With guest, Louder Than a Bomb poet Nate Marshall

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

UFT leader responds re. bonuses

Following up on yesterday's post...

UFT V.P. Leo Casey responded to my question about the union's position on the ending of the city's bonus plan for paying teachers, a plan which the union had enthusiastically signed onto in 2007. In fairness to Leo, (my comment at the end of yesterday's blog may have sounded a bit snarky), it turns out that he had already written a piece on this issue for Hechinger rather than in the union's own Edwize blog where I was searching. I searched again but failed to find Leo's Hechinger piece. No matter, I publish it here without comment (for now).

Leo's response:
Here it is what I wrote for the Hechinger Foundation, who asked for a commentary on the subject. We think the program should end. There is a minor issue here, that the D.O.E. is suggesting that they can end it on their own, even though it is a negotiated agreement, and we will insist that it can only be ended by common consent. That is why I talk about going back to the negotiations table. But we would want to end it...

By the way, all the right-wingers are livid about this, since the deal involved allowing our younger members to retire at 55 with 25 years in. That part stays intact, no matter what happens with the bonus program. And since the state constitution protects retirement benefits of those in service, it would be very hard to undo that...
We live in an era when educational policy is far too often shaped by ideological dogma. Our challenge is to engage in educational experimentation and innovation, and yet remain grounded in what research tells us works in real classrooms and real schools.

There is a well-established, substantial body of educational research which has found that individual merit pay for teachers fails to produce meaningful gains in student achievement. What is more, individual merit pay has negative consequences, as the culture of trust and collaboration that is at the heart of a good school is undermined when educators are set in invidious competition with each other. In recognition of this reality, the UFT has consistently opposed individual merit pay for NYC educators.

Until the UFT and the NYC D.O.E. entered into an agreement to do a pilot program, there was no research as to the efficacy of school-wide bonuses as a tool of educational improvement. Since a school wide bonus would not have the negative effects of setting educator against educator, and could conceivably contribute to collaboration within the school, the UFT decided that a pilot program was an experiment worth having, provided that it was subject to a rigorous evaluation by independent researchers.

With the publication of the Rand's A Big Apple for Educators, the results of that evaluation are now in: the school-wide bonuses have not produced meaningful gains in student achievement. While one might object that the standardized New York State exams used to evaluate the bonuses were a poor and unreliable measure of student achievement, the report's other findings - most importantly, that the bonuses were seen as a weak motivation that did not change educator behavior and practice - leave little reason to think that a more robust measure of student achievement would produce substantially different results. Indeed, one of the significant findings of the Rand study was that the heavy reliance of the program on benchmarks drawn from the standardized state exams was a factor diminishing its legitimacy with teachers. The evidence tells us that it is time for the UFT and the NYC D.O.E. to return to the negotiations table to find new tools for improving student achievement, such as the development of a rich and powerful curriculum.

If one lesson is to be taken from this study and from the literature on individual merit pay, it is that teachers do not answer to the economic calculus of stockbrokers and hedge fund managers. This observation may not sit well with those for whom the rule of the market and individual financial incentives are an ideological first principle, established prior to logical argument and evidence, but it is the reality of our lives and our schools, and it is affirmed again and again by the education research on performance incentives. While we believe that our challenging and exhausting professional work should provide us with a middle class life, our primary motivation in entering the field of education is not economic gain, but to make a difference in the lives of the young people we teach. Educational policy must recognize this motivation to produce lasting, constructive change.

Leo Casey
Vice President, Academic High Schools
United Federation of Teachers
52 Broadway, 14th Floor
New York, New York 10004


  1. My, what a dance. It was all just about filling a hole in educational research. We already knew that individual merit pay doesn't work. Let's do a study on school-based merit pay. That's the area of education research that needs attention right now? That's what our teacher unions should be bargaining? Filling holes in somebody's area of research? And then to claim that this was somehow a blow against the hedge fund managers business model. Sorry Leo. It was a bad idea then. And now.

  2. Going to the MarchJuly 21, 2011 at 5:58 AM


    Thanks for pursuing this.

    It seems strange that Mr. Casey would post the union's position on bonuses, first on a foundation website, rather than on his union's own website. Who is he writing this for anyway? Obviously not for us teachers.

    See you in D.C.

  3. Leo makes a mockery out of research-based reform. He claims that Randi Weingarten lauded Bloomberg's bonus plan as a "win for the kids" primarily because there wasn't any research yet, showing that it wasn't a win for kids. How absurd!

  4. Leo may be right about "no research as to the efficacy of school-wide bonuses as a tool of educational improvement." But that's pretty specific considering that his union, along with Bloomberg/Klein, were pioneers of a sort in this kind of collaboration.

    Of course there has been lots of research concerning the efficacy of bonuses or performance pay for people engaged in higher-level, critical thinking and creative types of work. There's general consensus among those researchers that bonuses of this type actually have a regressive affect. The research is summed up nicely in this RSA presentation presentation by Daniel Pink.

    At any rate,(especially) in absence of any specific research on the issue, it would behoove union leaders like Randi and Leo to be more restrained in their enthusiastic selling of such plans to their own membership.

    It's one thing to accept a concession from a relative position of weakness. It's quite another to tout it a great victory, a "win-win" for all, including the kids. It wasn't.

    The damage done cannot just be measured simply in unproductive dollars spent. But also on the loss of credibility of leadership which overstated the value of bonuses and opened the door for test-based teacher evaluations and pay nationwide.


Agree? Disagree? Let me hear from you.