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What About Bonuses for Teachers?

With the fall semester now underway, it's an opportune time to rethink if paying teachers based on their performance is worthwhile ("Top Newark Teachers Receive $1.7 Million in Bonuses," The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 3).  Consider the situation in Newark, N.J., where in the last school year 283 teachers received bonuses ranging from $5,000 to $12,500.

School officials defended the bonuses, claiming they were necessary to help retain top talent.  The highest went to three teachers who worked in hard-to-staff subject areas in the district's most struggling schools.  The future of such merit pay will be decided by negotiations between the teachers' union and the district, since the old contract expired in June 2015.

If I hadn't taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I would likely be in favor of merit pay.  After all, shouldn't the best teachers be paid more than other teachers?  But the reality is that so much of any teacher's performance is the direct result of the students the teacher happens to inherit.  Give a weak teacher a class composed of Talmudic scholars and that teacher will look impressive.  Conversely, give an exemplary teacher a class composed of gang members and that teacher will look ineffective.

Newark claims that bonuses are needed to retain the best teachers in hard-to-fill subjects. I assume the subjects are science and math, since those teachers can easily make much more in the private sector than in teaching. But bonuses of $12,500 are a pittance compared with corporate salaries.  Moreover, I assume that test scores are the primary basis for qualifying.

On the other hand, if the bonuses were based on other criteria such as mentoring others, then I think a case can be made.  These teachers would work more hours each month and several days in the summer. For example, New York City considered the creation of "master" teacher and other titles such as "ambassador" or "model" in the hope of rewarding demonstrated excellence in a field not accustomed to such differentiation ("Teachers Question Pay-for-Performance Element in Proposed Contract," The New York Times, May 2, 2014).

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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