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$20,000 bonuses possible for Chicago principals

Principals will be able to earn $5,000, $10,000, or $20,000 bonuses for improving student test scores in reading and math, closing achievement gaps or lowering dropout rates this year. The more a school improves, the bigger the principal’s bonus.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced new details of his merit pay plan for principals Wednesday. He said new school-by-school performance reports given to principals and parents last week lay the foundation for the bonuses.

“We can measure each school, each principal on what they’re achieving. (It’s) tied to performance pay, so when they exceed those marks, there’s up to $20,000 for principals in financial reward.”

Emanuel said he recognizes educators are motivated by mission more than money, but he hopes the financial incentives, which are being funded by $5 million in private donations, encourage top-to-bottom accountability. He made his comments before a group of administrators who directly oversee principals. He told them they’ll be eligible for the same bonuses as the principals.

Principals of charter schools also will be able to earn bonuses, even though they aren’t employees of the school district.

Clarice Berry, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators’ Association, reiterated her earlier criticism of the merit pay plan.

Berry says a major merit pay pilot project in the district, Chicago’s Teacher Advancement Project, hasn’t produced “the stellar results they were looking for.” An initial, independent study of that program found no effect on student test scores or on teacher retention rates when compared to a control group of schools. 

“So I don’t have much hope that this bonus, which is directed only at one person—the principal—is going to be successful at all,” said Berry. She said some principals trying to build a sense of teamwork among staff felt “uncomfortable” earning a bonus based on the work of others.

Berry also complained that the complex value-added metrics that will determine bonuses at elementary schools are barely understood by principals, and impossible to calculate independently.

Essentially, the value-added numbers allow the district to determine how well schools do compared to other schools with similar students.

Student growth will be rewarded, which means even principals at low-performing schools could earn bonuses if their students show big improvements. And principals at high performing schools won’t just be honored for their good scores; they’ll have to show they helped students improve more than would be expected.

“Our end goal is to recognize principals for doing the difficult work of changing school culture and propelling their students forward academically,” said Chief Education Officer Noemi Donoso.

The first bonuses will be paid next October, based on work schools do this year.

All Chicago principals currently make six-figure salaries, with top-paid principals earning over $150,000. The average pay is $130,675, according to Chicago Public Schools.

Bill Hook, principal at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, where Emanuel made his announcement, said he won’t be doing anything differently because of the bonus; he doesn’t believe that’s the idea.

“I don’t think the intent is to get people to do things they’re not already normally doing,” said Hook. “I think principals do work hard. They put a lot of time in. The principals that I know are really committed to their schools. I think it’s more of a form of recognition, which I think is nice.”

Sean Stalling, who now oversees principals at South Side high schools, says if he had won bonus pay when he was still a principal, he would have figured out a way to share it with the teachers at his school.

“I would have made sure that they would have got the rewards of their hard work,” said Stalling. “It’s never just the leader. It’s the team that’s put in place.”

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