Special Report

A Little Something Extra

By Jeff Archer — January 11, 1999 13 min read

When Jay Robinson ran the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in North Carolina in the early 1980s, he learned something about motivation theory that stuck with him.

Facing troubling absenteeism at the district’s elementary and middle schools, the superintendent devised an incentive plan to get more students to show up. He persuaded a local amusement park to donate 5,000 free passes, which he in turn pledged to any student who finished the year with perfect attendance.

By winter break, about 12,000 pupils had finished the fall semester without missing a single day, and Robinson knew the year would end with far more youngsters with perfect attendance than he had free passes to dole out. But that was a challenge he didn’t mind facing, and he fulfilled his promise with help from the local business community.

“You get to understand how much individuals like to get rewards,” he says. “I don’t care if they’re CEOS, or students, or whoever.”

Robinson, who recently retired as the chairman of the North Carolina state school board, is now convinced that educators can be similarly motivated--not with trips to a theme park, but with cold cash.

As state board chairman, he shepherded through a plan that awards $1,500 bonuses to every teacher at any school that exceeds its improvement goals set by the state. Those at schools that merely meet their expected levels of improvement win half that amount. With Tar Heel State lawmakers allocating $117 million to the program last year, North Carolina now leads the nation in investing in school-based performance incentives.

Fourteen states now have accountability systems that include some kind of financial reward for schools, and several other states are slated to adopt new ones.

The programs vary widely in scope and structure. Most dole out money for staff members to use as school improvement funds, but some put cash into teachers’ pockets, as in North Carolina. Questions remain about whether such incentives are powerful motivators, or if they amount to a weak pat on the back. Often, the most skeptical are the very educators at whom the rewards are aimed. A nationally representative survey conducted by Public Agenda in conjunction with Quality Counts, for example, found that while 53 percent of parents and 60 percent of employers believe it’s a “good idea” to tie improvements in students’ academic performance to financial incentives for teachers and principals, 76 percent of teachers say it’s a “bad idea.”

But the programs’ supporters increasingly argue that if they’re going to wield a stick in their accountability systems, they must also offer a carrot.

“It’s begun to move beyond being viewed as an experiment, and now it’s viewed as a valid accountability policy,” says Carolyn Kelley, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the director of the Teacher Compensation Project of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education.

Long a popular tool in private industry, financial incentives have had a contentious history in education. Several states tried to differentiate teachers’ salaries in the 1980s through merit-pay programs and “career ladder” systems. The initiatives promised individual educators rewards not for seniority, but for demonstrating their skills on new evaluations or for taking on new leadership roles.

But teachers’ unions often balked, arguing that the evaluation processes were unfair, and that budget allocations--not the number of qualified teachers--too often determined how many bonuses were offered. Both state teachers’ unions in Florida, for example, challenged a 1983 state merit-pay system in court, and the state eventually killed the program. One of the biggest complaints was that the individual rewards pitted educator against educator.

“In helping teachers succeed, you have to have some kind of collegiality,” says Gretchen Lampe, the research director for the Kentucky Education Association, which successfully fought career-ladder legislation in that state in the 1980s. “Too much of what merit pay was trying to do was to look for stars. But you don’t need stars so much as you need a team of individuals working together.”

That idea largely has shaped the reincarnation of performance incentives as states began adopting new school accountability systems in recent years.

At the vanguard were a handful of states like Kentucky, which included financial rewards in the 1990 law that overhauled its education system. Schools exceeding state expectations for improvement were to receive an average of about $2,000 per certified staff member. Last summer, the legislature voted to outlaw individual bonuses after the current round of rewards. Next time around, a committee in each building will decide how to spend the money.

Kentucky has given out about $30 million a year in incentives since 1995.

Two aspects of the Kentucky model, experts say, address the central problems of earlier incentive programs: By rewarding schoolwide performance, it won’t promote competition among the teachers in a building. And by recognizing improvement instead of achievement, Kentucky gives schools in the most challenging circumstances a chance.

Schools in impoverished urban or rural areas, for example, don’t find themselves competing against wealthy suburban schools. Instead, they work to better their own performance.

