Focus

Performance Incentives Can Spark Greater Productivity

PERSONNEL MANAGEMENT by DAN R. DODDS


Without any way to reinforce the need for greater productivity, the governing board of the Page, Ariz., Unified Schools and I realized it would be difficult to generate the enthusiasm and commitment of staff to restructure the organization.

 

When a major initiative to improve student learning is tried but squashed by fear, propaganda and complacency, those who worked long hours in planning feel betrayed by the system and those in leadership. The very teachers, administrators and parents who are most knowledgeable about current research and educational practice--those most involved in the committee work leading up to implementation--are the most dispirited when a major reform never sees the light of day.

Then, not surprisingly, these working groups disband, and everyone moves on without ever dissecting how or why the change failed.

I was part of just such an experience when I worked as a central-office administrator in another school district where a major push for school restructuring failed miserably. From that, I offer my perspective on what went wrong in hopes that other district leaders can benefit.

Setting the Stage
Like many schools nationwide, the small suburban school district in a Northeastern state used the series of relentless national reports during the early 1980s on the deteriorating condition of American education as the catalyst to begin a serious schoolwide reform initiative. The administrative team, of which I was part, set the stage by assembling the entire high school faculty for an extensive presentation on the rapidly changing world and the consequences of such change for local schools. The faculty showed keen interest, and this led to an extensive self-examination of the school program and how it might better prepare students to meet the expectations of the new millennium.

During the ensuing 18 months, the central-office administration led a school restructuring process. All staff development days focused on the restructuring, and all faculty were involved. The process began with a self-evaluation of the positive aspects of the high school, which had an enrollment at the time of 500 students. This was followed by critical questions, which were used as a springboard to discuss schoolwide improvement.

"Restructuring" was the term of preference for the series of activities that would focus on applying the latest thinking on cognitive science to best practices modeled in schools nationwide and worldwide. We studied interdisciplinary teaching as well as interdepartmental planning time for teachers, attention to higher-level thinking skills such as problem solving and real-world applications of content, hands-on approaches and demonstrated performances, attention to learner differences and cooperative learning, in addition to individual work.

With the wealth of research backing these teacher-generated ideas, the entire faculty, as well as the board of education, endorsed seven restructuring goals. One of these was a change in the master schedule of the high school.

We prioritized the goals, and all 50 faculty members were asked to join a restructuring committee to implement them. About half quickly joined while others seemed satisfied to remain on the sidelines and to be kept abreast of the discussions. They supported the committee’s decision to begin work on a new master schedule.

Four months into the process, the committee unveiled the new schedule: A 4 x 4 semester-block schedule, which would allow students to take fewer classes at once (four per semester) but for longer periods of instructional time (90 minutes versus 42 minutes). The proposed block schedule included an advisory period, community service time for students and common planning time for teachers. It was based solely on the latest educational research about teaching and learning.

Opening Round of Dissent
Soon after the schedule was unveiled to the wider school community, the change process began to go awry. Some teachers began to petition against the new schedule, citing its possible detriment to students who had minimal attention spans. Most math and science teachers feared that less material would be covered if taught on a semester schedule. Concern over student retention also was raised.

As one would expect with such negative publicity provided by insiders, subsequent meetings of the school board were full of discordant voices objecting to such a drastic change in a school system they felt was not broken and did not need fixing.

For the remainder of that school year, large- and small-group parent meetings, as well as full faculty meetings, were held to listen to the fears and concerns voiced by constituents. An attempt was made to remediate these issues in the restructuring committee. All faculty members again were encouraged to join the committee, and a few petition signers accepted the offer.

By the start of the next school year, the board, weary from negative community fallout, directed the committee to develop a phase-in plan for the new block schedule. The board’s decision to proceed with Phase I was to take place that winter, and in the month prior to the vote, a small but outspoken group of tradition-bound parents and resistant teachers held clandestine public meetings to discredit the restructuring idea and mobilize for its defeat. Children were asked to go door to door to distribute an anti-restructuring newsletter and to obtain signatures protesting the block schedule. Many senior citizens unwittingly signed the petition after reading the inaccurate newsletter rhetoric that claimed taxes would increase significantly if the schedule were to change.

That winter, the besieged school board voted down any change in schedule, including the phase-in idea, citing its experimental nature as the prevailing reason.

