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Why Giving Bonus Money to Better Teachers Is Wrong

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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There is an ongoing nationwide debate on the issue of merit pay for teachers. Many national policy makers and media pundits have essentially said, "How can we improve the quality of education if we don't reward the best and brightest teachers with more money?" While I am never against giving more money to teachers, this idea will have a detrimental effect on learning. There is no way to determine who should get bonus money without negatively affecting students, and that makes it wrongheaded.

There are two main reasons why for the good of children this idea must be rejected. The first reason is based in my books, including Discipline with Dignity and Meeting Students Where They Live, that demonstrate clearly how rewards stop learning. Not only that, but there is a plethora of research, gathered from Alfred Denning to Alfie Kohn and others, demonstrating that bonus money reduces positive outcomes in the workplace. To use this kind of bonus for teachers is hypocritical, bad role modeling, ignoring what has been documented extensively about rewards and has no place in schools.

The second reason is that, to decide who gets more money, we need a way to measure what good teaching is. This measurement, no matter how it is done, implies that learning is measurable. The theory is that teachers who earn bonuses should be those that increase learning. This belief validates all of the false claims of accountability that currently plague educators and schools.

Flawed Reasoning

Let's look at the current criteria that are used to assess teacher value and the problems with each and every one.

The first and most obvious way to measure successful teaching is test scores. What a disaster it would be to increase test pressure by including teacher pay. Because it was test-based, No Child Left Behind only worked for school bus drivers, and Race to the Top faces the same fate for the same reason. Increased use of tests to determine what teacher is rewarded will only produce more teaching to the test, reduce higher level thinking and creativity, and set American education even further back. There are many professions where getting the desired results all the time is impossible, including doctors, lawyers and of course, teachers. Surgeons are not judged by mortality rates; heart surgeons have different rates than plastic surgeons and doctors of aids patients. Lawyers are not judged by verdicts; public defenders have higher guilty verdicts than expensive ones, because, among other things, different clientele is a major factor. What the patient or client brings to the table has much more to do with the outcome than the professional who serves them. The same is true in teaching. Tests include the results of those students who for one reason or another cannot or will not learn regardless of how excellent their teacher is.

The second most obvious way to evaluate teacher performance is through administrator observation. As any teacher or administrator knows, there is little time in the administrator's schedule for more than two or three visits a year per teacher, and even less in a big school. This is hardly enough to make an accurate assessment. In addition, principals and other administrators are influenced by the number of hostile parent calls, other teachers' gossip, trips to the office by students and personal relationships. None of these are effective measures of good teaching. For example, while I generally dislike sending students to the office as a punishment, poor teachers may keep troubled students in the classroom if they knew their pay might be determined by referrals.

The State of Texas, under the influence of Ross Perot, tried measuring teaching performance with a pen and pencil test. As might be predicted, it was a total failure. Most teachers know it's not what you teach but how you teach that makes for excellence. Knowledge of pedagogy or content is a poor predictor of teaching if the teacher does not know how to translate that knowledge into behavior.

Who Decides?

Some colleges have tried both formally and informally through student initiatives to determine the best professors through student evaluations. These evaluations have even been published online and in rare instances have had a small influence in tenure decisions. The result: easier grading, lower expectations, teachers who become friends with students, and in general crossing the line between being a professional and personal friend. Being friendly with students is a good thing when it's a sign of caring, but not pandering. There are still lines that professionals can't cross to get good evaluations.

Peer review holds some promise but eventually affects collegiality. Teachers are reluctant to share great lessons for fear that their students will say, "We did that already." Every school I have ever worked in, including college, has been infiltrated by politics, groups who dislike each other, and sets of friends and enemies. There is too much potential for politics to be a factor in determining excellence rather than student learning. And it doesn't resolve the first issue of reward failure.

The only way left that I know to find teachers worthy of bonus pay is bringing in outsiders to do evaluations. The cost alone makes this impractical when the money is better spent on school programs. Outsiders would have limited observation time and suffer from all of the obstacles connected with the other methods described above.

Clearly, money spent on teacher excellence is worth it, if we could only identify who these teachers are without making learning worse in the process. I remember visiting a Japanese school years ago. I asked how they assess teacher performance. A gentle administrator answered me very politely. "We don't have to because we only hire the best teachers in the first place." That's a goal worth pursuing. In the meantime, let's give all teachers more money. No one deserves it more.

