This commentary appeared in Los Angeles Times on September 27, 2000.
In October, the state will announce $550 million in rewards to schools for
improving student achievement scores. Then, around November, a tiny percentage
of Californian teachers in schools that made the greatest gains each will receive
additional $25,000 bonuses. The problem with all these rewards is that they
are based on test scores in a few subjects, not the breadth of content covered
by the state standards. Furthermore, the big cash windfalls for a few schools
send the wrong messages--that we value huge one-year gains more than long-term
continuous improvement--to all schools. In addition, the test scores on which
the accountability index is based are not all that accurate, so winning a big
bonus may involve considerable chance.
There are three types of incentives that will be awarded this fall, all of
which have some shortcomings:
The $25,000 bonuses send even more troublesome signals. Imagine what would
happen in any organization if a tiny fraction of people could earn $25,000 by
scoring best on some specific measure of performance. People would find every
means possible to look good on that measure. Some co-workers would try harder
to do the job they are supposed to do. But some would focus their energies only
on those things that pay and ignore the rest of their responsibilities. Worst
of all, some would resort to tricks or deceit to improve their scores.
There is ample evidence from other states that teachers react in all these
ways when they are faced with high-stakes accountability systems. For example,
they shift class time to the subjects that are tested and take it away from
those that are not. Teachers also spend excessive time in test preparation activities
of questionable educational value. When the same test is used year after year,
it is tempting to teach the specific test questions rather than the broader
skills they are supposed to measure.
Will these negative events happen in California? There's no guarantee, but
they have occurred in every state that has been studied, and California's $25,000
teacher rewards are the highest in the nation.
What should be done?
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