In the weeks that followed, many community members contacted the central administration to express their disappointment and embarrassment at the decision. They faulted themselves for being part of the silent majority who simply assumed the school board would "do the right thing." They vowed to be more aggressive and vocal when another thoughtful idea was put forth.

In the end, the restructuring goals were turned over to the district’s strategic planning committee to use in its needs analysis. The restructuring committee wrathfully disbanded, and the school district moved on to other less dramatic concerns, never looking back at the scheduling debacle. While numerous school districts across the same county and around the nation were putting in place intensive schedules at their secondary schools, our district was wracked by fear and denial. The fragmented, multiperiod school day remains intact.

Dissection of Causes
Stories like this one of failed school reform abound. Promising ideas for schoolwide improvement, put forth by a district’s most thoughtful and dedicated educators and community members, never materialize.

In hindsight, as a former member of the administrative team and the facilitator of the restructuring committee, I have spent many hours reflecting on what went wrong with the process and how the leadership could have influenced the outcome positively. Though the committee believed the process to be inclusive, thorough, flexible and entirely with the best interests of students in mind, I believe three prevailing dynamics obstructed our chance for success from the earliest moments: (1) a fear of change, (2) propagandizing of data and (3) a culture of complacency.

  • Fear of change.
    As the saying goes, people don’t resist change, they resist being changed. Some of the most resistant teachers fought the change in structure because of their underlying fear of personal failure. For those who had spent a long career teaching in short segmented periods, the notion of teaching within a longer time block raised questions about their own competence. Though couched in other language, many objections amounted to how the change would affect them solely--how much effort it would take to prepare and whether or not they could be successful under the new system.

    This behavior had additional ramifications. Those outsiders who had a propensity to be obstructionists found the fodder they needed when a few internal saboteurs spoke negatively about the proposed scheduling change. Outsiders tend to consider insiders to be highly credible, especially when the negative information they provide furthers their own cause. This is a strange phenomenon and is not unique to education: People seem less inclined to believe the leadership of an organization and more likely to trust an individual dissident worker.

    One solution to the fear of change is to address structural, curricular and instructional changes concurrently within any educational initiative. Doing so may not eliminate the fear, but it will at least be diminished. In my school district, we had an elaborate plan for staff development and curriculum revision, but both were perceived as being subordinate to the change in the school structure. In other words, the schedule changes appeared to be driving the instructional and curricular needs.

    Had we implemented the staff development and curricular revision plans first, we would have accomplished two things. By preparing staff to teach in the longer period, we would have allayed the fears of those genuinely concerned about their capacity to adjust to the longer time blocks. These teachers would have sharpened their skills and had a chance to practice within the comfort of the shorter period.

    In addition, once teachers began to implement new strategies, it would have led to a level of frustration because of insufficient time to put them in place successfully and cover the curriculum in 42 minutes, thus raising questions about how these new strategies could be implemented more effectively. The obvious answer: a change in the master schedule. Once resistant insiders believed a change was needed, outsiders would have been less likely to disagree and the credibility of the idea enhanced.

    Paramount to any change process is the garnering of internal consensus among the faculty. An effective principal must have the ability to move his or her faculty toward supporting the decision to change even when every detail has not been worked out and some uncertainty remains. The building leader must have the skills to legitimize dissent while constantly nudging the faculty forward.

    If these pieces of the process had been functioning appropriately, people’s fears would have been addressed. Teachers would have been more likely to move beyond their personal concerns to concentrate on the impact the change would have on their students.

  • Propagandizing of data.
    Sometimes, it is said, when you oppose something, one reason is as good as another. In this case, when naysayers besieged the board with negative comments about block scheduling, they demanded scholarly research to prove the change was not experimental. When the committee provided such data, the opponents demanded experiential research from schools that had implemented the same change. Once this was provided, the critics said they needed to see for themselves, and so visitations were arranged. Finally, after the site visits, the opponents alleged that our school was different from all the others.

    A lesson learned: Those who control the questions, control the agenda. The restructuring committee had answers, but the community at large had no questions.

    One way to prevent the propagandizing of data is to garner much community input early in the restructuring process so that questions will surface about the ramifications of such a change for school improvement. This is not change for the sake of change, a line often iterated in our case. Let early community discourse replace later discord.

