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Recruitment & Retention Opinion

A Bogus Bonus?

By Davy McClay — July 10, 2002 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 6 min read
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Corrected: The last line of this Commentary was inadvertently dropped. The final paragraph should have read: “So the practice of giving teachers cash bonuses based on their students’ performance on normative tests is not needed and unjustified. In truth, the fact that we educators can receive monetary rewards for score increases earned through a process that shortchanges our students and deprives them of the curricular foundation they need for the future is a very sad irony.”

When teachers make more for shortchanging students

I guess I should thank our nation’s business and political leaders for setting the stage and creating an environment here in California where teachers like myself have had the opportunity over the past two years to receive bonus checks. Because our students’ test scores went up significantly in 2000 and 2001, all the employees at my school received an extra $600 last year, and a $50 bonus this year (the low amount this year being due to severe state budget shortages). An improved budget outlook will produce significantly higher bonuses in the future, we have been promised. We are also told that the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, may mean that we’ll see additional, federal rewards for improved test scores.

Our leaders naturally want to recognize us teachers for our hard work, especially when that results in improved student “achievement.” And we teachers could certainly use more tangible “appreciation” such as this. We should probably just be thankful and move on. But it’s hard to follow this road when the destination seems questionable at best, and possibly damaging to our students.

Let me clarify: As far as I know, few if any of my colleagues are precipitating the possibly negative fallout from test-related bonuses by, say, “teaching to the test"—that is, teaching the exact questions that are going to be on the test. Most of us, though, have received implicit and even explicit messages from people above us to downplay or sometimes forgo science, social studies, and trade literature (other than excerpted basal-reader selections), since these are not on the test. As a result, our students are getting less at the behest of people “above” teachers, many of whom are getting bonuses far greater than ours.

Our school’s gains look impressive. In 2001, our state Academic Progress Indicator went up about 15 percent (up about 5 percent in 2000). We moved, in 2001, from approximately the 21st percentile to around the 29th percentile in reading (up from about the 16th percentile in 2000). And we’ll probably experience additional test-score gains, at least in the short run, because of our redoubled efforts. But I take exception to equating test scores with “achievement” when the scores are based on a test-preparation curriculum that lacks the kind of content-area learning critical for future success.

The test-preparation curriculum our children receive focuses frantically on phonology,the structure of words (sounds, sequence, spelling), and syntax, how to use words (grammar, sentence structure). Both are critical building blocks of language and need to be taught. It’s also appropriate that children be tested on them. But not with such high stakes. And not to the exclusion of other, vital subject matter.

The content areas that are being minimized or left out of our test- preparation curriculum are in fact essential to a child’s grasp of semantics, the culture-based glue that cements these building blocks of language into something meaningful. All the building blocks in the world are of limited value for the construction of meaningful language without this semantic mortar.

I take exception to equating test scores with ‘achievement.’

The first problem with semantics, or “meaning in language,” is that it is situational and can be realized only when a person has sufficient background knowledge to prepare him to comprehend meaning in a variety of settings. This is why children need content areas such as science, social studies, literature, and the arts. Our students are being prepared for the vanilla world of normative tests, but what about the “rocky road” future? What about opportunities for higher education and higher-level employment?

The second problem of semantics is that it cannot be codified and formally taught. Many have tried, beginning with Aristotle and proceeding through Noam Chomsky and others, but semantics defies codification. And its acquisition is greatly limited by focusing exclusively on phonology and syntax.

California has modified its standardized tests to include, beginning in 2003, content-area material in the 4th, 8th, and 11th grades. But most educators know that with high stakes affixed to the test scores, teachers in these grades will still be told, “The test only covers such-and-such, so make certain that you teach that to your students.” And the implicit message will still be, “Don’t teach anything else.”

Not only are we feeding our students an inadequate academic diet, we are justifying that with false assumptions. We are using high-stakes testing to accede to politicians’ demands for proof of the awesome power of their leadership. They demand accountability—now. But in their haste to define accountability, they are failing to establish a connection with responsibility. I define responsibility as “management of a domain over which the person has control.” It is the responsibility of parents, for example, to instill receptivity to the curriculum in their children long before those children walk through the classroom door. Parents also have to provide support and encouragement for the educational process. Such activities are critical for achievement, no matter how you define it. Most receptivity to learning is brought from home, which is under the control of parents.

Teachers, on the other hand, are responsible for delivering a coherent, comprehensible, thorough, and well-organized classroom curriculum. That requires working many hours outside the classroom and maintaining extensive interaction with parents. Delivery of such a curriculum is the one and only domain that teachers can control totally.

The meeting of these separate responsibilities conjoin to form “achievement.” Once these efforts blend together in the form of achievement, there is no statistical method to isolate them back into separate measurable entities on a mass scale. Thus, no matter how appealing it may seem to use test scores as a simplistic educational “bottom line,” the reality is that it is impossible to hold any one party accountable for test scores with any accuracy.

The practice of giving teachers cash bonuses based on their students' performance on normative tests is not needed and unjustified.

Meaningful educational accountability must somehow go back to the performance of the responsibilities of the respective parties. We actually need two bottom lines. I concede that one of the bottom lines—holding parents accountable for the performance of their responsibilities—might be difficult, but it is doable, and it is being done in many classrooms.

A truly meaningful bottom line for teachers should be based on objective measures of their classroom-delivery prowess. That is also a possible dream, and it is closer to becoming reality than one might think. Assessments such as those of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards provide one valuable tool in this effort. Another, which gets a lot of talk but very little follow-through, is peer review. Viable peer-review processes would probably be closer to development if our leaders would demand something consequential instead of settling for a quick and superficial equivalent of baseball box scores.

So the practice of giving teachers cash bonuses based on their students’ performance on normative tests is not needed and unjustified. In truth, the fact that we educators can receive monetary rewards for score increases earned through a process that shortchanges our students and deprives them of the curricular foundation they need for the future is a very sad irony.

Davy McClay is an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles and serves as a teacher-trainer for the Los Angeles Unified School District Intern Program at California State University-Northridge. He has earned certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 2002 edition of Education Week as A Bogus Bonus?

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