Rewarding Success, Punishing Failure

AS STATES BEGIN to assess student performance in greater detail, they must then turn to the question of what happens to schools when they succeed and what happens when they fail to meet expectations. Rewarding schools for success is rarely a debated issue. Numerous states offer financial incentives for schools and teachers when their students perform consistently well. Teachers may also receive bonuses for individual performance or enhancement. In North Carolina, Ohio, and several other states, teachers who gain certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards are rewarded bonuses. And in 1998, a group of business leaders in New York announced it would offer $30 million in financial prizes to teachers and administrators who successfully raised the academic performance of their students. There is some concern, though, as to how bonuses might affect the behavior of teachers. In Kentucky, which was one of the first states to introduce bonuses, disputes have erupted between teachers and principals over who deserved the bonuses and who did not. There have even been reports of teachers forging scores and schools inflating grades in order to receive the bonuses.

A more complex debate has begun over what to do with schools when they fail to perform well. An increasing number of policy makers now insist that teachers and administrators who are unable to raise student performance must leave the profession. Many communities including the Cincinnati school district have pioneered what they consider to be fair strategies for weeding out poorly performing educators. Teachers engage in a peer review process which review the performance of their colleagues on a regular basis. For those teachers who fail to meet expectations, they receive intensive professional development support and other assistance from fellow educators. In most cases, these teachers eventually improve their technique and are able to continue their work. When performance fails to rise, though, teachers can be counseled into finding a new profession or even removed outright. Critics complain that peer review won't work on a national basis because of the concern that many teachers will protect their colleagues and not report on them, in the hopes of not having other teachers turn on them as well.

Accountability proponents who support the firing of incompetent teachers continue to fight an uphill battle against the major teachers' unions, including the National Educational Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Both the NEA and AFT support tenure, which makes it extremely difficult in most states to remove teachers without just cause. The unions have lambasted the increasing trend towards accountability as unfair and as an excuse to blame all of our current education woes of the teachers themselves instead of the system as a whole. In San Diego, for example, a district was forced to spend ten years and $500,000 in legal fees in order to remove one teacher who had been found to be incompetent. A majority of states are re-examining their tenure laws and are working to find ways to make it easier to remove teachers from the classroom. Streamlining appeals and arbitration may both be used as a way of getting around the strenuous tenure nullification process.

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