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Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

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Jessica Choi's picture

The way to improve teaching is by addressing many of the problems you listed. Teachers should be given more hands-on clinical training with master teachers before being given their own classroom so that they enter the solo classroom feeling prepared. Professional Learning Communities should be established where teachers are given time to co-plan and observe each other both to learn new teaching strategies and to provide feedback in a friendly way. Professional Development should be provided on how to use PLCs to analyze student data and to restructure teaching practices based on that data. Peer Evaluators should come out of the supportive environment of the PLC. Principals should be responsible for creating a positive environment among teachers, and principals should be evaluated on that environment. As you said, principals are very busy so they need to spend their time creating an environment where teachers put aside their personal feelings and work together for the best interest of their students. This can happen if we change evaluations from a grading system into a learning tool where teachers can work with colleagues and administrators to set goals, receive feedback, reflect on that feedback, and be directed toward professional development that will help teachers reach their goals. These ideas on teacher evaluations, principal evaluations, and teacher training come from policy reports written by VIVA teachers. Their full reports can be found here:

"Professor" Paul GTO Briones's picture
"Professor" Paul GTO Briones
Host and Co-Creator of Virtual Science University & Pre-AP Science Instructor

Excellent Post! We as a nation and especially the state of Texas where I live need to wake up and smell the coffee! STAAR and TAKS in Texas only leads to diluted instruction. Right now, Texas is taking approximately 44 days out of the 187 days of instruction for the purpose of preparing for STAAR and TAKS. This is absolute nonsense! If we hired the best teachers like Japan and pay all of them more, we would not have to be doing all this testing. LET'S PAY ALL TEACHERS MORE AND HIRE THE BEST TEACHERS!

Hudson Don's picture
Hudson Don
Prematurely retired high school English teacher because of blindness (legal

More and more, this discussion turns into a laundry list of tried methods of evaluating teachers and usually decides they do not or have not worked. In between the paragraphs "learning" by students is mentioned, especially as the real goal of teaching. But then seems to be dropped.
What is the issue? Is it teacher evaluation? Is it student evaluation? Is it test scores? What?
Dr. Corwin touched the primary button but only quickly and not in depth. He is absolutely right. Politics doesn't just infiltrate education; it defines learning, teaching, and the financial structure of education. Standardized testing is mandated as an inextricable connect to educational funding and therefore is a powerful, de facto element that determines and defines education, learning, and teaching.
Teachers may be consulted, but usually not and if they are its disregarded behind closed doors, about learning. Politicians define learning as concrete numbers. Teachers define learning in abstract concepts that not all students acquire at the same time. School Boards and administrators define learning in business practice terms. Consequently learning is about oranges for politicians, bananas for administration, and apples for teachers. Its no wonder we are in gridlock.
Learning is not a linear process as politicians and administrators would have it. It is recursive, stumbling at times, mysterious, social, and individualistic. Politicians want it to be repetitive, programable for time and content, and most dangerous of all - devoid of problem solving, critical thinking, and elevated social consciousness.
Politicians believe change comes from control, confusing information with learning, want employment to be citizenship, and assumes breadth is depth. They are wrong each time.
Change does not come from control. Look at athletes, testing gets more rigorous and accurate but athletes don't stop using performance enhancing substances. They find better ways to hide it.Perhaps the scariest example is the "false positive" blood test for HIV. Imagine coming home some night and your wife tells you the clinic called and your AIDS test came back "false positive". Politicians assume "employment' equals citizenship. Of course this assumption is wrong. With unemployment comes a rise in social disruption. But the problem is really "voluntary compliance" Voluntary compliance is the essence of citizenship. In fact without it there will be no democracy. The main reason standardize tests don't work is because they are primarily about information. And even further, the information is slanted towards an all white world. They (tests) cannot and will not show that our children are learners. Politicians are afraid that unless a wide-ranging avademic program is maintained students will miss too much. Futurists tell us we are in the information age and that the total information that exists doubles every 9 months. That makes some information ( a lot really) obsolete before the school year is done. How can a teacher keep up with this? But what happens when a student becomes engaged with an idea or topic? In depth study requires students to use and discover thinking powers. problem-solving techniques, application of reading, writing, and usually speaking skills, the process and value of research, and the need for analysis, record keeping, and computations.
As long as politicians and economists are in control of the definitions of teaching and learningm and that teachers hold their ground on learning, and administrations see education as a business, the gridlock of "teacher pay and teacher evaluation, will not go away, Teachers will have to take back ownership of education and definition of learning before real change and improvement is seen.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

I've been down this road before with discussions in classroom management classes. Inevitably, Alfie Kohn's name pops up along with his theories about rewards, employee pay, etc. He clearly suggests that money corrupts the quality of work and that it robs workers of intrinsic motivation.

Personally, I see nothing wrong with extrinsic motivation. As long as the job gets done and done well, who the heck cares where the motivation comes from?

Also, the last I checked, Alfie Kohn lives in very comfortable home in Brookline, MA, (a very expensive place to live, I might add) so he naturally accepted ample compensation for his own work without questions asked.

That's a contradiction my classroom management professor could not explain. It's the same thing with those who make arguments against the capitalist system but who live in multimillion dollar homes. It's the same thing with those who prattle on about global warming while constantly flying around the world in fuel sucking and exhaust emitting jet airplanes just to make speeches.

As usual, this is type of advocacy that rubs against basic human instinct and common sense is rife with hypocrisy.

The rewards argument is no different. Our whole society is built on being rewarded for effort. We don't work for charity. As Ayn Rand so aptly stated: "work without compensation is akin to slavery."

So why should we expect kids to be raised under a different value system compared to the one they'll be exposed to beyond the classroom (i. e. "the real world")?

Any suggestion that professionals should only earn up to certain limits (no bonuses for performance) just smacks of socialism.

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