for achievement of school-wide growth targets, and not to individual teachers whose students show marked improvement in test scores.

Another provision would provide individual teacher bonuses of up to $2,000 to teachers who acquired certain knowledge and skill. This feature hardly would spur competition among teachers. If it did, one would wonder why the union's current agreement with the district contains similar incentives. The district has long paid individual teachers permanent salary bonuses (or salary point credits) for additional college-level units accrued. Every 14 credits, teachers get about a 4% increase in salary.

The district's proposed bonus for knowledge and skill pales in significance to the district's ongoing investment in salary point credits--about $300 million annually.

While the incentive spurs teachers to action, the college-level courses that teachers take all too often bear little relationship to the greatest needs of their students. My mid-1990s Rand study of salary point credits revealed, for example, that while elementary students performed way below par in math and most teachers had weak backgrounds in math, teachers steered clear of additional courses in math or science.

The district's current agreement with the teacher's union has a built-in mechanism for addressing a big part of this problem. In order for teachers to get paid for extra university credits, they must get the approval of their principals. In practice, the principal's signature on the sign-off forms is a rubber stamp. The district needs to hold principals accountable for ensuring that salary point credits are distributed in a manner that strengthens instruction in the core areas.

While knowledge and skill are essential for quality education, it does not necessarily follow that having them leads to improved student achievement. You also need motivation. Teachers have to want to use their talents to teach all children, and they have to believe that all children can learn. A very modest fraction of the teachers in the lowest-performing schools are there because they want to be. The state designed the new accountability system in a way that makes it much more difficult for the lowest-performing schools to achieve their Academic Performance Index growth targets than high-achieving schools. For example, two of the district's highest performing schools, Carpenter and Pacific Palisades elementary schools, have growth targets of one API point. Holmes Avenue and Hooper Avenue elementary schools have growth targets of 24 API points. That means that some inner-city schools will have to work much harder than well-off elementary schools in the suburbs to get a bonus.

In effect, a proposal that's designed to help the lowest-achieving schools could backfire by rendering these schools less, not more, attractive centers of learning.

The district's flawed teacher salary incentives policy--both current and planned--needs to be reworked to ensure that actual effects on the district's lowest-performing schools mirror its intended effects. Otherwise, such policy will continue to suffer the sad irony perhaps best captured in Bat Masterson's observation that, in the end, the rich and poor get about the same amount of ice--the rich get it in the summer, and the poor get it in the winter.

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