Cheating Atlanta Schools Received $500k in Bonuses, What Now?

The scandal has reignited debate over whether educator salaries should be tied to the test scores of their students.

By Julianne Hing Aug 15, 2011

This week, many Atlanta Public Schools will reopen their doors after a tumultuous summer spent managing the fallout from the confirmed news of the district’s massive teacher cheating scandal. Summer may be over, but cleaning up the mess has only begun.

This week, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta’s Channel 2 Action news reported that educators at 13 of the 44 schools implicated in the scandal had received just about $500,000 in bonuses since January 2009 through a district merit pay program. As the education world tries to suss out what could have compelled teachers to cheat so thoroughly, the scandal has also renewed debate about pay for performance teacher compensation schemes that tie educator salaries to the test scores of their students.

Nearly 180 educators and 38 principals were implicated in July in a widespread teacher cheating scandal to improve student test scores. It may not have been the carrot alone that motivated educators to engage in such egregious acts as filling in tests for students who actually never took the test, or holding test-score changing parties at teacher homes on weekends. Investigators with the Georgia Bureau of Investigations found cheating at 44 of the 56 public schools they examined, spurred in large part by a culture of "fear, intimidation and retaliation" that was pervasive throughout the district, and created by a top-down mandate to improve standardized test scores at any cost. Teachers reportedly faced public shaming sessions and sanctions if they did not cooperate with the cheating mandate. In the years that the scandal was devouring the district from within, its test scores appeared to be skyrocketing, and merit pay programs doled out bonuses yearly. Dr. Beverly Hall, former Atlanta Public Schools superintendent, received just over $580,000 over the course of her tenure.

Where high-stakes testing and pay for performance schemes go, the incentive to cheat seems to follow, merit pay critics argue.

"We’ve seen case after case where bonuses are used to incentivize test scores … and it incentivizes individuals to act in ways that further their own immediate self-interest," said Tina Trujillo, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "Merit pay actually serves these unintended consequences."

In Houston the legendary "Texas Miracle," a quick zip of rapidly improving test scores overseen by superintendent Rod Paige, actually turned out to be the result of widespread cheating that was uncovered in 2003. The city had instituted a merit pay program that promised bonuses educators whose students’ test scores improved. In Houston, struggling students were encouraged to stay home. Now, Washington, D.C. is facing allegations of similar cheating after a spate of testing irregularities was discovered in a USA Today investigation earlier this year.

Trujillo added that cheating scandals tend to pop up in the poorest schools that are concentrated with students of color because they face the most political pressure to raise their test scores. "You don’t see these cheating scandals take place in affluent districts because they’re removed from this debate."

Merit pay at its heart is a question about what motivates teachers to do their jobs well, and how to incentivize effective and teacher behavior. Incentivize good teaching with bonuses, the thinking goes, and test scores will improve. Turns out that hasn’t been the case. A large and growing body of research on merit pay has not yet found a causal relationship between pay for performance schemes and cheating, but it has found, pretty universally, that they also have no effect on student achievement.

Two weeks ago New York scrapped a three-year pilot program that promised $3,000 per every unionized educator on staff if a school met progress report goals. The program was canceled the same day that RAND Corporation study commissioned by the city found that the program had had neither any effect on student achievement or on teacher behavior.

"We didn’t see any difference in test results across all three years," said Julie Marsh, a lead researcher on the report. "We didn’t see any differences in reports of teachers in terms of their instructional practices, or in terms of aligning data with instruction standards, or in the amount of time they spent working outside the regular school day, or spent on professional development or spent collaborating."

Marsh said that the failure of New York’s program was likely because many teachers were not fully informed about the program, and the bonus, after taxes, wasn’t significant enough to merit any big change in behavior. Many teachers reported to researchers though that they were unhappy that the promise of bonuses was so heavily tied to test score results, and that nevertheless, many teachers both participating in the pilot program and in the control group actually already took very seriously the goal of improving their students’ test scores.

"It’s not clear how much added motivation teachers get from a bonus tied to those measures they already are working toward," Marsh said.

It’s a claim that Verdalia Turner, the president of the Atlanta Federation of Teachers, says is true for her members as well. "At the end of the day the bonuses were not that big, and it’s not worth it, either way," she said. The Atlanta Federation of Teachers is defending 48 members who’ve been implicated in the cheating scandal, Turner said.

Following the news of the bonus payouts, district spokesman Keith Bromery told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the program is under review.

Merit pay programs continue to be popular measures of reform. Among other teacher compensation reform schemes it’s supported, the Obama administration has most vocally supported merit pay programs that tie teacher compensation to student test scores. The administration’s $4 billion competitive grants program Race to the Top rewards states that adopt the administration’s reform agenda, which includes a merit pay scheme.

While the strongest argument against merit pay may simply be their inefficacy, merit pay critics also argue that they’re part of a line of market-based reforms that focus too much on test scores, and students as test-score producing machines.

"Merit pay is fundamentally a market-based reform," said Trujillo. "It’s grounded in principles of competition and driven by an attempt to compel teachers to work toward economic goals, in contrast to the social and academic goals that teachers are there to achieve."

"There’s just a mismatch here, and that’s why you don’t get what you’re expecting."