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Bonuses for Top 20% in School District? Watch Principals Wrestle

Governor Dennis Daugaard wants to hand out $5,000 merit bonuses to the top 20% of teachers in each public K-12 school district in South Dakota. The lucky winners will be determined by a 50&ndash50 combination of quantitative measures—i.e., a new raft of thrice-yearly state-mandated standardized tests for all students—and qualitative measures—i.e., evaluations by local administrators.


The administrator who normally evaluates teachers is the principal. For example, the Spearfish High School principal evaluates my performance as the high school French teacher. The West Elementary principal evaluates my daughter's kindergarten teacher's performance. Principals see the teachers and the kids they work with more regularly than anyone else. Principals are best positioned to offer an honest evaluation of their teachers' performance.

Suppose the high school principal makes the rounds and finds every teacher in the high school, even that odd duck shouting "Vive le fromage!" at his students, deserves a bonus. Suppose the elementary principal comes to the same conclusion about his entire staff. The governor is telling folks around the state that while he's open to discussion of various points of his plan, he's committed to limiting the bonuses to 20% of each district's staff.

Now principals, like good bosses everywhere, tend to look out for their people. And principals would derive no small bragging rights from being able to point to the high number of bonus-worthy teachers in their buildings. And when they work closely with their building teachers and have much less contact with teachers from other buildings, they have little basis on which to accept or reject claims that teachers from other buildings outperform teachers under their own supervision.

So how do we avoid wrestling matches between principals scrapping to win as many bonuses for their building as they can? Perhaps merit-bonus evaluations become the purview of the district superintendent. Such a move would be a severe departure from standard practice: I can't speak categorically, but in ten years in South Dakota high schools, I can't recall a specific instance when a superintendent conducted a full evaluation of my teaching. In large districts like Spearfish, the superintendent isn't even in a school; he's at district headquarters across town, separate from the daily activity of teachers and students. (That's not a knock; that's just a practical reality of dealing with high-level district-wide issues.) We probably don't want the excellence of teachers decided by a district-wide administrator who can practically, directly observe each teacher's performance only once a year.

So who does the evals, Dennis? Who makes the district-spanning decision as to whether the high school French teacher outperforms the kindergarten teacher?

Forget telling us why the merit bonus plan will work; I'm getting the feeling Governor Daugaard's office hasn't even done the homework on how its plan would work.

Related: Author and esteemed SDSU history prof John Miller agrees that Governor Daugaard's plan won't work. It's not in the hopper yet, Dennis: there's still time to retreat!


  1. john 2012.01.16

    So what happens when a teacher gets a bonus for 3 strait years and then is told the next year they are not? What made that person good for years but isn't now?

  2. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.01.16

    Good question, John! An excellent teacher could make exactly the same mighty efforts year after year, but because of differences between groups or combinations of kids or because of a change in administrators with different values, could be rewarded $5000 less for that work. The Governor's plan clearly will not recognize all excellence.

  3. Patrick Leary 2012.01.16

    Businesses reward their high-volume salesmen via commissions, and folks working by piecework [a concept the unions abhor] get rewarded for turning out more widgets. The fine fellow that he is, John Miller is a teacher and part of the educational establishment. It would be far more noteworthy if he DISAGREED with the hierarchy of the SDEA.

    In related matter, one of the Brookings County legislators told our group he has TWICE asked educators "what is the optimum figure to educate a South Dakota student . . . give me a figure to shoot for." He says he's going to keep asking, but so far the response is a simple "MORE."

  4. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.01.16

    As an educator, Dr. Miller is better placed to comment on what works in education than Ny businessman... amd most legislators.

  5. larry kurtz 2012.01.16

    Finland enjoys a high rate of success without private schools: could you talk about that, Cory?

  6. Steve Sibson 2012.01.16

    I say cut 30% of the K-12 programs, and the unemployment of teachers will obsolete any kind of merit system. The ones still teaching will be glad to have a job. Should we put French on the chopping blocks? Cory, ask the governor if speaking French helps with welding skills?

  7. David Newquist 2012.01.16

    Prof. Miller's account summarizes what happened when we introduced merit pay to higher education in South Dakota. Some school districts experienced the same results.

  8. larry kurtz 2012.01.16

    Cut the number of counties to 25, close Northern and DSU, move SDSMT to Spearditch, and pardon all cannabis offenders.

  9. Dave 2012.01.16

    "Foreign language programs are often one of the first items to be scrutinized and cut when elementary, middle, and high schools in the U.S. face poor performance evaluations or budget crunches. However, many studies have demonstrated the benefits of second language learning not only on students' linguistic abilities but on their cognitive and creative abilities as well." [DUKE GIFTED LETTER: Volume 8, Issue 1, Fall 2007]
    I would hope by now that we would all agree that our public school system must dedicate itself to creating critical thinkers that can master everything from welding to neuroscience. Why do you believe education should reduce itself to simply teaching a trade that may be in strong demand at the moment? Why would you wish such a bleak future for our youth?

  10. larry kurtz 2012.01.16

    Raise teachers' salaries to 110% of the national average and create an education factory powered by geothermal and small hydro. Take down the Missouri River dams and restore the system to when Lewis and Clark first found it when the Plains cultures manicured a pristine wilderness.

    Rewild the West.

