CPS should use discretion with incentive pay

By Editorial Board

Chicago Public Schools recently received a federal grant of $35.9 million to offer teachers as incentive pay. The money will target 25 schools, a portion reserved to reward approximately 1,125 teachers with bonuses if classrooms show improvement.  Schools with a history of underperformance and higher teacher turnover will be chosen.

While few CPS teachers get the credit they deserve for working so tirelessly with Chicago’s youth, a performance-based reward system must have an extremely rigid rubric in order to work effectively. Every teacher’s goal already should be to improve the education of his or her students. To reward 1,125 of the 24,600 teachers working for CPS must mean those teachers have demonstrated an exceptional job performance.

The current CPS incentive program, which started from another federal grant, evaluates teachers based on a series of classroom evaluations and student test scores.  But do these evaluations account for the natural aptitude of students? Teachers can’t control which students are placed in their classrooms. It would be unfair to reward a teacher whose students happen to be more gifted than those in the classroom next door, who might require more attention.

The first performance-based pay study done in the U.S. was released by Vanderbilt University and the RAND Corp.  on Sept. 21. The three-year experiment concluded students’ test scores have not gone up in classrooms in which teachers have known they will be rewarded for improved scores.

Yet, with only minimal research thus far—that points to the contrary—incentive pay is taking hold.  New York City, Dallas and Miami, among other cities, are implementing programs to reward teachers based on student achievement.

Rather than rewarding only a fraction of its teachers, CPS should consider rewarding its students. Better classroom supplies, updated materials and field trips out of the depleted neighborhoods many of these schools are in will no doubt enrich these students as much as a single teacher ever could. Otherwise, teachers could be sucked into focusing too heavily on the subject matter of standardized tests, knowing results will earn them bonuses.

Then again, how many teachers do you know who are in it for the money?