Merit Pay Could Ruin Teacher Teamwork

By Jay Mathews
Monday, October 6, 2008

I have been studying successful urban public charter school networks, arguably the most encouraging story in education, and listening to their leaders. Many of them know D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and share her views, except for one important part of her reform plan: incentive bonuses for teachers.

Rhee wants to offer teachers up to $20,000 extra a year, based at least in part on how much better their students read, write and do math under their tutelage. Performance or merit pay, as it's sometimes called, has drawn interest in several places across the country.

The idea troubles me, because it is at odds with what I have learned from charter leaders who have made great achievement gains in their independent public schools. Their staffs thrive on teamwork. Everyone shares lesson plans, swaps ideas and reinforces discipline to help each child. Won't big checks to just a few members of the team ruin that?

The issue meshes with giving principals the power to fire weak teachers, a Rhee reform I applauded in last week's column. Teams don't work nearly as well if everyone is not doing his or her share. Teams with all players pulling hard are also more likely to attract more committed people, happy to escape schools where co-workers make fun of strivers.

Rhee's move last week to impose some of her plans in spite of union opposition might increase the likelihood that the whole package will go forward, including bonuses that contradict the team concept. Some charter leaders say be careful with those individual rewards. Don Shalvey, co-founder of the Aspire charter school network, said, "I can't see any other way than going with the team." Steve Barr, founder of the Green Dot Public Schools network, said the only individual incentives in his schools are "if you are not doing well, you will be removed."

Charter educators understand the lure of more money for great teachers. But if there are to be individual bonuses, they want them combined with group incentives. Everyone on the team -- librarians, special education coaches, social workers -- should reap some rewards, since they all contribute to raising the achievement of impoverished children often two or three years below grade level. Prince George's County schools are planning bonuses of up to $10,000 based in part on schoolwide and individual teacher performance.

"The answer is ultimately a combination of collective and individual awards," said James Verrilli, co-founder of the North Star Academy Charter School of Newark. Michael Milkie, superintendent of the Noble Network, said incentive pay at his schools is 10 percent of salary and divided equally into individual (punctuality, dependability, parent contact) and team (school test score growth) components.

Dave Levin, co-founder of the KIPP school network, said, "Given the interconnectivity of teaching kids, the best incentives are school incentives which the school itself can then decide how to allocate." His fellow KIPP co-founder, Mike Feinberg, quoted Rudyard Kipling: "The strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack."

In cooperation with the Washington Teachers' Union and the New Leaders for New Schools organization, Rhee has tried one school incentive, the TEAM awards. Everyone working at D.C. schools last school year that reached 100 percent reading and math proficiency or raised student scores 20 percent got money. Teachers at those schools received $8,000 each. But the rules denied money to some very successful schools. That created resentment, which proves the danger of this approach.

Alfie Kohn, author of the book "Punished by Rewards," would ban all material and monetary incentives at schools. That goes too far, but I agree that competition for money can bring out the worst in people. Will missing the bonus by a couple of percentage points frustrate your child's good teacher or poison the atmosphere at an otherwise fast-improving school? How about the new cash-for-good-grades program at some D.C. schools? Will kids who are out of the running for a bonus fall into a funk and be even harder to motivate?

When I asked Rhee about this, she said I was getting ahead of myself. She said the District has to build good school teams before team rewards will work. At the moment, when principals have little control over hiring and firing and their teachers are of varying quality, individual bonuses help them "create the right pressures and dynamics in the culture," she said.

Still, even when you have good teams, I think there are better ways than cash bonuses to raise achievement. How about taking the incentive money and using it to compensate educators for a longer school day and school year for all students, as is already done for special after-school, Saturday and summer programs? The charter school leaders have data showing that extra time brings impressive results, particularly for urban children whose parents cannot provide them with enrichment at home. That would be a bonus for everyone.

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