New York City Launches Nation’s Largest School Bonus Program

Published January 1, 2008

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has unveiled a new program designed to reward teachers who increase student achievement at high-needs schools. School reform advocates say the program does not give the bonuses directly to teachers who actually increase students’ performance.

Standing beside Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and United Federation of Teachers (UFT) leader Randi Weingarten, Bloomberg presented a plan to use private funding to attract top teachers to the city’s most challenging schools. Bonuses will be aligned with the U.S. Department of Education’s new progress reports.

Shared Control

While unions have traditionally opposed merit pay, UFT is embracing this version in part because of the level of control the union will have in making decisions and distributing the bonuses.

Though 200 high-needs schools will be eligible for funding in the 2007-08 school year, more than half of the UFT-represented staff at each school, plus the principal, must vote in favor of participating in the program for that to occur.

“School-wide bonuses properly refocus the misguided debate over individual merit pay,” Weingarten said at the unveiling. “Respecting and understanding the importance of teamwork and collaboration is precisely why the UFT has opposed the idea of individual merit pay for teachers–especially when based solely on student test scores.

“This school-wide program recognizes and builds upon a core philosophy that says students learn, achieve, and benefit most when all educators in a school collaborate to provide the best possible education,” Weingarten said.

Indiscriminate Awards

Though reform-oriented education analysts generally like the idea of merit pay for teachers, Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a New York City think tank, urges caution regarding Bloomberg’s program, noting it is unclear exactly how effective it would be.

“We in the school reform movement have to keep thinking about this,” Stern said of the program, which was unveiled on October 17. “This is not individual merit pay, and it could reward teachers that don’t do well. Whether it will have a cause-and-effect relationship with performance is not known.”

Teamwork ‘Critical’

While student performance and progress will be the key measures the Department of Education examines to determine school success and thus eligibility for bonuses, UFT will be consulted as well.

At the school level, reward funding will not be distributed only to individual teachers who can be shown to have increased student achievement. Instead, a four-person committee, including two UFT members, will decide who gets the money. It can reward all teachers equally or distribute funding based on individual performance. The program has enough funding to provide eligible schools with $3,000 per UFT teacher.

“This school-wide plan generates the kind of spirit and partnership within the school community that make a school great,” Weingarten said.

Questionable Effectiveness

Klein and Bloomberg both said the new program would draw better teachers to more needy schools, creating a different kind of market for teachers in the long run.

Stern is skeptical.

“It might work,” Stern said, “but if that is the purpose, just give a bonus to good teachers who transfer to weaker schools. Let principals have a certain amount of money in their pot, and use their money as a general manager would manage a sports team. There is a lot that prevents teachers from going to these schools–dangerous neighborhoods, etc.–and if the purpose is to attract these teachers from middle-class schools, pay them up front; don’t wait.”

Bad Message

Given the flexibility to reward all teachers or just some, another potential unintended consequence of the mayor’s plan could be that some teachers who do not raise achievement, but who teach in a school that performs well, could be rewarded.

Stern says that would send a bad message.

“This is a bonus for the schools that raise aggregate performance,” Stern explained. “In that school, everything depends on the committee in terms of distribution. So you could get teachers whose [students’] scores have gone down, but they will get an extra $3,000 because [the committee doesn’t] want to create a demoralized or tense atmosphere.”

During the current year about 200 schools, or 15 percent of the highest-need schools in the city, will be eligible for funds. If funding stabilizes, the figure will double for the 2008-09 school year.

Kate McGreevy ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.