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October 14, 2005

Thinking Different: Little Rock Principal and Teacher Incentives

Daniel Henninger:

She went to the Public Education Foundation of Little Rock. The Foundation had no money for her, and the Little Rock system's budget was a non-starter. So the Foundation produced a private, anonymous donor, which made union approval unnecessary.

Together this small group worked out the program's details. The Stanford test results would be the basis for the bonuses. For each student in a teacher's charge whose Stanford score rose up to 4% over the year, the teacher got $100; 5% to 9% -- $200; 10% to 14% -- $300; and more than 15% -- $400. This straight-line pay-for-performance formula awarded teachers objectively in a way that squares with popular notions of fairness and skirts fears of subjective judgment. In most merit-based lines of work, say baseball, it's called getting paid for "putting numbers on the board."

Still, it required a leap of faith. "I will tell you the truth," said Karen Carter, "we thought one student would improve more than 15%." The tests and financial incentives, however, turned out to be a powerful combination. The August test gave the teachers a detailed analysis of individual student strengths and weaknesses. From this, they tailored instruction for each student. It paid off on every level.

Little Rock is a state capital famous to the nation for the mysteries of its politics and the compulsions of its politicians. By insisting 50 years ago on the continued segregation of Central High School, Gov. Orval Faubus ensured among other things that the handsome, still-functioning Central High would stand today as a national shrine maintained by the National Park Service. Yet another national shrine to political tumult that one may visit in Little Rock is the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum. I came to visit the Meadowcliff Elementary School. Perhaps in time someone will put a plaque in front of it too.

About 80% of Meadowcliff's students in the K-to-5 school are black, the rest Hispanic or white. It sits in a neighborhood of neat, very modest homes. About 92% of the students are definable as living at or below the poverty level, a phrase its principal Karen Carter abhors: "I don't like that term because most of our parents work at one or two jobs." This refusal to bend to stereotypes likely explains what happened last year at Meadowcliff.

The school's scores on the Stanford achievement rose by an average 17% over the course of one year. They took the Stanford test in September and again in May. Against the national norm, the school's 246 full-year students rose to the 35th percentile from the 25th. For math in the second grade and higher, 177 students rose to the 32nd percentile from the 14th. This is phenomenal. What happened in nine months?

Meadowcliff has two of the elements well established as necessary to a school's success -- a strong, gifted principal and a motivated teaching staff. Both are difficult to find in urban school systems. Last year this Little Rock public school added a third element -- individual teacher bonuses, sometimes known as "pay for performance."

Paying teachers on merit is one of the most popular ideas in education. It is also arguably the most opposed idea in public education, anathema to the unions and their supporters. Meadowcliff's bonus program arrived through a back door.

Karen Carter, the school's principal, felt that her teachers' efforts were producing progress at Meadowcliff, especially with a new reading program she'd instituted. But she needed a more precise test to measure individual student progress; she also wanted a way to reward her teachers for their effort. She went to the Public Education Foundation of Little Rock. The Foundation had no money for her, and the Little Rock system's budget was a non-starter. So the Foundation produced a private, anonymous donor, which made union approval unnecessary.

Twelve teachers received performance bonuses ranging from $1,800 to $8,600. The rest of the school's staff also shared in the bonus pool. That included the cafeteria ladies, who started eating with the students rather than in a nearby lounge, and the custodian, who the students saw taking books out of Carter's Corner, the "library" outside the principal's office. Total cost: $134,800. The tests cost about $10,000.

The Meadowcliff bonus program is now in its second year, amid more phenomena rarely witnessed in "school reform." Last year's bonuses were paid for by an anonymous donor; this year the school board voted to put the pay for performance bonuses on the district's budget. The Little Rock teachers union thereupon insisted that Meadowcliff's teachers vote for a contract waiver; 100% voted for the waiver. Another grade school, with private funding, will now try the Meadowcliff model.

The Meadowcliff program has the support of both Little Rock's superintendent, Roy Brooks, and Arkansas' director of education, Ken James. Superintendent Brooks, who was recruited from the reform movement in Florida, has cut some 100 administrative positions from the central bureaucracy and rerouted the $3.8 million savings back to the schools.

At his offices in the capitol building, Director James calls himself an "advocate of pay for performance" for a couple of reasons. Financial incentives of some sort are needed, he says, to stop math and science teachers from jumping ship to industry. And school districts like Little Rock's have to innovate fast because jobs and population are migrating internally, mostly into northwestern Arkansas. The Springdale district alone, he says, near Fayetteville and Bentonville, "hired 180 new teachers this year." Little Rock has to find a way to hold its best teachers. The teachers I saw at Meadowcliff Elementary seemed pretty happy to be there.

"School reform" is one of the greatest of the great white whales of American politics. It's by now virtually a mythical beast, chased by specialists, commissions, think tanks, governors. Gov. Bill and Hillary Clinton were famous Arkansas school reformers. With No Child Left Behind, President Bush has flung the reform fishing net over the whole country. The biggest urban school systems -- New York, Chicago, L.A. -- get most of the ink. But maybe the solutions are going to be found in places like Little Rock, where talented people can fly beneath the radar long enough to give good ideas a chance to prove themselves.

Posted by Jim Zellmer at October 14, 2005 5:57 AM
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