University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Arkansas’ New Reward Program: Top 20% of Schools to Receive Awards

In The View from the OEP on January 15, 2014 at 10:30 am

adeBefore the holiday break, the Arkansas Department of Education announced the Arkansas School Recognition and Reward Program (read the commissioners memo announcing the program here).  The Program was established by Act 1429 during the 2013 General Assembly (filed by Senator Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home).

In the Arkansas School Recognition and Reward Program:

  • awards are based on student performance in the 2012-13 school year, student academic growth (comparison of 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years), and high school graduation rate in the 2012-13 school year (secondary schools only);
  • the top 10% of schools receive $100 per tested student and the schools ranked between 11% and 20% receive $50 per tested student;
  • schools are required to apply and receive approval from the ADE to use the funds;
  • schools are required to spend reward funding on personnel costs (non-recurring bonuses to faculty and staff), contracted services (temporary personnel to assist, maintain, and improve student performance), or supplies and materials (non-recurring expenditures for educational equipment or materials);
  • schools are required to determine how to use the funds based on a committee comprised of the principal, a teacher elected by the faculty, and a parent representative (as selected by the PTA or another parental involvement group).

The program is offering almost $7 million in reward funds to 206 schools (out of nearly 1,075 schools in the state). Education funding is not often allocated at the school-level by the state, and so this program is unique in distributing funding directly to schools, as opposed to the district-level. Additionally, funding has not been attached to student performance by the state in any way previously, until now.


The ADE states that schools were ranked through a method that assigns schools a percentile rank for each of the measures (performance, growth, and graduation rate, if applicable) and computes the average percentile ranks. In doing so, the measures are equally weighted. Due to Arkansas’ ESEA waiver, the ADE is required to categorize schools under: achieving, needs improvement, needs improvement-focus, and needs improvement-priority. However, the rewards are not attached to these categories, as the method to categorize the schools is different from the method used to determine awards, though, Act 1429 does state that focus and priority schools cannot receive reward funding.

The ADE has not released the rankings of schools; therefore, we do not know the order of the schools outside of the top 20%. We at the OEP eagerly await the release of the rankings of schools from the ADE. This public release of rankings for all schools will provide transparency about the rankings and may provide additional motivation to schools that just missed the top 20% of the schools.

Reward Schools

There are 108 schools in the top 10% and 98 schools between 11% and 20%:

  • 121 are elementary schools (22.1% of the state’s elementary schools),
  • 71 are middle and junior high schools (31.2% of the state’s middle and junior high schools)
  • 14 are high schools (4.9% of the state’s high schools)

On average, the reward schools are less poor and have a smaller minority population than the state: 47% of students in reward schools receive free-and-reduced lunch (state average 61%) and 23% are minority students (state average 36%). The northwest and central regions have the highest percentages of reward schools (25.4% and 20.4% respectively).

Similar Programs

Other states have programs that reward high-performing schools; however, states construct the programs differently. For instance, the Georgia Department of Education provides monetary rewards to Highest-Performing Reward Schools (the top 10% schools based on yearly performance) and to High-Progress Reward Schools (the top 10% of schools based on performance over time). In Oklahoma, the Department of Education distributes Reward School Grants for high-performing schools that partner with lower-performing (priority) schools (read more about the program here).

Our synthesis

We are interested to learn how schools choose to spend the reward funds.  This Sunday, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette published an article detailing the plans of a number of reward winning schools.

A growing number of school districts in the state participate in performance-pay programs, where teachers, administrators, and other staff receive bonuses based on student and teacher performance. At the OEP, we believe there are smart ways to construct performance-pay programs to motivate and reward excellent teachers (see our 2007 policy brief on performance pay). We are interested to see if any schools chose to allocate their reward funds to teachers based on performance.

Furthermore, we are interested to see any potential ramifications of this new system. How will the funding impact the top schools? Might it motivate all schools to perform better?


We would like to congratulate the schools in the top 20% (click here to find the complete list of schools)! Additionally, we would like to remind you of our Outstanding Educational Performance Awards that we released this fall. In our OEP awards, we recognize schools across the state for excellent performance and for high growth.

  1. I find the reference to Georgia’s reward system as a ‘smart’ system to be somewhat misleading. It doesn’t necessarily reward all types of schools. This lesson was learned in Arkansas through the previous state labeling and reward system. Arkansas had a system that rated performance and progress separately: the Performance Rating and Improvement Rating (using the Gain Index). The separate lists often provided conflicting information for the public. It seemed that many high performing schools for performance were in the lowest two rankings for improvement and vice versa. Schools’ ratings were reported annually on the School Performance Report along with the federal accountability AYP ratings providing yet another sometimes conflicting view of schools.

    The current reward system includes a value that summarizes student level growth, as well as a value that summarizes student level performance, in the total index. In the case of high schools, graduation rate is used in place of growth. All three of these values are also used in schools’ ESEA Flexiblity rating so that there is some congruence in the components of the calculations. The ESEA requirements increase annually even for high performing schools so some incongruence is expected, but at least the underlying measures are coherent from state to federal accountability if schools are focusing on these underlying measures, they are situating themselves for success in either case.

    By using a value that summarizes student level growth in combination with performance, high performing schools are incentivized to achieve and maintain high student growth levels as well. Otherwise schools may be more likely to be awarded for who walks through the school door, not what occurs within the school walls. Balancing performance with student level growth provides an incentive for schools to perform well across the entire achievement continuum, and to make sure all students are meeting annual growth expectations. At the high school level, including graduation rate with performance helps incentivize higher performance for all students and provides an indicator that all school personnel can help contribute toward improving. It also discourages improving performance at the expense of graduation rates. This would seem like a smarter system than Georgia’s where high performing schools might be awarded for who walks through their door, rather than how well the school contributes to performance, growth and graduation rate.

    Also, the new reward system levels the playing field for schools despite school size. Because Arkansas has numerous smaller schools, typical school progress measures such as the change in percent of students proficient from year to year can be very volatile and impact small schools differently than larger schools.

    These points may be worth considering in your review of the reward index.

  2. Denise,

    Thank you for your comments and the insight you provided. We appreciate and enjoy thoughtful dialogue.

    We decided to write this blog post about the Arkansas’ new reward program so that our readers would be aware of the program and to encourage the state to continue to share information about the program. We did not intend for our comment about Georgia’s system to be a repudiation of Arkansas’ system — we see the value in incorporating growth and performance at the same time.

    Again, thank you for your feedback, and we look forward to being in touch with you in the future.

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