Pay for diplomas is smart incentive

May 25, 2009

Incentives have long been used as an effective tool in business to improve employee performance. But can a concept that helps companies motivate workers also work in public education?

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett is hoping it can. On May 18, he announced an awards program in which 12 high schools that achieve the largest graduation-rate increases between now and next spring could receive up to $20,000 each—cash that would be split among principals and staff members as an incentive for making improvements.

Bennett said the goal of the program is to push public high schools to find innovative ways to graduate more students.

Such a program is bound to encounter some problems, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth a try. After all, the status quo hasn't been working. Nearly one in four Indiana students fails to graduate within five years of starting high school. Last year alone, 23,000 students in Indiana failed to graduate on time.

Bennett, who has shown he isn't afraid to stray from convention or ruffle some feathers, would like to see the statewide graduation rate rise to 90 percent by 2012, making it the highest in the nation.

Under the program, 10 high schools with at least 300 students will get $20,000 each and two others with enrollments under 300 will receive $10,000 each. Each school's principal will get up to $5,000 for personal use. The rest will be split among teachers, counselors or others playing a role in boosting graduation rates.

The $220,000 cost of the program will be paid for with savings the department has realized through cost controls and efficiency efforts.

"We want to award performance," Bennett said. "We want to pay for results."

The Indiana State Teachers Association, of course, has concerns about the program because it doesn't like teacher compensation tied to student performance. The union, however, should be able to tolerate this program. After all, it rewards teachers who are able to come up with creative ways to motivate students. It doesn't punish teachers who work in tough environments where even the best efforts result in negligible improvement.

One real concern regarding this program is that some educators might be tempted to use questionable methods to qualify for the incentives. Competition and extra cash can make some people do things they wouldn't think of doing under normal circumstances. That's a real possibility the Department of Education should be prepared for and take steps to prevent.

At best, this program could spur creative educators to come up with effective ways to improve graduation rates. Identifying those methods and duplicating them at other schools throughout the state would make the program well worth the meager price tag.

To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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