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Scott Mooneyham: Teacher bonus system could be improved

By Scott Mooneyham
Raleigh ó Sometimes a little belt-tightening can be a good thing. Look at the North Carolina General Assembly this year.
With an economic slowdown just beginning and not much of a budget surplus, state legislators kept operational spending down this year. More than likely, they’ll be faced with even worse finances next year, so yet more cinching at the waist is in order.
One of the steps taken to hold down spending was to bar state public school officials from handing out more than $94 million in teacher performance bonuses. The cap was based on the average amounts handed out over the last 11 years.
School officials wanted $17 million more.
The cap resulted in average bonuses being reduced, from $1,500 to $1,053 at the best performing schools and from $750 to $527 at schools a notch below.
The 30 percent reduction also came about because more schools ó 82 percent ó met their performance goals.
How did they do it? They used less test data to evaluate the schools and decide which ones qualified for bonuses.
Howard Lee, chairman of the state Board of Education, called the bonus reductions unfortunate.
He got it wrong. To think that 82 percent of North Carolina public teachers deserve performance bonuses is what’s really unfortunate. These are, after all, “performance” bonuses.
Do four out of five policemen deserve performance-based bonuses?
What about four out of five stockbrokers?
How about four out of five bus drivers?
When legislators approved these bonuses back in the 1990s, they weren’t meant as a way to supplement overall teacher salaries.
They were meant to reward good teachers.
With tougher economic times on the way in 2009, teachers in North Carolina can probably expect yet another year of lower bonuses. In fact, don’t be surprised if the totals are even lower.
Or, they have another option. The N.C. Association of Educators and the teachers who aren’t members of the group could go to legislators and demand that new criteria be set up to reward teachers.
How about an evaluation that gives bonuses to those truly deserving, but at even higher amounts?
Given the data available to schools and the technology out there now to compile it, there has to be a better way.
Teachers, of course, complain that they could be penalized for inheriting a group of poorly prepared, under-performing students. But schools have the ability to look down into the classroom level and see whether cohorts of students perform better or worse each year.
Of course, if public schools operated in the private sector, principals would be left to determine which students received bonuses. Government, though, doesn’t always react too well when following private sector models.
Still, over the last five years, North Carolina taxpayers have provided better than $450 million in teacher performance bonuses. Asking questions about the return ought to be expected.
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Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association. His e-mail address is smooneyh@ncinsider.com

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