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.