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North Carolina’s teacher bonus scheme isn’t working

Data shows North Carolina’s teacher bonus pay structure hasn’t yet worked.
Data shows North Carolina’s teacher bonus pay structure hasn’t yet worked. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Next month a select group of North Carolina teachers will earn sizable bonuses — potentially more than $9,000 — for student performance on standardized tests. The bonus scheme was conceived by Sen. Phil Berger and implemented by state lawmakers in the 2016 budget. Teachers first received the payments in January 2017.

That first year, only third-grade reading teachers and some high school teachers were eligible to receive the additional money. Legislators have since expanded the program to include reading for grades 3-5 and math in grades 4-8 in addition to high school AP, IB, and CTE courses. This year a total of almost $39 million will be spent on the annually recurring teacher bonuses.

Now that we have three years of data to compare, we can start to look at the impact the bonuses are having on student learning in the subject that was first targeted. After a very slight uptick the first year bonuses were paid out, third-grade reading proficiency dropped almost two full percentage points in 2017-18. Those results are consistent with research on the impact of financial incentives in education, which finds that not only do bonuses fail to increase student achievement, in some cases they even decrease it.

Introducing a spirit of competition among educators that you are already underpaying isolates teachers and damages the relationships that are critical to maintaining a positive school culture where collaboration and learning can flourish. When the thousands of dollars in extra pay means those teachers may be able to pay off medical bills or quit their second job and have more time with their family, it’s difficult to blame them.

Another fundamental flaw with the idea of offering teachers significant bonus money for standardized test scores is that this approach assumes that teachers aren’t already trying their best, that they are sitting on some excellent techniques that they will only pull out when they’re coaxed in the right way. That’s not true of the teachers I know. We do our best to teach every single day despite low wages because we are committed to this job, and because we understand how crucial our efforts are to the futures of the students we serve.

If state legislators are really interested in helping teachers grow professionally, they need to restore funding for professional development, which was cut from the budget during the height of the recession a decade ago and hasn’t been restored. Unlike monetary bonuses, effective professional development leads to higher student achievement. When teachers are given the opportunity to collaborate, share best practices, implement new strategies and receive ongoing support over time, they actually get better at teaching. Unfortunately, those opportunities are few and far between.

North Carolina’s teacher bonuses are an unimaginative scheme hatched by state legislators who don’t have a clear understanding of what works in schools. Rather than continuing to waste millions of taxpayer dollars and harm teacher morale, let’s focus on paying a decent base salary, go back to the drafting table, and find a path forward for teacher development that can really help students grow. And this time invite some actual teachers to join that conversation.

Parmenter is a 7th grade Language Arts teacher at Waddell Language Academy in Charlotte. Email: justin.parmenter@hsgfellow.org
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