Published Online: April 2, 1997

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Bonuses Weren't Prime Reason Schools Worked To Improve, Study in Ky. Says

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Promise teachers and principals a bonus if they work hard to improve their schools, and they'll do it. But not for the money.

Sure, the extra cash was nice, educators told a University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher for a study of Kentucky's pay-for-performance effort, the largest in the country involving schools. But administrators and teachers interviewed said over and over that the bonuses were not the main thing that motivated them.

The main concern was the fear of negative publicity about their school's performance, especially among educators in rural areas where schools are an especially prominent feature of community life. "The worst part is when they put it in the papers," one elementary school teacher said.

Reasons Given

"The rewards were an important acknowledgment, but they weren't what drove teachers to change their practice," said Carolyn Kelley, an assistant professor of educational administration and a member of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, a multi-university collaboration. She detailed the findings from her study of 16 Kentucky schools during a presentation here last week at the American Educational Research Association conference.

In addition to the concerns about publicity, some educators said they feared losing their jobs or some of the autonomy within their jobs if their schools performed poorly. Others cited professional pride or the desire to see their students succeed.

Whatever the reasons, the study generally found that the statewide accountability program, part of Kentucky's landmark 1990 education reform law, is producing results. The program sets two-year goals for each school on state assessments and gives cash bonuses to schools that exceed their target goals.

Schools that meet their goals are considered "successful," those that improve but fall short of their goals are classified as "improving," and those that fall below their baseline performance are "in decline."

For schools that are not measuring up, the system of rewards and sanctions "creates a crisis or galvanizing event" that forces them to change, Ms. Kelley said. A crucial part of the program is that educators in those schools are given the tools they need to make changes.

The state assigns to schools that are in decline a "distinguished educator"--a teacher or principal hired by the state and given intensive training in ways to help schools improve on state assessments. Those educators take leave from their regular assignments and are appointed for one year.

In the accountability program's first two-year cycle, 53 schools were found to be in decline during the first year, Ms. Kelley said. All 53 were assigned distinguished educators; and all 53 had shown improvement by the second year.

Though more research is needed, she said, those numbers and the comments of the teachers and administrators surveyed suggest that combining rewards and sanctions with special help for troubled schools can prove effective.

Not that the improvement came easy. Teachers reported high levels of stress and longer work hours. But many also praised the distinguished educators for showing them what they needed to do.

"I think the high level of assistance that our school received is primarily responsible for the improvements that we made," one elementary school teacher told the researchers.

'Powerful Motivator'

Schools that receive a reward get to vote on how to spend it. And though some educators say they're not motivated by the money, "about 98 percent of it goes to salary bonuses," noted Ed Reidy, a deputy education commissioner for Kentucky.

Mr. Reidy said he wasn't surprised by Ms. Kelley's study. "She has found the combination of rewards and sanctions to be a potentially very powerful motivator," he said. "And that was the hypothesis of the people who designed this."

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