Mayor Michael Bloomberg and United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew claim to be seeking ways to minimize the number of teachers—now expected to be close to 6,000—laid off for the next school year. Assuming that Bloomberg and Mulgrew are serious, I have a modest proposal for them to consider. They should agree to suspend the education department’s program of cash bonuses for teachers and principals based largely on improvements in students’ test scores. I estimate that the $37 million spent last year on three separate bonus schemes could be used next year to cover the salaries and benefits of 600 first- and second-year teachers, or about 10 percent of the total number of projected layoffs.
Even at the best of times, rewarding educators with payments for raising students’ scores on standardized tests can produce damaging side effects in the classroom. Testing experts like Harvard’s Daniel Koretz warn that such cash incentives create pressure on teachers to devote an inordinate amount of time and effort to teaching test-taking skills and lead to a narrowing of the curriculum. The payments are also incentives for outright cheating by adults working in the schools. “When test scores become the goal of the teaching process,” said the great American social scientist Donald Campbell, “they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.”
Test corruption has become even more of a problem in New York of late. The state’s top two education officials, Board of Regents chancellor Merryl Tisch and education department commissioner David Steiner, recently concluded that the annual math and English tests for grades three through eight had become unreliable measures of children’s real academic achievement. They are trying to restructure the state’s assessments and recently ordered a study by Koretz to measure the extent of score inflation on the tests given in the past several years.
That development in Albany argues strongly for a moratorium on the city’s bonus program—at least until some confidence is restored in the annual state tests on which the payments are largely based. Moreover, continuing this costly program during the city’s dire budget crisis would be irresponsible. The most troubling aspect of the program on the financial side is the bonuses of up to $25,000 handed out to principals whose schools have shown improvement on the corrupted state tests and who will soon retire. Not only does this waste precious education dollars during one school year; the city is also obligated, because the bonuses are fully pensionable, to continue paying for that one-year improvement in test scores for the next 20 to 30 years. The Bloomberg administration claims that it is trying to rein in the city’s out-of-control pension costs—yet under the bonus system, inflated test scores lead to inflated pensions.
You might think it would be a no-brainer for the Department of Education, the principals’ union, and the teachers’ union to shelve the bonus payments for at least the next school year. Unfortunately, that’s not what the three parties are considering, as I discovered after asking each of them for a response to my moratorium proposal. Joel Klein, New York City’s schools chancellor, told me that he didn’t think the program’s costs would be as high next year because “we expect state tests to be more difficult in the future.” But he also insisted that “the projected cost of the bonuses to teachers at schools that help students achieve at high levels is a smart investment.” Principals’ union leader Ernest Logan echoed that sentiment: “There’s no constructive reason to turn back the clock. Performance differentials and bonuses are at the forefront of every education reformer’s agenda today.” And Michael Mulgrew’s press secretary, Richard Riley, told me that while former UFT president Randi Weingarten had proposed in 2008 that the DOE drop the bonus program, Mulgrew “hasn’t made a statement yet” about it. Mulgrew’s equivocation is particularly puzzling, since he has now said publicly that the city’s test scores are not to be believed.
Logan accurately describes the city’s bonus program as being “at the forefront” of the education-reform agenda. Unfortunately, the program also shows some of the flaws in that reform agenda. In New York City, the mere idea of school reform seems to be trumping common sense in determining the best practices in schools and classrooms.