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Teacher to Parent: Teacher bonuses for high test scores is not a solution

Jody Stallings

Jody Stallings

Teachers at some schools will be getting monetary bonuses if they can raise student test scores this year. I don’t think test scores are the most important thing, but I can’t see how this could be bad for my kids. Is there a downside?

I’ll not criticize performance bonus programs because I would never want to take money out of a teacher’s mouth. The job isn’t high-paying enough to disparage opportunities to increase the bag.

I will also not point out that the RAND Corporation already proved in 2011 that such programs fail to improve student achievement at any level. People probably already know that.

Nor will I state the obvious, like it would be better to spend money increasing salaries or lowering class sizes. I’ll leave that to someone else.

But I will kindly offer suggestions that might improve bonus programs — and highlight one potentially devastating drawback for schools that employ them.

Let’s begin with the goal. Raising student achievement is a worthy objective. Measuring achievement solely by expensive, opaque tests, however, is not the way. Companies claiming to accurately assess how much “academic growth” a student has made over the course of a few weeks are peddling snake oil. At best, they’re measuring short-term memory, test-taking skills and patience.

Another concern for bonus programs is the gap between those being rewarded and those being measured. Teaching isn’t a one-way street. You can’t force a child to learn if he doesn’t want to. You could be the greatest teacher who ever lived, but if your students don’t listen, don’t study and don’t care, test scores will make you look like a failure.

Ergo, good teachers should be rewarded for good teaching, not for having good students. If bonuses are going to doctors based on patient survival rates instead of quality of service, my money’s on the podiatrist, not the geriatric oncologist.

Again, I have no aim to take income from teachers, but let’s be candid for a minute. Most teachers are already giving it everything they’ve got, even without bonuses. So if you really want to increase student achievement with monetary rewards, your best strategy would be to pay those with the most power to make it happen: students and parents.

There are a lot of kids who are totally uninterested in grades and learning. Cash might get their attention.

If that’s uncomfortably direct, then what about parents? They have way more influence on students than teachers do. We have access to kids for only 15% of a child’s first 18 years of life. Guess who has them the other 85%. If you ask any teacher which students perform best, the answer is always those with parents who make their kids show up, behave and do their homework.

Now, about that serious drawback I mentioned …

Since teachers are already doing their best, wringing water from a rock with cash inducements is unlikely. But that won’t stop needful teachers from turning themselves inside out to grasp for a shot at, say, owning their own home.

The problem is that by the time they realize test scores are dependent on so many factors outside their control, they will have totally exhausted themselves without a single extra penny to show for it.

Imagine the disappointment of running a race as hard as you can, and when you get to the finish line, you're blindsided by the kid who fell asleep during the test, the kid who picked “C” for every answer, the kids who threw pencils at each other, the kid who came to school stoned, the kid who stayed up all night playing video games and the kid who finished the whole test in 15 minutes.

Then you look at the winners circle and see your down payment going to the teachers who simply had the good fortune to be assigned the hardest-working students.

This would deplete and — to coin a word — cynicize you, perhaps even making you view the entire scheme of education as hopelessly unwinnable. You might even run away from the profession screaming, leaving behind a vacant classroom.

There must be a better way.