What is PPS’ Worldview on Incentives?

A news article described the achievements of several schools in the Pittsburgh School District under one of the incentive programs created under the current bargaining agreement between the District and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. As our 2010 report on pay for performance noted, the Students and Teachers Achieving Results, or STAR, incentive program would allow for teacher bonuses of up to $6,000 and staff (represented by the PFT) bonuses of up to $2,000 if the school falls within the top 15% of all Pennsylvania schools on student achievement. The contract stated that if eight schools did not get in the top 15% the threshold would be lowered to the top 25% of all schools so that the goal of a minimum of eight would be met. The article noted that ten schools were named STAR schools by the District.

When the District applied for money from the Gates Foundation with its proposal titled "Empowering Effective Teachers in the Pittsburgh Public Schools" it posited the following: "the plan will correlate teacher compensation with demonstrated student achievement…this is an important step for Pittsburgh, as nearly all of PPS teacher compensation is driven by salary schedule, which is based on factors that research demonstrates are not linked to student achievement: teachers’ educational achievement and years of service".

On the PPS’ Empowering Effective Teachers website page it states "For too long, teachers have gone unrecognized for their individual strengths and contributions to student learning. School districts have been unable to measure differences in teacher effectiveness or use this information to help teachers improve. Until now."

What of the teachers at one school that achieved the bonuses? One said "The monetary incentive isn‘t what I‘m coming here for every day" (but probably was not turned down). Another said "It doesn‘t take just one player to win the game. It‘s the team working together". (as often as teachers say that students need to come to school ready to learn, will the bonus money be shared with parents?) Note that while the STAR bonuses go to only the schools that achieve, there is no differentiation between teachers within the schools that might have done more for the achievement. The teacher who might have greater "individual strengths"-in the words of the EET webpage-gets the same bonus as another at the school. That’s what comes as a result of the District wanting pay for performance but deferring to the teachers’ union since implementing the vision was subject to collective bargaining (as noted in the Gates Foundation proposal).

The PFT president pointed out in the article that teachers who did not get the STAR bonus could "earn an extra $10,000 yearly by working a longer school week and year, assuming more responsibilities as they climb the career ladder." In other words, the teachers that read the article or heard the news through the grapevine should not feel slighted, they can earn money by taking on other duties as they go up the salary scale, which is what the PPS said was one of the factors that does not do anything for student achievement based on what was written in the EET proposal.

But the topper came from the Superintendent who said "We don‘t want teachers in competition with each other because when that happens, kids lose in that kind of culture, and other undesirable things happen…teachers can start jockeying for particular children." So much for individual strengths and differences in teacher effectiveness-based on this statement the Superintendent feels teachers will "cherry pick" students to boost their bonuses. That sounds like the argument public school defenders make about charter or private school enrollment, not about their own teachers. Note again this is not the head of the teachers union-this is the chief executive officer of the District saying that. It has long been understood that principals assign students to classes; but more to the point, does the Superintendent actually believe this?

Bonuses: It’s the Principal of the Thing

Pittsburgh Schools just handed out $342,250 to 67 principals in bonuses, which presumably means every principal in the system got a bonus. Here’s the thing. The Allegheny Institute is all in favor of bonuses for exceptional or even well above average performance. But what is happening in the Pittsburgh Schools is little more than a feel good exercise.

First of all, the money used to pay the bonuses comes from a Federal grant that is supposed to be used for teacher incentive, i.e., presumably to reward better teaching. However, since the teachers’ union will never agree that some teachers are better than others and deserve extra compensation, the school district is awarding the money to principals. Granted, there are variations in the performance of principals. But if they do not have authority to hire, fire, evaluate their teachers or set their pay, and curriculum and testing is set by the District, what are they doing that is adding substantially to the academic performance of the students? Cheerleading, motivational talks? All well and good but at some point the ability and authority to choose and incentivize teachers should be what separates the excellent principals from the run of the mill principals.

When the Federal program expires after this school year, the financially strapped district is unlikely to continue the program. Does that mean we can expect a big drop off in the performance of principals who will no longer be incentivized to work extra hard to get a larger share of the bonus pie? If performance remains the same, have the bonuses accomplished anything?

District enrollment continues to shrink as people with school age children move away or find non-public school alternatives. And there can be little doubt that principals have somewhat thankless jobs given all the constraints they must work with and administrative burdens imposed by the massive, politically correct education bureaucracy. But a bonus program that rewards every principal is suspect. If everyone gets a bonus, does that mean not a single principal in the entire system needs to be replaced by someone who can do a better job? If everyone gets a bonus, that almost certainly means the criteria used to determine bonuses is not very demanding.

Bonuses can be useful if done right. If the District chooses to continue the program it should establish a bonus system that is well thought out, sets very high and meaningful education attainment goals for the students and is judged impartially by a team from outside District administration. Make the rewards for the top bonus recipients substantial and no awards would be given to any principal not achieving well above a satisfactory level of performance.