Principals learned on Wednesday how they could win a bonus of as much as $20,000 in the coming year, but the head of the principals’ group says she doesn’t think the money will do anything to spur better student achievement and that some of her members have already said they are uncomfortable with the program.“They feel like they do not produce stellar results by themselves,” says Clarice Berry of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association. “It is a team effort.”

The incentives will be offered to principals in charter as well as traditional schools.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who unveiled the initiative, had previously announced that he had secured $5 million in private funding for a performance incentive program for principals. District leadership has said that they will use the money over five years. Bonuses will be handed out in October of 2012 after test scores are released and analyzed.

Standing in front of staff from school network offices, who had gathered at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, Emanuel said the chiefs of school networks will also be eligible for the bonuses.

Yet the mayor acknowledged that money is not the end goal for educators. “Principals and teachers are not motivated by money,” he said. “Like you, they have chosen education because they care about children.”

Berry was not invited to the mayor’s announcement. However, others in the audience said they, too, are skeptical that performance pay would spark school improvement. Bill Hook, principal of Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, said he doubts his fellow principals will do anything differently because of financial incentives.

“There will be no demonstrative change in what I do,” Hook said. “I work hard and try to do the right thing. That won’t change.”

Harrison Peters, chief of schools for the Far South Side High School Network, agreed. But he said he still liked the idea of bonuses. “It recognizes the hard work that principals do,” he said.

More accountability?

Emanuel has made merit pay across the district a key part of his agenda. Performance pay across all levels of CPS will create unparalleled accountability, Emanuel said.

Rather than meeting certain benchmarks, all of the criteria are based on growth in test scores and comparisons with schools with similar students.

Sean Stallings, chief of schools for the Burnham Park High School Network, says he thinks it is good that principals will be competing against colleagues whose schools are similar demographically.

“This give principals of neighborhood schools a chance to show [achievement] growth,” he said.

To get the bonuses, principals will be ranked on criteria that mostly cover growth on test scores, whether it the ISAT, the Explore or the ACT, depending on the grade level of the students. The criteria also include whether principals make substantial progress in closing the achievement gap.

However, some criteria seem to be tailor made for already high-achieving schools that might not have much room for growth.

Elementary school principals will get the bonus if their schools “maintain” a rate of 90 percent or more of students meeting college readiness benchmarks on the Explore. This year, only five elementary schools—Keller, Edison, Lenart, Skinner and Jackson—met that level, according to the district’s new school progress reports.

Also, high school principals whose schools maintain a specific low dropout rate for two years will get the extra cash. Last year, only three schools would have qualified.

High school principals also will be rewarded for lowering the dropout rate.

Exactly how many principals have a chance of getting the bonuses is unclear. If they meet two criteria, they will get $5,000; for three, they get $10,000 and for all four, $20,000.  According to 2011 data on value-added test scores, 132 elementary principals would qualify in reading and 144 in math–two of the four elementary school criteria. CPS has not posted value-added test scores for high schools.

Berry notes that value-added and growth measures that compare to similar schools to each other result in principals trying to reach a moving target. Berry says it would take a sophisticated statistician to figure out if they have a chance at qualifying. “My guess is that [the number] is very small,” she says.

CPS spokeswoman Ana Vargas says there has been no retroactive analysis of how many principals might get bonuses.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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