Bernadeia Johnson knows as well as anyone just how hard it is to accelerate learning in an urban school district. Before she took over as superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools three months ago, Johnson was the district’s chief academic officer.
In that capacity, she was the architect of a number of reforms designed to close the achievement gap, halt an ugly enrollment decline and close schools. The changes led to incremental gains.
But at the current pace of growth, it would take Minneapolis 60 years to catch up to other schools throughout the state, Johnson said at a recent board meeting. The data, she said, sickens her year after year.
“We look at it once a year and we feel bad about it, and then we go back and do the same doggone thing we’ve been doing all year without getting results,” she said. “We know what to do. We have to have the courage, we have to have the support and we have to work our tails off.”
Johnson is personally wagering she can deliver much more. If she meets a series of performance goals over the next year, she’ll be entitled to a bonus of up to $30,000 on top of her $190,000 base salary.
Johnson’s bet on improved results in the 32,000-student Minneapolis school district comes as the Obama administration is calling on states to experiment with merit pay for teachers. The U.S. Department of Education awarded $4.3 billion in Race to the Top grants this year to 11 states and the District of Columbia, partly based on their plans for experimenting with merit pay. Last week, the Department of Education announced $442 million in grants to districts and organizations to fund performance incentives for teachers and principals.
Teachers’ unions have long been opposed to merit pay because they worry that the measures will be unfair and sow dissension within schools. But the practice of holding superintendents accountable through pay-for-performance agreements has been growing, especially in large and troubled urban districts. Superintendents’ contracts in a third of the 65 districts that belong to the Council of the Great City Schools include such provisions.
Superintendents have typically welcomed such arrangements, said Mike Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. “It gives them concrete benchmarks on which they will be evaluated, rather than whether they got along with the board,” he said.
Superintendents with experience leading large urban districts are in short supply; they work grueling hours and their tenure is often subject to unpredictable swings in board politics, not student outcomes. Accordingly, they can command salary-and-benefits packages in the mid-six-figures. But as states and districts have been forced to cut spending, concerns about those big pay packages are growing. In July, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called for capping superintendents’ salaries as well as merit-based bonuses.
“Boards over the years have been much more specific about their goals and what kind of academic achievement they want to see,” said Casserly. “It’s been kind of a logical progression over the years [to] tie those goals to the superintendent’s evaluation.”
But not all superintendents are willing to work under such arrangements. With enrollment plummeting and his budget cut to the bone, Johnson’s predecessor in Minneapolis, Bill Green, refused such an arrangement, according to Minneapolis school board member Chris Stewart.
“It’s still difficult to find the kind of experienced superintendents board members want for their positions,” said Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “And performance is not always the reason a superintendent is kept on the job.”
Often, school-board politics play an equal or even larger role than academic performance in whether a superintendent’s contract is extended.
Other factors affect achievement
Also, student achievement is affected by many factors that are beyond a superintendent’s control. By way of example, Domenech cited the economy. “That’s obviously going to affect student performance,” he said.
In most districts, merit pay for superintendents is based on test scores and the district’s fiscal health. Graduation rates, a key indicator for school districts, are tougher for a superintendent to influence.
In the last decade, Minneapolis lost a quarter of its students, chiefly to charter schools and, under open-enrollment policies, suburban districts. Half of the mostly African-American children who live on the city’s impoverished north side now attend school elsewhere. Only half the district’s students are proficient in reading under No Child Left Behind benchmarks, and even fewer post acceptable math scores.
Fifty percent of Johnson’s potential bonus hinges on higher test scores and progress toward closing Minneapolis’ racial achievement gap. Improved relationships – between the district and the public, as well as between administrators and staff – can bring another 10 percent. The rest of her potential bonus will be determined by how well she puts in place a new instructional system, a long-range financial plan and budget process, an accountability plan and a data-management system. Progress toward those goals can earn her a partial bonus.
“What gets measured gets done,” said Tom Madden, who chairs the Minneapolis school board. “Bernadeia knows that and the board knows that.”
Merit pay in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Boston
Merit pay for superintendents of the large districts that are members of the Council of the Great City Schools ranges from $5,000 to $75,000 – amounts that can be hard for taxpayers and teachers to stomach in the face of widening achievement gaps and cuts in classroom materials and books.
Praised for bringing stability to a troubled system, Baltimore’s Andres Alonso earns a base salary of $260,000 and can earn as much as $30,000 more per year for reaching performance goals. He can earn up to $12,000 for “demonstrated increases in academic performance,” up to $12,000 for management efficiencies and up to $6,000 for the “implementation of creative and innovative” reforms.
Philadelphia’s Arlene Ackerman, who earns an annual base salary of $338,000, came under fire for accepting a $65,000 bonus for the 2008-09 school year.
Former Minneapolis superintendent Carol Johnson now leads the Boston Public Schools. She is eligible for a yearly performance bonus of up to $20,000 but has said she won’t take any bonuses or raises through the 2011-12 school year above her current salary of $275,000.
“I don’t think in a period where schools are cutting resources for children, any of us can expect to take raises,” Johnson told the Boston Herald.
Culture is critical
It’s not news that good principals are vital to the success of schools. The relationship between the work of superintendents and student achievement, however, has been considered tenuous. But a new study commissioned by the Wallace Foundation found that superintendents and other executives also can be effective instructional leaders.
“Leaders in higher-performing districts communicated explicit expectations for principal leadership and provided learning experiences in line with these expectations,” noted the study’s authors. “They also monitored principal follow-through and intervened with further support where needed.”
But both Casserly and Domenech caution that there is no hard research linking superintendent merit pay to improved student outcomes.
“I think it’s an open question,” said Casserly. “Superintendents work 24/7 anyway. I don’t know whether bonuses serve as incentives or not.”
The real value of holding a district’s top leader accountable for objective criteria may be its impact on the district’s relationship with voters and other stakeholders.
“Frankly, I think with or without [merit] bonuses, it’s a good signal for any administration to be saying, first and foremost we are to be held accountable for outcomes,” said Casserly. “I think it sets a good tone for the people at the top of the system to hold themselves accountable.”