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Should Teachers Receive Bonuses?

Jordan Catapano


NFL coaches often have bonus incentives built into their contracts: Every time they win certain games and achieve certain milestones, they get paid that extra cash. For example, in 2010, Coach McCarthy from the Green Bay Packers received $500,000 for his Super Bowl victory alone. Wow!

Wouldn’t you like it as a teacher if you got a bonus every time your students achieved a desired goal?

I personally would love it -- or so I thought before I looked at some of the tough questions surrounding this issue. While it seems as simple as higher scores equals higher bonuses for teachers, there are many considerations that factor into how to actually implement an effective system of teacher bonuses. While the teacher base pay rate would remain the same, some extra cash on top of that for doing your job well seems like a pretty cool deal, right?

The goal merit bonuses would be to enhance the effectiveness of instruction so that student achievement measurably increases. The government is behind such a move: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that his office’s priority is to tie teacher pay to student achievement, and President Obama’s “Race to the Top” funding in part encourages states to do just that.

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Several cities and districts have tried introducing merit incentives and bonuses, such as Nashville, TN, which launched a program like that in 2006.

But here are some of the major and difficult-to-answer questions arising from the issue of awarding teachers achievement-based bonuses:

  • How will student learning be measured?
  • Will teacher evaluations be primarily subjective or objective?
  • What increases in student achievement are reasonably obtainable?
  • What sized bonus or incentive will produce the desired effect on teacher performance?
  • How will the “immeasurable” effects on students – like coaching, confidence boosting, or curiosity increasing – be factored into consideration?
  • Will such a merit system pit teachers against one another in competition for limited funds?
  • Teachers cannot even make their students show up to school much less do well on a given assessment, so how much credit can teachers actually take for student achievement or failure?
  • How much funding is available in any given district’s budget for bonus incentives?
  • Is the system easily understood by teachers, parents, administrators, and students?
  • Will bonuses negatively impact relationships between teachers and students, as students become part of the “pay equation” for instructors?

These are very tricky questions to answer. On the one hand, if merit bonuses are implemented, student scores may skyrocket and teacher morale may follow.

On the other hand, tying student achievement to teacher bonuses may have the reverse effect: Student scores may not improve much if at all, teachers may become confused and discouraged, and a new and unclear path of evaluation may be charted.

While the base teacher pay may not be affected by such a bonus incentive, there are layers of issues that require careful piloting before a successful bonus system can actually be implemented. Teachers love what they do and love the students they do it for, so any change to current systems – especially changes involving money – need intense scrutiny before activation.

Several cities across the country have pursued variations of bonuses, tying teacher raises and bonuses to a diversity of activities. Teachers who take part in professional development, in Portland, OR, for example, have been rewarded with higher pay rates.

Similarly, Helena, MT, has devoted itself to upfront professional development that has resulted in higher student test scores and achievement. So while making changes and adding incentives certainly stem from a positive desire to see more student improvement, a proper evaluation of the full context of professional development and participation alongside actual measurable student test scores requires its due consideration before a successful system can truly be implemented.

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