    By the end of the process, the restructuring committee spent an exorbitant amount of time tracking down these data-driven answers. Though it impassioned committee members ever more toward their convictions, it had no effect on the opposition. Minds were made up and the data were inconsequential. The traditionalists were interested in data only if it supported their beliefs. Using data as propaganda was a strategy to delay the process and steer the outcome toward their own end.

    A second solution, and one repeatedly overlooked in the field of education, is the need to market sound ideas so that the discourse heard in the community is positive. School leaders too often underestimate community reaction to an educational change or they discount the need for marketing because they know the change is in the best interest of children. Consequently, they get blind sided by the rash of negativity.

    This was true in our case. We viewed marketing as an inappropriate and unnecessary tool because we knew our efforts were noble and the idea sound. In hindsight, we should have had a public relations subcommittee whose sole job would have been to market ideas generated in committee. This proactive step would have helped immensely to combat the opposition when it distorted data and created its own propaganda.

  • Culture of complacency.
    Mission statements in schools typically refer to the need to teach students to be lifelong learners, yet, in my experience, the culture of schools tends to be complacent on this count. Some educators simply talk the talk to their students about lifelong learning while never walking the walk themselves.

    Members of the restructuring committee believed vehemently in the need for school improvement and understood their role as continuous learners, yet they were viewed as having been coopted by an avant-garde central administration and therefore could not be believed. Those insiders who were fearful, lazy or resentful were viewed with more credibility. The existing school culture greatly impeded innovation--a perfect demonstration of the antithesis of lifelong learning.

    Allowing such a stagnant culture to exist before undertaking a major reform and then expecting self-improvement to quickly become an institutionalized value was a major leadership error. Expectations for all staff were not high enough, a collaborative work culture did not exist, and modeling lifelong learning was never a demand until this change was set forth.

    In this case, a major part of preparing for change should have been setting and demanding high expectations for the teaching staff. As they improved their level of pedagogy, the move to intensive scheduling would have been viewed as the obvious way to better demonstrate their new skills instead of what some viewed as a drastic and unnecessary structural change.

    The internal complacency problem was exacerbated by the small size of the high school and its location in an affluent suburb--a place that prides itself in never leaving the basics and where it is presumed all is well. Complacency prevails rather easily in a place where few apparent ills exist. School communities that consider themselves superior by traditional standards have great difficulty in institutionalizing reform efforts because change implies something is wrong. This perception evokes much perturbation on part of parents who moved into the district because they believed it was superior to other school systems and free of problems.