“What you’re doing is rewarding a team effort, because a school is not going to turn around with one or two teachers striving for a little bit more pay,” says Cheryl Tibbals, a former assessment and development director for the Kentucky education department who is now the assistant director of the State Leadership Center of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

In surveying Kentucky teachers, Kelley of CPRE found that most felt the incentives helped keep them focused on the goal of raising achievement. With awards dependent on a whole school’s performance, she says, educators are encouraged to work together to improve instruction and make sure the curriculum is geared toward the state’s standards.

“They’ve provided a real clear signal not just to teachers about what’s important, but also to the whole system,” Kelley says, “and the result has been that there’s a lot more alignment of resources toward the student-achievement goals.”

That doesn’t mean teachers always like the incentives. In many of the same surveys, Kelley adds, teachers said they appreciated the bonus, but a majority also favored doing away with the program.

Part of the problem was that Kentucky initially allowed its educators to decide whether to take the award as a bonus, share it with noncertified personnel, or spend it on such purposes as professional development and instructional equipment. Though Kelley says many teachers used their bonuses to reimburse themselves for classroom expenses, the educators often were wary of being seen as pocketing money they could have spent on the school or shared with other employees.

“We have members all over the scale as to how they feel about it,” says Judith Gambill, the president of the KEA, which is a National Education Association affiliate.

It was with the union’s blessing, in fact, that the legislature last year voted to change the incentive program so that the educators could no longer take the money as a bonus. As a result, the rewards will remain with the school.

Though less researched than the somewhat older Kentucky program, North Carolina’s has similarly drawn conflicting responses from educators.

“It’s something that’s hard to oppose because it’s money that they would not get otherwise,” says John I. Wilson, the executive director of the North Carolina Association of Educators, an affiliate of the National Education Association. But, he adds, “a lot of teachers tell us that if they did away with the whole program, they would not shed tears.”

Judy Darling, an English teacher in Garner, N.C., says she’s a good example of why many educators in her state are not especially enthusiastic about the cash incentives. For exceeding the improvement goals the state set for it in 1997, her school won $1,500 per certified staff member. After the faculty decided to share the money among all school employees, Darling took home about $755 after taxes--a little more than $4 for each school day.

“I appreciate what the legislature is trying to do with these funds,” says Darling, a former Wake County Teacher of the Year. “The days of shutting the door and doing whatever you think is groovy are over. You really have to know your state course of study, and that’s good.”

But, she adds, other incentives might be more appreciated. “What we would love as a reward would be smaller class sizes,” she says. “But you need smaller class sizes to get the results first, so it becomes a chicken-and-egg thing.”

Some experts also worry that bonuses may have unintended consequences. After studying incentive programs in four states, Richard A. King, an education professor at the University of Northern Colorado, worries that they may discourage teachers from covering areas not tested by a state’s accountability system.

“If the purpose is to get teachers to teach to the test, these things are working wondrously,” he says.

In North Carolina, for example, an elementary school’s eligibility for a bonus is based on its students’ scores in reading, writing, and mathematics. That may be leading educators to de-emphasize social studies and the humanities as a result, Wilson of the North Carolina Association of Educators says.

Another concern is that the bonuses may act as a disincentive for highly qualified teachers to work in the most challenging schools, adds North Carolina teacher Carrie Sue Florence.

Until this school year, Florence taught in an Orange County elementary school that served an economically stable community and had the benefit of a brand-new, technologically advanced building. The school’s faculty won bonuses two years in a row. But when Florence decided to move to another county school that serves many at-risk students, she did so knowing that it could cost her a bonus this year.

“The bonuses have been a very good morale booster to say, ‘Here’s something for a job well done,’” she says. “But I am concerned that it does a lot to hinder low-performing schools from attracting teachers.”

States like Indiana, Maryland, and New Mexico have avoided the debate over merit bonuses by requiring that awards be reinvested in each school.

Maryland’s 3-year-old School Performance Recognition Awards program hands out about $2.75 million annually to schools that improve over a two-year period, as shown by each building’s dropout rates, attendance, and scores on state assessments. Last fall, 88 of the state’s 1,260 schools won the awards, which ranged from about $15,740 to $64,605.

“For our school, it meant a lot,” says Susan Webster, who was the principal at a Title I elementary school in Maryland that won an $18,000 award two years ago. “It says, ‘You’re on the right track; don’t stop now.’”

