Bonuses for Pittsburgh School Principals

Principals in the Pittsburgh schools were recipients of bonuses totaling $300,000 for achieving goals set for them. Very laudable. Rewarding exceptional achievement is a solid policy for any organization that wants constantly improving performance. However, the bonuses must reward actual, demonstrable excellence if they are to accomplish their intended purpose. Bonuses handed out for less than stellar achievement will actually undermine the effectiveness of the bonus program and make it counterproductive.

Thus, while we congratulate those who got a bonus for excellent results, it is a bit worrisome that the biggest bonus awarded went to a K-8 elementary school principal. Why is that troubling? As we showed in a Policy Brief (Volume 9, Number 46) a couple of months ago, large improvement in eight grade PSSA test results in Pennsylvania schools are very suspect and likely reflect a less rigorous, "dumbed down" test or an error in scoring. Thus, it could well be that teachers of eighth graders and their principals have been unjustifiably given credit for achievement that is simply not occurring.

Let’s hope that Pittsburgh schools are setting meaningful standards of excellence to warrant handing out bonuses. Otherwise, the long term effects of the program will hamper real progress in improving educational achievement in the schools. After all, these principals already receive very handsome salaries and benefit packages. Therefore, just to keep one of those jobs with a satisfactory rating, the person should have to hit a high level of achievement. Bonuses should be reserved for truly outstanding and well above average performance.