In the October 14, 2005 Wall Street Journal, Daniel Henninger wrote about an elementary school in Little Rock, Arkansas that experienced a remarkable turnaround in student achievement. This poor school, where 92% of the students live at or below the poverty level, was able to increase its scores on an achievement test by 17% in one year.
What did Meadowcliff Elementary School do? Did it build new buildings and hire new teachers to reduce class size? Did it implement new curriculum? Did the local board of education hire an extra assistant superintendent to oversee the school? Did it increase teacher pay?
It’s the last that the school did, although not in the way the teachers unions would dictate. Instead, the school was able to implement a bonus system, whereby teachers would earn extra money based on student performance. Mr. Henninger reports the results: “Twelve teachers received performance bonuses ranging from $1,800 to $8,600. The rest of the school’s staff also shared in the bonus pool. That included the cafeteria ladies, who started eating with the students rather than in a nearby lounge, and the custodian, who the students saw taking books out of Carter’s Corner, the ‘library’ outside the principal’s office. Total cost: $134,800. The tests cost about $10,000.”
The bonuses were funded by a private donor, which allowed the school to bypass the teachers union. The teachers union opposed the second year of the bonus program because it was to be paid from the school district’s regular budget. The union insisted that the teachers at Meadowcliff vote for a contract waiver, and 100% of the teacher voted for the waiver. The fact that the teachers union would oppose something that was demonstrably beneficial for the students gives us another clue as to the union’s true constituency.
This experience shows that sometimes little, simple things can make a huge difference.