Her school used the money to address widely varying needs: books for teachers on reading instruction, extra time for staff training, and a new set of folding chairs.

While eliminating the tensions prompted by programs that allow educators to keep the awards for themselves, some believe the model raises other questions.

“Very often, the rewards are things that schools should be getting anyways,” says Bella Rosenberg, the assistant to President Sandra Feldman of the American Federation of Teachers.

Any reward also may have to be a substantial size before schools will sit up and take notice.

The Lone Star State allocated $2.5 million last year to its Texas Successful Schools System. That’s slightly less than the amount Maryland budgets for its awards program, but in a state with nearly four times the enrollment. The money is also spread out among more campuses; more than a third of Texas’ 6,800 schools won awards last year, which averaged about $1.22 per student.

“It’s almost like a nice honorarium if you receive it,” says Julian Shaddix, the executive director of the Texas Association of Secondary School Principals.

“But it’s not a driving force to improve because the money involved is so small,” Shaddix adds. “A school with 600 kids might receive $750, but that money wouldn’t be enough to buy coffee for that whole campus.”

Even in Maryland, many principals believe the money doesn’t push staff members to improve so much as it adds value to the state’s proclamation that their schools have achieved exemplary status. Along with the money, Maryland schools that have proved themselves are honored at a statewide ceremony that includes the governor and the state superintendent. The recognition also sends an important message to the local community that progress is being made.

“I think teachers and staff members appreciate the fact that aa a school they’re rewarded for the hard work they’ve done,” says Deborah Drown, the president of the Maryland Association of Elementary School Principals. “I don’t think teachers come in in September and say, ‘I’m going to work hard this year so my school can win that $10,000.’ I don’t think it’s something they think about much until they get that phone call that says they’ve won the award.”

Georgia, however, has crafted an incentive program designed to get schools thinking about a reward long before they can receive a check. There, schools must apply to take part in the state’s Pay for Performance Program. Employees at each building prepare an improvement plan, including measurable goals, and submit it to the state education department for review. If the proposal is accepted, and if a school demonstrates it met 80 percent of its objectives by the end of the year, it receives $2,000 per certified staff member. The school can spend the money on whatever it pleases, including salary bonuses. The state allocated $8 million to the program last year.

“It’s a catalyst for classroom teachers to develop an academic plan and follow it,” says Pat Sandor, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education.

Florida requires schools to apply for its new School Recognition Program. Instead of preparing improvement plans, schools submit to a site visit and present evidence of improved test scores and reduced dropout rates. To foster more pay-for-performance programs, teachers must have their salaries based, at least in part, on student performance, before their school can receive an award. With more than 300 of the state’s 2,790 schools applying, the program’s first winners were to be announced in December.

Last year, Florida also joined the growing list of states offering teachers an incentive to become certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Educators who win national certification will now enjoy a raise equal to 10 percent of the average salary for Florida teachers--a bonus currently worth about $3,400 a year. The bonus, which lasts for the 10-year life of the certificate, doubles for those who agree to mentor other teachers seeking board certification.

Fourteen states now have accountability systems that offer some kind of financial reward for schools.

With other pay-for-performance programs still getting mixed reviews from educators, the practice of rewarding teachers for national board certification is emerging as one of the least controversial of financial incentives. The privately organized board, based in Southfield, Mich., reports that at least 13 states now offer salary supplements to board-certified teachers.

State policymakers are recognizing the board’s rigorous evaluation as a measure of teaching quality. At the same time, many teachers trust the certification process, which is based on how they measure up against professional standards, not on their students’ performance. “That’s the kind of incentive that means something to teachers,” says Pat Tornillo, the president of the Florida Education Association United, the state AFT affiliate.

Since 1997, North Carolina has also offered teachers who receive national board certification a 12 percent pay raise. As a result, North Carolina now boasts more board-certified educators than any other state. But to be complete, says Robinson, the former state board chairman, North Carolina’s accountability system must include the school-based financial incentives. Without those awards, he is convinced, the state would not have seen the number of its elementary schools designated as “low performing” drop from 122 in 1997 to 30 last year.

“It’s been amazing how much pressure it puts on people that haven’t been impressed by other merit systems,” he says. “The bottom line is that the scores have gone up more than they ever have before.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 1999 edition of Education Week