April 18, 2024

HISD Teacher Bonus Plan Flawed

HISD is considering a new bonus plan that could make some teachers’ earning jump into 6 figures, a figure that, if it’s disbursed correctly, could help the district achieve it’s primary end – hiring top teachers away from neighboring districts.  Unfortunately, the new plan suffers from the same fundamental flaws as the initial payouts did 2 years ago and the most recent batch did last month.  What’s so hard about rewarding the best teachers with the most bonus money?

Nothing, if that’s what a school district is trying to do and administrators have the tools – and the will – to measure their performance objectively.

The Chronicle reports:

The preliminary plan drew concern from teacher groups, who disagree with how the master teachers would be selected.

Part of the administration’s proposal, presented Saturday at the school board’s annual retreat, relies on the same complex system HISD uses to calculate bonuses for its performance pay program. Put simply, under the value-added formula, teachers are ranked on how much their students exceed expectations on standardized tests.

The master teacher jobs would be offered to those ranked in the top 10 percent for at least two consecutive years, according to the draft plan.

This plan is not a good one insofar as it relies on deltas in student performance on the states’ tests.  There are a number of flaws with this approach, some of which I discussed here back in 2007.

First, the idea that the improvements measured for a group of students is indicative of teacher excellence is flawed because it is not a direct measurement of performance.  By that I mean that the students might have been taught by a complete incompetent in 3rd grade and exhibit marked performance in 4th grade under the tutelage of an average teacher. 

Think that doesn’t happen?  Think again.  By no means are all teachers masters of their trade and the children walking in the door on day 1 of the school year bring a lot of history with them, for good and bad. 

Similarly, the best teacher in a school would be penalized under the HISD plan because his/her students also had an excellent teacher the year before.  Clearly this is not the objective HISD should be shooting for.

Second, the Chronicle report indicates that student improvement wouldn’t even be directly determined by students’ scores but rather by an “expectation” of improvement.  This second layer of abstraction of the measurement can only make the problems discussed above more pronounced.

Third, one important criteria in selecting the “master teachers” for the plan is years of teaching experience.  While time on the job can be indicative of expertise, it’s also true that years of service can and do wear on teachers’ effectiveness in the classroom.

It’s unlikely that any plan to make master teacher designations could be approved without some consideration being given to length of service.  But this is something that should be held to a minimum.  Imagine a standard bell curve with effectiveness plotted against the Y axis and longevity on the X.

There’s a sweet spot in the middle of a teachers career in which he/she is most efficient, effective, and engaged with students.  These are the teachers a school district most needs to identify and reward.  Put too much weight on experience and they will be overlooked.

Not everything in the proposed plan – which admittedly is still in the drawing-up state – is bad.  There are a number of good features, including:

  • Raising the base pay of master teachers by 10%
  • Providing an addition 15% increase for teaching in low-performing schools
  • Paying master teachers to educate their subordinates

What makes these good ideas is that they are clear, easily identifiable, and concrete.  Teachers’ evaluations and performance-based bonuses should be equally objective.  That’s clearly not the case now.

Regarding this years’ bonuses:

many teachers believe the bonuses have little connection with classroom instruction – even though the awards are based on student test scores.

“It’s important for them to see the connection,” HISD trustee Dianne Johnson said. “We have to keep communicating with them.”

The Chronicle’s Ericka Mellon totally misses the point that teachers are making, which is that classroom instruction quality – what should be the prime objective of any teacher’s evaluation – is not being measured by HISD.  Test scores drive bonuses and the correlation between the two is far from complete.

It’s important that there be a connection between actual performance and merit-based bonuses.  If that connection existed, teachers would see it.  It’s not, which is why Johnson says the issue needs more discussion.  It doesn’t – HISD just needs better data about teacher quality.


Marc is a software developer, writer, and part-time political know-it-all who currently resides in Texas in the good ol' U.S.A.

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