Bonus for supe with a B minus?
It's hardly a Goldman Sachs-style bonanza. It's no AIG outrage. But a plan to give the chief of Seattle Public Schools a pay-for-performance bonus — albeit only $5,280 — had parental jaws hitting homework tables around the city last week.
Seattle Times staff columnist
The School Board's plan to pay Maria Goodloe-Johnson a bonus: seattleschools.org/area/board/09-10agendas/111809 agenda/incentivereport.pdf
Goodloe-Johnson's score card: seattleschools.org/area/board/09-10agendas/111809 agenda/incentive08-09.pdf
It's hardly a Goldman Sachs-style bonanza. It's no AIG outrage.
But a plan to give the chief of Seattle Public Schools a pay-for-performance bonus — albeit only $5,280 — had parental jaws hitting homework tables around the city last week.
Really? A cash reward for a heckuva job running Seattle schools? Now?
As tone-deaf as this seems, it's true. It also turns out to be more interesting than just a populist outrage of the week. It's the first try at merit pay in local schools.
It started in 2007, when Maria Goodloe-Johnson was hired as superintendent. Included in the contract, at the School Board's insistence, were a series of merit-pay provisions. If the district's kids met thresholds for attendance, scores on tests and graduation rates, then she would get a bonus for each goal.
Two years later, the first report card is in. She met four of the 20 goals (in scores for fourth-grade writing, sixth-grade reading, eighth-grade science and the high-school-graduation rate — which rose but still is a depressing 67.6 percent).
Overall that's a 20 percent score. Pending a vote of the board on Dec. 9, she will get 20 percent of a possible $26,400 merit bonus, or $5,280.
Cue the jokes about grading on a curve.
"I would be fired from my job for only meeting four out of 20 goals," wrote one parent on a local schools Web site, saveseattleschools.blogspot.com.
"Just how much do we have to pay this woman to get her best effort?" wondered another.
Goodloe-Johnson already makes $264,000 a year, about a hundred grand more than the governor.
Setting aside whether this is seemly, do bonuses like this work? Not for the worker, who is no doubt happy to get them. But for us?
School Board member Michael DeBell, who helped write Goodloe-Johnson's pay package, says Seattle is the first district in the state to try merit pay with a superintendent. The board did it as a test-run for possibly extending merit pay to teachers and principals (which would have to be negotiated with their unions).
He's "interested in breaking out of the rigid format" in which school pay is based solely on seniority and professional qualifications, he said. A merit system for teachers would use different goals than for a superintendent.
DeBell agreed the timing of Goodloe-Johnson's merit bonus is bad, at least symbolically, because the schools are facing more budget deficits. Plus the board gave her the equivalent of a "B-" grade only last summer (she memorably gave herself an "A").
But he supports the bonus anyway. Because it puts a focus on what's working and what's not.
"I'm willing to take the heat on this," DeBell said. "Anytime you set goals and then attach money to them, it's going to shine a much brighter spotlight on whether those goals are being achieved."
True, money raises the stakes. I probably wouldn't be writing this column about how Seattle schools met only four of 20 goals if someone wasn't getting a dubious cash reward for it.
But schools are not widget factories. Texas just spent $300 million on merit bonuses for teachers and saw no effect on student achievement. Or on teacher retention.
I bet the reason is because teachers generally aren't in it for the money. Maybe fatter bonuses over years would have an effect on the talent pool. But a few thousand here or there is nibbling around the edges.
Looking over Goodloe-Johnson's scorecard, I'd guess it's likely to end up a case study of the limits of test-score-based merit pay, not its promise.
For instance, she is getting a $1,320 bonus because 2,254 out of 3,019 city sixth-graders passed the WASL reading test. That's 26 more kids than the goal set by the board. And about a hundred more than passed the same test last year.
Pretty specific. But I wonder: Does a central administrator in the job only two years have much to do one way or another with such small swings in citywide reading scores?
Then there's the mercenary spirit at the heart of all this. If you're an educator making a quarter million, could the lure of another grand or two make a crucial difference in whether you try your damnedest to help sixth-graders learn to read?
Here's the thing: If it could — if the answer to that question is yes — then our schools are in more trouble than we think.
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or email@example.com.
About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
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