Support Grows for Teacher Bonuses

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A movement gaining momentum in Congress and some school systems in the Washington region and beyond would boost pay for exceptional teachers in high-poverty schools, a departure from salary schedules based on seniority and professional degrees that have kept pay in lockstep for decades.

Lawmakers are debating this month whether to authorize federal grants through a revision of the No Child Left Behind law for bonuses of as much as $12,500 a year for outstanding teachers in schools that serve low-income areas.

National teachers unions denounce the proposal for "performance pay," saying it would undermine their ability to negotiate contracts and would be based in part on what they consider an unfair and unreliable measure: student test scores.

Debate over the proposal has exposed unusual fissures between the influential unions and longtime Democratic allies. Some education experts say the unions are out of step with parents and voters who support the business-oriented idea of providing financial incentives for excellent work.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said that the teaching workforce is leaking talent and that his proposal would help rejuvenate it. Young teachers watch their friends "go off and get paid for their time and ingenuity" in other fields, Miller said. "In teaching, you go as fast as the slowest person."

Miller's proposal, building on recent federal steps to encourage incentive pay, would provide grants to school systems that choose to pay bonuses to teachers who excel in high-poverty schools, worth up to $10,000 in most cases and $12,500 for specialists in math, science and other hard-to-staff subjects. Decisions on who gets extra pay would be based on student test gains and professional evaluations. Miller's aides said they had no cost estimate for the measure.

Advocates of performance pay have seen similar initiatives fail, and many take pains to avoid the term "merit pay" and its association with past mistakes. But with fresh support from foundations and new tools that enable student achievement data to be linked to individual teachers, many experts said the idea is gaining favor. Performance pay efforts are underway in school systems in Denver and Minnesota, and some local administrators are planning to establish fast tracks for financial rewards for top teachers.

The Prince George's County school system has a five-year, $17 million federal grant to develop a program that will reward teachers for student test gains, positive classroom performance evaluations, and professional activities such as mentoring other teachers or becoming certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Participation by teachers at the selected schools will be voluntary.

Expected to start next year in 30 schools that serve low-income areas, the initiative could add as much as $12,000 to a teacher's annual salary, making it possible for a top-rated fourth-year teacher to make as much as one with 14 years of experience, Superintendent John E. Deasy said. Salaries for starting teachers in Prince George's and elsewhere in the area are a little more than $40,000 a year.

"We need to pay our best and brightest more, particularly in places where it's most difficult to work," Deasy said.

In the District, a five-year, $14 million federal grant is fueling a pilot program to reward teachers and principals in a dozen high-poverty public schools each year that achieve the strongest gains in test scores and share successful strategies with others. Details are being worked out by the city school system, the local teachers union and a partner organization, New Leaders for New Schools.

The approach is also being tried in a dozen charter schools with help from a private grant. Charter schools are publicly funded but independently operated.

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