Reaction Is Cautious to Teacher Bonus Plan
When Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg reached a breakthrough agreement with the city teachers’ union on Wednesday to offer performance bonuses to teachers working in the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods, he said he hoped it would “provide our best teachers with an incentive to work in high-needs schools.”
But as teachers and other educators began assessing the plan yesterday, some said it was probably not offering enough money to lure teachers with seniority and in middle-class schools into the most challenging assignments.
Instead, they said its effects would be more subtle. It might, they said, be an additional incentive for teachers who are already in struggling schools to stay put; it might cause teachers to turn against flailing colleagues; and it might encourage more schoolwide collaboration.
The New York City plan is not a straightforward arrangement, in which individual teachers throughout a school system receive extra money based on the performance of their students. Rather, bonuses equivalent to $3,000 per teacher will be given to schools that meet overall performance standards.
Four-member “compensation committees” at each school, consisting of two teachers, the principal and a principal’s appointee, will decide how to divide the money. They can reward everyone equally or give more money to the teachers whose students’ scores rise the most.
The program is starting this year in 200 schools with high concentrations of poor children. It is expected to reach 400 schools next year. The schools have not been named yet.
So how, exactly, will the prospect (but not the guarantee) of earning $3,000 (or possibly earning far more, or nothing at all) change teachers’ decisions and behavior?
“We’re so early in these experiments in New York and around the country that the answer is, we don’t know,” said Andrew J. Rotherham, a former adviser to President Clinton who is now a director of Education Sector, an independent policy group. “We’ll learn a lot through evaluating this experiment about dollar amounts and how people respond.”
But Mr. Rotherham said the very existence of the program was a crucial message to teachers that their work quality was valued, and not just their seniority and academic degrees, the traditional drivers of teachers’ union pay scales.
“What is actually more important is that it sends a signal that your performance, your effort, your talent, is recognized and rewarded in this industry,” he said. “That is just a culture change in education.”
Kathryn S. Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a business group that is helping underwrite the effort, which will be financed with $20 million in private donations this year, said she hoped the message that good work would in some way be rewarded would be “a significant step toward keeping good teachers in low-performing schools.”
Ms. Wylde said she hoped the program would have a snowball effect, in that if more teachers choose to stay, “you’ll begin to get a critical mass of professionals who feel that it is worth undertaking the toughest challenges, because the world is watching, the world is acknowledging and the world is rewarding you for doing it.”
Chris Cerf, a deputy chancellor at the Department of Education who helped devise the new plan, said the money could inspire teachers to change schools, particularly in the case of people at the end of their careers, whose pensions are calculated by their final years’ salary.
“If it’s not enough,” he said, “we will talk seriously about increasing it.”
Mr. Cerf said the bonuses would change the “level of tolerance for truly poor performance” within schools.
“People are going to be appropriately focused on helping everybody succeed, remediating those who need help and wanting to insert themselves in the larger conversation when those efforts prove unsuccessful,” he said. “I think there’s a tremendous incentive for schools to act as holistic communities.”
“The business types, like the mayor, want to test whether or not money matters as incentives,” she said. “The educator types, like me, know that money matters in terms of salary, predictable base salary, but we want to test the concept of whether achievement will grow when people work together and are respected as a team.”
Annmarie Turcotte, chairwoman of the union chapter at Russell Sage Junior High School in Forest Hills, Queens, said the prospect of a performance bonus would not entice her to a needy school.
“I came from a high-needs school,” she said. “There are just so many other things going on besides test scores, I just found it overwhelming.”
Some teachers bristled at the idea that the money would change their behavior.
“It’s an insult to my intelligence,” said Virginia Barden, the union chapter leader at the Fordham High School for the Arts in the Bronx. “If you are giving all you have, I can give you $1 billion; you don’t have any more to give. That’s the bottom line. These teachers are giving all they have.”
Eli Savit, 24, who spent two years at a struggling Bronx middle school through the Teach for America program and is now in law school, said he doubted whether the program would have enticed him to stay in teaching. But far from insulting, he said he found the idea appealing, particularly if compensation committees end up rewarding teachers based on their accomplishments.
“If you were designated as a teacher who got paid a little bit more for your efforts, it’s almost like a recognition of a job well done,” he said. “That, coupled with the money, I think could entice a lot of people to stay.”