Who Gets Rewarded and Why?

The State of Florida DOE released the names of schools that received bonus money for schools with good test scores. To be eligible, the school grade must be high and/or school achievement gains must be large. These bonuses are supposed to be incentive awards to work hard and produce results. Is it effective? Some argue that the whole concept is totally unfair and counterproductive. The bonus money which amounts to about $50,000 for a school with 500 students goes to teachers, school equipment or temporary support staff.

I am including a link to the schools in each district that were rewarded. I looked at Alachua to see which schools got money. Here’s what I found:

  1. Schools receiving an ‘A’ school grade for two consecutive years received a $100 bonus per child.
  2. Schools receiving a ‘B’ school grade (9 schools) or below for two consecutive years received no bonus.
  3. Schools that dropped a letter grade, even from an ‘A’ to a ‘B’ received no bonus.

School grades are correlated with the socio-economic status of the children’s families. Thus, fluctuations in grades have as much or more to do with which students are enrolled than with the quality of the instruction.

For a small school, the most direct way to improve a school grade is to enroll fewer students from struggling families and more from more stable and affluent families. District schools are not able to control enrollment, and school grades can fluctuate as families enter and leave the school. Charter schools are able to screen and dismiss schools more freely. They are often motivated to do so since they can be closed if they receive consecutive failing grades. If charter schools attract more students from stable families, when these students leave a district school, the district school grade is likely to decline. They then have a harder time attracting experienced teachers. A downward spiral often begins.

School grades can be improved by extra instructional time and high quality staff. These factors are important and costly, but are not sufficient approaches to a quality education. Children learn from one another, and schools that can enroll students from diverse backgrounds can create a school climate in which all students feel they have a chance to succeed. The trade off may be that an ‘A’ school becomes a ‘B’ school because some children from low income families are enrolled. The quality of instruction may be even better as a result, because those children from disadvantaged backgrounds may have rich experiences but lower test scores.

School grades are meant to be incentives to improve schools. Parents are supposed to vote with their feet to seek better schools. Too often, this shifting students from one school to another has the opposite effect. Districts may not be able to estimate enrollments, plan appropriate instructional programs, and know which types of teachers they need.

Bottom line? Bonus incentives can simply add insult to injury.