  11. Charlie Johnson 2012.01.16

    While GDD sets out on his "historic journey" for the "Golden 20%", more intelligient sources, groups, and citizens must continue to improve the entire education system which at my last count adds up to 100%. Yes, GDD that is 20% plus 80% equals 100%. I for one will not stand by and allow a governor to bury the true potential of all education in an attempt to use k-12 education as a "straw man" for political gain. This policy of the focus on the 20% is consistent with majority political leadership in SD today---only allow the rich, powerful, and connected to have access to "economic life jackets". The rest can go down with the titantic.

  12. Jim Hock 2012.01.16

    Patrick, I'm sure that legislator's question could be reworded to be asked of him and we would get the same answer.

  13. Michael Black 2012.01.17

    Charlie, it doesn't matter what we think. My prediction is that merit pay will pass. He who has the gold makes the rules.

  14. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.01.17

    Darn you and your fatalism, Mike! The gold in this case is our tax dollars! We have the gold! We can make or break this rule! Call your legislators!

  15. Michael Black 2012.01.17

    Cory, merit pay appears to make common sense and therefore it will pass. I'm not sure if the governor can get rid of tenure. I am at a loss to explain why the governor has not proposed forced consolidations. Maybe that will come from a term-limited legislator instead.

    I am smart enough to know that some battles are lost before they are even started.

  16. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.01.17

    This battle is not lost! Daugaard and Russell Olson don't have a leg to stand on. The evidence is clear. We can use that evidence to stop this destructive plan. If we believe in our schools and our teachers and our kids, we have an obligation to fight this battle and win it.

  17. Michael Black 2012.01.17

    Joe Blow will look at the governor's plan like this:
    1. Rewarding the best teachers
    2. Testing for improvement
    3. Get rid of tenure so you can fire poor teachers

    The governor and the legislators will feel good about themselves because they dedicated more money to education.

    Daniel Pink's findings on motivation and financial reward isn't going to overturn what seems to make great common sense. That's too bad. Maybe the governor doesn't know about Mr. Pink.

    I suggest figuring out how to teach to whatever test they are going to be giving as part of your curriculum and making better friends with your principal in case I am right and merit pay passes.

  18. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.01.17

    We have a higher obligation, Mike, to educate Joe Blow, to change the common sense, and not stand for demonstrably bad policy. Your school is at stake. Rise up! Call Russ Olson!

  19. Michael Black 2012.01.17

    Again, it is my premise that what you and I say will not make any difference.

  20. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.01.17

    Michael, your defeatism is not helpful. This fight is too important to roll over on. Call Russ Olson!

  21. Charlie Johnson 2012.01.17

    Perhaps, Mike, you are in favor of the merit plan. Do you favor handing out scarce money(money we supposedly didn't have 10 months ago)to one out of 5 teachers? Issues are decided by people who speak out and show up. We can do better by education. GDD's plan on merit has no merit.

  22. Michael Black 2012.01.17


  23. Taunia 2012.01.17

    It does make a difference what you say, Michael, what Cory posts to start with, and what the discussions are concerning each topic.

    I haven't lived in SD for over 10 years, but I do discuss SD politics with family and friends that live in SD. If I (bite my tongue at times when talking to the Republican friends and family) stay on top of the issues facing the state, I have a good time swaying them to a more realistic conclusion, and hopefully that translates into a vote based on those discussions.

    Who would you be discussing this with if it wasn't for this and other blogs across SD?

  24. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.01.17

    Pragmatism? Bull. It is perfectly within our practical power to fight and defeat this proposal.

    But fine. If you don't want to fight, then just be quiet and stop making such an effort to spread your defeatism and discourage others from fighting.

  25. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.01.17

    (Thank you, Taunia and Charlie, for getting it!)

  26. Steve Sibson 2012.01.17

    "This fight is too important to roll over on."

    Cory, the decision is made. By fighting all that happens is we have a thesis and an anti-thesis and the compromise is what they NWO has decided its goal will be at the end of the day. After listening to Daugaard yesterday in Mitchell, it is obvious that this is an international crusade. South Dakota fitting into the "global hi-tech economy" with a trained workforce (in debt to start out with) based on the international standards we call Common Core.

  27. Erin 2012.01.17

    "Should we put French on the chopping blocks? Cory, ask the governor if speaking French helps with welding skills?"

    Steve, learning a second language has been proven to greatly help math skills, especially learning the language in Pre-K and early elementary. So, yes, speaking French will help with pretty much any job. In fact, we should be hiring many more language teachers and implementing the teaching of a second language much earlier than we do currently.

  28. Troy Jones 2012.01.17

    There are so many thread on this issue one can't keep track.

    I will make one comment. The article by John Miller was unbelievable coming from a college professor. Take out the subject matter but his clarity, facts, analysis was confusing and poorly articulated.

    If this guy is representative of our professors, no wonder students aren't learning to potential and stakeholders are up in arms. The intellectual vigor is virtually non-existent.

  29. Erin F 2012.01.17

    A classic in irony. Prof. Miller's character and career are defamed by the author of a sentence like this: "Take out the subject matter but his clarity, facts, analysis was confusing and poorly articulated."

  30. Michael Black 2012.01.17

    Motivation is a complicated subject. I have a 16 yr old son that could test anyone's resolve.

Comments are closed.