When Bonuses Go Bad, Money on the Side, and The End of Letter Grades

By Anthony Rebora — February 22, 2006 3 min read
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It’s no secret that state policies often encourage teaching to the test. Now, at least in one state, it appears you can be paid handsomely for it. The Florida board of education has approved a compensation plan that will give teachers bonuses of up to 5 percent based solely on their students’ standardized test results. While performance pay plans have been gaining a level of acceptance from teachers, this one isn’t exactly being met with open arms. Many educators have reacted with disbelief, saying the plan—designed to bring more people into the profession and tie teacher pay to the state’s accountability system—is inherently unfair to those who work in low-performing schools and undercuts the collaborative aspect of the job. “This isn’t like a sales job where whoever makes the most sales gets the biggest bonus,” said first-year teacher Asia Pewitt. “I think teaching should be a more cooperative effort that benefits everybody.”

A new study of teachers in California suggests that higher pay may not be what some educators need most. The report, published by the Public Policy Institute of California, finds that, while a $4,400 bump in annual pay can increase by 17 percent the chances that a new elementary school teacher will stay in the profession, those who get special training and mentoring are 26 percent more likely to stay on the job. State officials said the findings point to the importance of investing in teacher-mentoring programs. “I’m convinced that teachers are generally not in the profession for money, and I think the more strengthening we can do, the more mentoring from seasoned teachers, the better,” said state Senator Jack Scott, chairman of California’s Senate Education Committee. Fair enough, but it’s worth noting another of the report’s findings: that teachers in better-paying districts are less likely to quit or transfer.

Making a little extra dough was evidently on the mind of Terence Braxton, a middle school gym teacher in Pensacola, Florida, who allegedly took daily $1 bribes from his students to let them sit out his class. Braxton’s accused of taking more than $230 from six students, but authorities suspect he may have taken thousands of dollars from an even larger group of students between September and December, 2005. “It’s not bad if you can make an extra $100 a day tax free,” joked Ronnie Arnold, spokesman for the Escambia County School District. Braxton, who recently turned himself in, had resigned from his position before the school board had a chance to fire him.

If Braxton managed, albeit illegally, to increase his pay even as he reduced his class size, some experts are now saying the road to higher salaries may lead in the opposite direction. While politicians and educators have long extolled smaller classes, the latest policy buzz is that by increasing class sizes, schools could save money and afford to pay their best teachers far more—as much as $130,000 per year under one strategy. Proponents suggest that the value of small class sizes is overrated, especially when measured against high-quality teaching. But others say the feasibility of the idea would depend on the student population. “With students who are barely passing, or not passing, the bigger the class, the less individual attention they are going to get, even from wonderful teachers,” said the University of Massachusetts’ Tim Hacsi.

Regardless of class sizes, chances are that teachers are going to spend more time working on student report cards in the coming years. As a result of the ever-burgeoning standards movement, many elementary schools are switching from conventional letter grades to more granulated evaluations (e.g., “meets expectations,” “progressing”) tied to state guidelines across the curriculum. One school outside Boston, for example, now gauges 4th graders’ mathematics performance in 14 different areas, while another gives students 17 ratings in language arts. Some educators say that, while the new measures can be difficult for parents to grasp at first, they provide a more nuanced view of children’s progress and better reflect current instructional methods. Others take a more skeptical view: “It’s a myth in education that once we use these nifty labels, we know exactly what they mean,” said Daniel Koretz, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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