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Bonuses and performance contracts for principals

Despite a budget crisis that is forcing hundreds of millions in cuts, the cancellation of teachers' raises and a planned tax hike, Chicago Public School principals will now get a pay bump if they perform well.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Monday that $5 million donated by local philanthropists will pay bonuses for principals who meet targets for test scores, attendance, school culture, and other measures. Emanuel had promised to get philanthropists to put up money for innovative education initiatives, a local version of the Race to the Top competition.

“I want every principal to succeed, because if a principal is succeeding it means the kids are succeeding and the teachers are succeeding,” Emanuel said at Melody Elementary on the West Side.

School officials displayed a draft of what a principal's performance "contract" might look like.

(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)

Chicago Public Schools said it needs to boost the number of top principals in order to transform schools. Many education experts say principals are critical to creating good schools. 

The head of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association reacted coolly to the idea of bonus money.

“While money is nice, and I’m sure all principals and teachers could use it, it is not the motivator that people think it is,” said Berry. “People want recognition, they want the ability to work and feel they’ve accomplished something.”

Berry said most of the city’s principals don’t support merit pay, also known as performance pay.

“Because heretofore it’s all been test scores, attendance,” said Berry, who also said her organization was not consulted on the merit pay plan or on dozens of measures principals could be graded on.

Emanuel made his announcement flanked by poster-sized versions of colorful principal report cards, which the public would have access to. Grades on the sample report cards ranged from “weak” to “very strong” and from red to green.  On the report cards, principals would be graded on dozens of measures, including reducing achievement gaps between white and nonwhite students, the percentage of eighth graders who pass algebra class and the school’s success at reaching out to the community. Under a section called “Leadership,” the report cards would also show how many teachers at a school receive performance ratings that meet or exceed standards, as well as how many need improvement or do not meet standards—information the district has been unwilling to share before at the school level.

School officials said the report cards presented were only a draft, and they plan to work with principals and the principals’ association to come up with a final version. They said the performance goals would exist on top of the regular CPS contract most principals have.

The Chicago Teachers Union immediately criticized the merit pay proposal. “The research is conclusive—merit pay does not work and can have troubling side effects—cheating, narrowing of curriculum and competition between teachers where collaboration is needed,” Karen Lewis said in a statement. “Think Atlanta, New York City and Los Angeles: student standardized test scores were never intended to be nor should they be used for any personnel decision.”

The district decided in June it could not pay teachers’ and other employee raises it had agreed to in their contracts, and the budget the board will vote on later this month includes a $150 million tax increase.

The controversial principal bonuses and principal report cards overshadowed another significant announcement: A new “Chicago Leadership Collaborative” will ramp up training for new and current principals in the district. The training programs will be run by universities and other outside groups, but CPS will have a say in what new principals learn. The programs will be  “highly selective” and will include residencies in schools.

Steve Tozer, director of a principal training program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said this marks the first time a large urban school district will try to fill its principal vacancies with candidates from highly selective, residency-based programs.

“We’ve known for 40 years that you could turn around a crappy school with a great principal. What we didn’t know is you can produce those principals. We’re doing it. It’s a slow revolution. “

Nancy Hankes, principal at the West Side school where Emanuel made his announcement, said from her vantage point, mentoring is even more important than money. 

“Most incentive-based programs are just about the results and not necessarily the support that people really need to reach some of those measures,” said Hankes.

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