What’s Wrong With This Picture?

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Bonus? What teacher's bonus?

The $20,000 signing bonus promised to new teachers in Massachusetts is disappearing ... fast.
—Photograph by William Whitehurst/CORBIS

What: Appalled by high failure rates on Massachusetts’ new teacher licensing test in 1998—only 41 percent of candidates passed its basic skills section—state legislators decided they had to buy some smarter educators. To lure the best and the brightest, they announced that the state would offer $20,000 signing bonuses, paid in four annual installments, to top college students and dynamic mid-career professionals. "We want this to be elitist, and unapologetically so," then-state Senate President Thomas Birmingham told the Boston Globe in 1998. Over the past five years, the program has attracted thousands of applicants, many from outside Massachusetts, and the state has bestowed the bonuses on about 350 highly qualified candidates who’ve entered the classroom following a seven-week certification course.

The Problem: Massachusetts has run out of money. To help shrink this past summer’s $3 billion shortfall, state lawmakers raided the $70 million endowment whose earnings paid for the bonuses and other teacher-quality initiatives. Education officials distributed a final round of payments last summer, meaning that only the first two of the five annual classes of educators recruited through the program received the entire bonus promised to them.

Result: While the several hundred teachers who’ve been stiffed $4,000 to $12,000 are dismayed by the turn of events, others charge that the bonuses failed to deliver from day one. Catherine Boudreau, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, an NEA affiliate, argues that the program’s key assumption—that any intelligent person can teach with little or no training—led to placing unqualified people in classrooms, using money that "would have been much better spent going directly to the schools." Researchers with the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, a Harvard University-based group that studies recruitment and retention, found that the program’s fast-track certification, not the promise of extra money, was what attracted candidates. And in the absence of supportive school environments and additional training, the bonuses did not compel novices to stay—about half of the 1999 bonus recipients stopped teaching in less than four years. "Incentives only work if people have the capacity to do what you incentivize them to do," notes Harvard researcher Edward Liu.

—Samantha Stainburn

Vol. 15, Issue 6, Page 70

Published in Print: May 1, 2004, as What’s Wrong With This Picture?
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