    In our case, the prevailing culture of complacency, fueled by the community’s inflated sense of "school esteem," increased the difficulty in making the change. The best solution would have been for the leadership to model high expectations and expect the same from those inside the organization before any change was launched, while including key external communicators in all phases of the process. This would have allowed the questions to evolve while providing the setting for the whole team to take part in the solution and its eventual implementation.
  • As the saying goes, people don’t resist change, they resist being changed. Some of the most resistant teachers fought the change in structure because of their underlying fear of personal failure. For those who had spent a long career teaching in short segmented periods, the notion of teaching within a longer time block raised questions about their own competence. Though couched in other language, many objections amounted to how the change would affect them solely--how much effort it would take to prepare and whether or not they could be successful under the new system.This behavior had additional ramifications. Those outsiders who had a propensity to be obstructionists found the fodder they needed when a few internal saboteurs spoke negatively about the proposed scheduling change. Outsiders tend to consider insiders to be highly credible, especially when the negative information they provide furthers their own cause. This is a strange phenomenon and is not unique to education: People seem less inclined to believe the leadership of an organization and more likely to trust an individual dissident worker.One solution to the fear of change is to address structural, curricular and instructional changes concurrently within any educational initiative. Doing so may not eliminate the fear, but it will at least be diminished. In my school district, we had an elaborate plan for staff development and curriculum revision, but both were perceived as being subordinate to the change in the school structure. In other words, the schedule changes appeared to be driving the instructional and curricular needs.Had we implemented the staff development and curricular revision plans , we would have accomplished two things. By preparing staff to teach in the longer period, we would have allayed the fears of those genuinely concerned about their capacity to adjust to the longer time blocks. These teachers would have sharpened their skills and had a chance to practice within the comfort of the shorter period.In addition, once teachers began to implement new strategies, it would have led to a level of frustration because of insufficient time to put them in place successfully and cover the curriculum in 42 minutes, thus raising questions about how these new strategies could be implemented more effectively. The obvious answer: a change in the master schedule. Once resistant insiders believed a change was needed, outsiders would have been less likely to disagree and the credibility of the idea enhanced.Paramount to any change process is the garnering of internal consensus among the faculty. An effective principal must have the ability to move his or her faculty toward supporting the decision to change even when every detail has not been worked out and some uncertainty remains. The building leader must have the skills to legitimize dissent while constantly nudging the faculty forward.If these pieces of the process had been functioning appropriately, people’s fears would have been addressed. Teachers would have been more likely to move beyond their personal concerns to concentrate on the impact the change would have on their students.Sometimes, it is said, when you oppose something, one reason is as good as another. In this case, when naysayers besieged the board with negative comments about block scheduling, they demanded scholarly research to prove the change was not experimental. When the committee provided such data, the opponents demanded experiential research from schools that had implemented the same change. Once this was provided, the critics said they needed to see for themselves, and so visitations were arranged. Finally, after the site visits, the opponents alleged that our school was different from all the others.A lesson learned: Those who control the questions, control the agenda. The restructuring committee had answers, but the community at large had no questions.One way to prevent the propagandizing of data is to garner much community input early in the restructuring process so that questions will surface about the ramifications of such a change for school improvement. This is not change for the sake of change, a line often iterated in our case. Let early community discourse replace later discord.By the end of the process, the restructuring committee spent an exorbitant amount of time tracking down these data-driven answers. Though it impassioned committee members ever more toward their convictions, it had no effect on the opposition. Minds were made up and the data were inconsequential. The traditionalists were interested in data only if it supported their beliefs. Using data as propaganda was a strategy to delay the process and steer the outcome toward their own end.A second solution, and one repeatedly overlooked in the field of education, is the need to market sound ideas so that the discourse heard in the community is positive. School leaders too often underestimate community reaction to an educational change or they discount the need for marketing because they know the change is in the best interest of children. Consequently, they get blind sided by the rash of negativity.This was true in our case. We viewed marketing as an inappropriate and unnecessary tool because we knew our efforts were noble and the idea sound. In hindsight, we should have had a public relations subcommittee whose sole job would have been to market ideas generated in committee. This proactive step would have helped immensely to combat the opposition when it distorted data and created its own propaganda.Mission statements in schools typically refer to the need to teach students to be lifelong learners, yet, in my experience, the culture of schools tends to be complacent on this count. Some educators simply talk the talk to their students about lifelong learning while never walking the walk themselves.Members of the restructuring committee believed vehemently in the need for school improvement and understood their role as continuous learners, yet they were viewed as having been coopted by an avant-garde central administration and therefore could not be believed. Those insiders who were fearful, lazy or resentful were viewed with more credibility. The existing school culture greatly impeded innovation--a perfect demonstration of the antithesis of lifelong learning.Allowing such a stagnant culture to exist before undertaking a major reform and then expecting self-improvement to quickly become an institutionalized value was a major leadership error. Expectations for all staff were not high enough, a collaborative work culture did not exist, and modeling lifelong learning was never a demand until this change was set forth.In this case, a major part of preparing for change should have been setting and demanding high expectations for the teaching staff. As they improved their level of pedagogy, the move to intensive scheduling would have been viewed as the obvious way to better demonstrate their new skills instead of what some viewed as a drastic and unnecessary structural change.The internal complacency problem was exacerbated by the small size of the high school and its location in an affluent suburb--a place that prides itself in never leaving the basics and where it is presumed all is well. Complacency prevails rather easily in a place where few apparent ills exist. School communities that consider themselves superior by traditional standards have great difficulty in institutionalizing reform efforts because change implies something is wrong. This perception evokes much perturbation on part of parents who moved into the district because they believed it was superior to other school systems and free of problems.In our case, the prevailing culture of complacency, fueled by the community’s inflated sense of "school esteem," increased the difficulty in making the change. The best solution would have been for the leadership to model high expectations and expect the same from those inside the organization before any change was launched, while including key external communicators in all phases of the process. This would have allowed the questions to evolve while providing the setting for the whole team to take part in the solution and its eventual implementation.

