by Ullik Rouk

Rewards, Sanctions, and Assistance

The consequences of these new get-tough accountability policies are significant, both for educators and for students. Without consequences, so the thinking goes, educators and students will have little incentive to change.

For educators, the consequences of student test scores usually come in the form of rewards or sanctions. Thirteen states provide awards to schools that have met their achievement goals. Such awards are frequently in the form of cash that schools may use to expand their programs, purchase additional instructional materials or equipment, including technology, or give staff bonuses. Schools that do not meet their achievement goals may face sanctions ranging from having to obtain state approval for their improvement plan, having their accreditation revoked, or having to reorganize the entire school and staff. Eighteen states levy schoolwide sanctions while several others have the authority to pose special measures such as allowing students to attend other public, and sometimes private, schools (Quality Counts, 2000).

What little is known about incentives for teaching points out that rewards and penalties should be neither too trivial nor too heavy handed.

Student rewards can take the form of an afternoon pizza party or a field trip. Sanctions can range from having to be tutored, attending summer school, being held back a grade, or not getting a high school diploma.

Combining incentives for performance with interventions and consequences for failure is typical in state accountability systems. A number of factors, however, make these practices especially thorny issues. For one, accountability systems have also become chief mechanisms for evaluating teachers, principals, and other administrators. This practice has drawn fire from teachers’ unions, which argue that student test scores reflect more factors than those under a teacher’s direct control; therefore, they have no place in personnel evaluations.

Also, the research on the complex nature of rewards and sanctions and its implications for education accountability is limited at best (Cohen, 1996). Researchers know little about what rewards and penalties might lead students to high levels of learning, the kinds of rewards that are effective in encouraging teachers to change their instructional techniques, or even whether rewards actually motivate students and educators to produce more.

Rewards and Sanctions in the Region

Image of money.

In Arkansas. The state has plans to reward exceptional performance in two categories: performance, which recognizes absolute levels of student achievement, and growth and improvement, which recognizes upward trends. Awards will be phased in over time and may include cash awards that schools can use to expand programs, purchase materials, add technology, or give staff bonuses or other incentives. Any school that fails to achieve expected levels of student performance is listed as a "high-priority school." Schools that do not improve are placed on "alert status" the second year, "low-performing status" the third year, and "academic distress" the fourth year. These schools will be required to develop state-approved improvement plans and receive state technical assistance. The state may take over schools that fail to improve, although no timetable for such action has been established.

In Louisiana. Schools that meet their growth target and demonstrate improvement in the performance of students who are classified as high-poverty may receive monetary rewards. School personnel decide how the money is spent but cannot spend it on salary stipends. Schools that fail to meet growth targets are subject to three levels of corrective action. Initially, they are provided with assistance from District Assistance Teams in identifying their needs, developing school improvement plans, and examining their use of resources. Schools that do not improve after two years will be assigned a highly trained Distinguished Educator to work with them. At this point, parents will have the right to transfer their child to a higher performing public school. At a third level of corrective action, which again takes place after another two years, districts must develop reconstitution plans for schools that do not show 40 percent growth toward their targets.

In Oklahoma. The state is developing a rewards system and redesigning its support to schools. Under the present system, schools that are low-performing–those whose students score in the bottom quarter on a state-developed test and below the national norm on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills–receive technical assistance from state department staff if they do not improve after one year. Technical assistance becomes even more intensive for schools that are still low-performing in the third year. The state has closed two schools over the past 10 years for poor achievement and fiscal management.

In New Mexico. The state recognizes schools that have made the most progress from one year to the next. The top 10 percent of these schools receive awards ranging from $1,000 to $14,000. Schools scoring in the top 25 percent on state assessments receive a certificate of recognition. Low-performing schools, on the other hand, must implement improvement plans. A school has two years to demonstrate improvement, after which the state can impose a curriculum, take over the school, or close it. In the last two school years, 25 schools have been deemed low-performing.

In Texas. Schools qualify for financial awards when they have: 45 percent of all students and of each student group passing each section of the TAAS, a dropout rate of 6 percent or less, and an attendance rate of at least 94 percent. A school must also rank at the top 25 percent of its comparison group in reading and mathematics. The system features separate recognition for schools that increase the number of parents or guardians attending parent-teacher conferences. Districts that find themselves in need of outside support, intervention, and mediation receive help from a peer assistance team. The formation of this team is part of an initiative sponsored by the Texas Education Agency, Texas Association of School Boards, and Texas Association of School Administrators.

Sources: Arkansas Comprehensive Testing, Assessment & Accountability Program, July 1999; LEAP for the 21st Century High Stakes Testing Policy, May 2000; Quality Counts 2000; Texas Education Agency Web site.

The little that is known points out that rewards and penalties should be neither too trivial nor too heavy handed (Cohen, 1996). Rewards that recognize teachers’ intrinsic motivation by, for example, sending them to workshops where they can add to their skills and knowledge are often more relevant, effective, and appreciated than outright cash bonuses.

The last step in overhauling schools that chronically fail to meet their performance targets is known as reconstitution. Reconstitution can occur when low-achieving schools, despite technical assistance and additional professional development, repeatedly fail to meet performance expectations. The practice essentially consists of ousting a school’s teachers and administrators–and sometimes support personnel as well–and starting over from scratch, or at the very least, asking staff to reapply for their jobs. The goal is to replace a flagging school culture with one that supports high standards.

Schools in SEDL’s region have escaped such dramatic shakeups by their states. However, states are not alone in their authority to reconstitute schools that fail. Districts can reconstitute schools as well, as was the case in San Antonio. Schools in Cleveland, Chicago, Denver, Prince George’s County (Maryland), and San Francisco have also been reconstituted. Where entire school districts have been reconstituted, as happened in three New Jersey districts, the state removed local school board members, the superintendents, and other key personnel. The state appointed policymakers for each district until new school boards were created.

The effectiveness of such housecleaning has not been fully proven, but limited evidence of success does exist in some locales. After the state took control of schools in Cleveland, the district’s state proficiency scores showed a slight upward trend. Data from Paterson, New Jersey, indicate student gains in reading, writing, and mathematics. A middle school in San Francisco demonstrated exceptional improvement on its standardized test scores.

Advocates argue that the threat of reconstitution serves as an incentive to keep educators’ eyes on student performance targets. Not surprisingly, critics of reconstitution, teachers unions foremost among them, claim that reconstitution is a simplistic response to a complicated problem. Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, characterized reconstitution as, "getting rid of people instead of bad practices" (Hendrie, 1997). Others claim that the changes wrought by reconstitution are largely cosmetic because displaced teachers typically resume their careers in other schools.

Despite union resistance, however, reconstitution appears here to stay, at least for the immediate future, if a clause in Detroit’s contract with teachers is any indicator. The deal between the district and teachers there allows reconstitution of schools that have lost state accreditation and failed to improve despite extra help. Union leaders in other districts such as Chicago and Cincinnati have negotiated interim steps between putting schools on probation and reconstituting them, thus giving schools more time to improve.

Next Page: What Issues Do States Face in Putting Their Accountability Systems into Effect?

Published in Insights on Educational Policy, Practice, and Research Number 11, August 2000, Tough Love: State Accountability Policies Push Student Achievement