Education Opinion

Further Doubt About Bonus Pay for Teachers

By Walt Gardner — July 20, 2011 2 min read
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So many of the proposals put forth by reformers come from billionaires who have never taught a day in public schools. But because they have deep pockets, their ideas are given credence far beyond their value.

Take the example of bonus pay for teachers, one of their favorite strategies. The RAND Corporation compared the performance of about 200 New York City schools that participated in a $56 million, three-year bonus program with that of a control group of schools (“NYC teacher bonus program abandoned,” The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 18). It found no positive effect on either student performance or teachers’ attitudes about their jobs.

I’ve written before about this subject, arguing that what affects the behavior of employees in other fields does not necessarily affect the behavior of teachers. Of course teachers want higher salaries, but they place greater importance on the satisfaction they derive from seeing their students learn.

Jay P. Greene disagrees. In Education Myths (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), he calls this belief a “meta-myth.” As he put it, “It is the belief that education is different from other policy areas in that the types of incentives that normally shape human behavior do not shape educational behavior.” Greene represents those who rely on ideology rather than on empirical evidence. They’re entitled to their opinions, of course, but not to their facts.

Bonus pay continues to have great appeal largely because taxpayers assume that billionaires must know what they’re talking about. If I had not taught for 28 years, I would probably also buy into the message they deliver. When hundreds of private philanthropies together spend almost $4 billion annually to reform K-12 schools, they’re able to produce a convincing campaign. But repeating something often enough does not make it true. Certainly that’s the case with bonus pay.

The Big Three are the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. As Joanne Barkan wrote in Dissent (“Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our School”), they “sustain a crusade for a set of mostly ill-conceived reforms; and determine pubic policy at the local, state and national levels.”

Their outsized influence is not limited to bonus pay alone. In an upcoming column, I’ll show how their faith in unfettered competition among teachers and schools, coupled with dire consequences for losers , is also flawed.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.