    Reflecting on Failure
    In the end, all three factors--fear of change, p

    To address this need, we developed in 1994 a program of annual performance incentives, open to all school district employees who would meet or exceed important organizational goals. Under the Performance Incentive Program, certificated employees are eligible for annual incentive payments representing 3 percent of the district’s average teacher’s salary for that year, or about $800. Classified employees can receive incentives of up 3 percent of the district’s average classified employee’s salary, or about $400. The size of the bonus is based on the collective ability of employees to reach important organizational goals in a manner that improves their productivity and raises the performance of the students under their jurisdiction.

    The Performance Incentive Program establishes rewards for attaining primary and secondary performance goals. Primary goals are academic in nature, established by the school board based on input from parents, patrons and staff. These goals are anchored on the school’s current level of academic achievement, which is measured through standardized test scores and the district’s authentic assessment program. During the last year, one primary goal read: "Each building will increase the students’ average composite performance score on the ITBS by 20 percent." Another goal stated: "The district will reduce the ethnic performance gap by 10 percent."

    Secondary goals represent those decentralized objectives unique to each work unit--a school, the district office, the transportation department, the food services department, the maintenance and grounds department and so forth. Some examples of secondary goals:

  • To attain "approved" status for all Page High School vocational programs, as defined by the Arizona Department of Education;

  • To increase student satisfaction with their daily bus ride from 60 percent to 75 percent; and

  • To reduce industrial claims 5 percent through the proper training of employees.

    School Board Goals
    Each year, the governing board identifies three primary goals and each work unit identifies five secondary goals. Sixty percent of the district’s annual performance incentive money is targeted to work units that meet or exceed two of the three district’s primary goals and the remaining funds reward those work units that have accomplished four out of their five secondary goals.

    Work units can qualify for incentive payments by achieving their primary goals, their secondary goals or both. Should the school or department fail to reach either its primary or secondary goals in a single year, all is not lost. The unit is allowed to carry over its incentive money for one additional year. This feature prevents work units from working under the oppressive environment of high-stakes improvement where, if staff members fail to achieve all of their goals in one year, they lose all of their incentive payments.

    However, if a school or department fails to achieve its goals two years running, the money is returned to the program for disbursement in future years.

    Reluctant Participants
    Initially, not every district employee was comfortable participating in our Performance Incentive Program as only 70 percent of the district’s work units voted to participate. Yet, within two years, 100 percent of our units were participating.

    Our performance incentive programs are unlike other now-defunct programs tried in the past that focused inappropriately on rewarding the performance of individuals. Instead, our incentive program continues to enjoy widespread employee and community support because it recognizes and rewards the collective and collaborative efforts of our district’s work units as they strive to achieve important organizational goals.

    The district’s Performance Incentive Program succeeds because it was designed on three important characteristics. First, the program was created to motivate work units to move in an agreed-upon direction. Second, the program encourages and recognizes performance that raises the standing of the entire organization. Third, the program financially rewards work units for their escalating levels of performance.

    Major Hurdles
    Implementing an employee performance incentive program is not for the faint of heart. Many significant hurdles must be overcome if your program is to achieve its intended purpose: gains in organizational productivity.

    I offer the following suggestions to those considering a performance incentive program:

  • First, involve all participants in the program in a meaningful manner from the very beginning.

  • Second, develop a comprehensive, objective evaluation system to monitor and reward your work units’ progress.

  • Third, avoid participation quotas that preclude any work unit from participating.

  • Fourth, be sure the incentive program does not erode the value of the employees’ present salary schedule.

  • Fifth, provide staff members with as much control over their work environment as possible as they collectively strive to raise their current level of productivity.

    Dan Dodds is superintendent of the Atascadero Unified School District, 5601 West Mall, Atascadero, Calif. 93422. E-mail: ddodds@do.atas.k12.ca.us. He served as superintendent of the Page, Ariz., Unified Schools through July 1997.
  • ropagandizing of data and culture of complacency--were inextricably linked and visceral to the failure. The solutions suggested here could have positively influenced our situation.

    More importantly, they illustrate the notion that taking time to dissect a failure is a powerful method to aid future initiatives. Doing so allows an organization to "fall forward;" that is to say, the failure and subsequent reflection sets the stage for better processes, communication and successful school improvements.

    Emilie M. Lonardi is assistant superintendent of the West York Area School District, 2605 West Market St., York, Pa. 17404.