ARC's 1st Law: As a "progressive" online discussion grows longer, the probability of a nefarious reference to Karl Rove approaches one

Friday, October 14, 2005

Could it be?

How could this be? (Wall Street Journal - subscription is well worth the $$!) Teachers getting bonuses for their efforts (or, I should say, their results)!?!

How One School Found a Way To Spell Success
October 14, 2005

About 80% of Meadowcliff's students in the K-to-5 school are black, the rest Hispanic or white. It sits in a neighborhood of neat, very modest homes. About 92% of the students are definable as living at or below the poverty level, a phrase its principal Karen Carter abhors: "I don't like that term because most of our parents work at one or two jobs." [...]

The school's scores on the Stanford achievement rose by an average 17% over the course of one year. They took the Stanford test in September and again in May. Against the national norm, the school's 246 full-year students rose to the 35th percentile from the 25th. For math in the second grade and higher, 177 students rose to the 32nd percentile from the 14th. This is phenomenal. What happened in nine months?

Meadowcliff has two of the elements well established as necessary to a school's success -- a strong, gifted principal and a motivated teaching staff. Both are difficult to find in urban school systems. Last year this Little Rock public school added a third element -- individual teacher bonuses, sometimes known as "pay for performance."

Paying teachers on merit is one of the most popular ideas in education. It is also arguably the most opposed idea in public education, anathema to the unions and their supporters. Meadowcliff's bonus program arrived through a back door.

Karen Carter, the school's principal, felt that her teachers' efforts were producing progress at Meadowcliff, especially with a new reading program she'd instituted. But she needed a more precise test to measure individual student progress; she also wanted a way to reward her teachers for their effort. She went to the Public Education Foundation of Little Rock. The Foundation had no money for her, and the Little Rock system's budget was a non-starter. So the Foundation produced a private, anonymous donor, which made union approval unnecessary.

Together this small group worked out the program's details. The Stanford test results would be the basis for the bonuses. For each student in a teacher's charge whose Stanford score rose up to 4% over the year, the teacher got $100; 5% to 9% -- $200; 10% to 14% -- $300; and more than 15% -- $400. This straight-line pay-for-performance formula awarded teachers objectively in a way that squares with popular notions of fairness and skirts fears of subjective judgment. In most merit-based lines of work, say baseball, it's called getting paid for "putting numbers on the board."

Still, it required a leap of faith. "I will tell you the truth," said Karen Carter, "we thought one student would improve more than 15%." The tests and financial incentives, however, turned out to be a powerful combination. The August test gave the teachers a detailed analysis of individual student strengths and weaknesses. From this, they tailored instruction for each student. It paid off on every level.

Twelve teachers received performance bonuses ranging from $1,800 to $8,600. The rest of the school's staff also shared in the bonus pool. That included the cafeteria ladies, who started eating with the students rather than in a nearby lounge, and the custodian, who the students saw taking books out of Carter's Corner, the "library" outside the principal's office. Total cost: $134,800. The tests cost about $10,000.
The Meadowcliff program has the support of both Little Rock's superintendent, Roy Brooks, and Arkansas' director of education, Ken James. Superintendent Brooks, who was recruited from the reform movement in Florida, has cut some 100 administrative positions from the central bureaucracy and rerouted the $3.8 million savings back to the schools.

Wow... amazing what happens which you match goals with appropriate incentives. Somehow, people strive to achieve the goal. I know, I know... merit-based pay is evil and the unions are the greatest thing since sliced bread. Oh, and the moon is made of swiss cheese, too... amazing how some ideas from the 19th century are laughed at today, but others seem to persist despite evidence to the contrary.

For my wife, my mom, and all the teachers that I know, I just wish that you could receive the benefit of merit based pay as well. God knows that your efforts are not financially rewarded by your employer. Perhaps, in the model of Meadowcliff, we should seek to make an end-run around the NEA and the district and state bureaucracies to get private donations for bonuses such as this. (I know that large corporations certainly have a vested interest in a highly educated populace given the global economy of today.)

Your Co-Conspirator,
ARC: St Wendeler