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Support Grows for Teacher Bonuses

The D.C. Preparatory Academy, a charter in Northeast Washington, adopted another performance pay plan designed by the national foundation-funded Teacher Advancement Program. Its model pairs teacher evaluations with professional development and training.

One day last week, math teacher and mentor MaryKate Hughes observed how another math teacher set goals and expectations for his students. In another classroom, Hughes made notes on a science teacher's pacing and preparation. Newer teachers can receive bonuses of as much as $2,000 based on test score improvements and evaluations by master teachers and principals.

"Our goal is to find good teachers who can become great teachers," Hughes said.

In Arlington County, the school system is starting an initiative that offers teachers three opportunities to skip a step on the pay scale, an increase worth as much as 5 percent in salary each time.

This school year, teachers can qualify for the pay increase through national board certification. In coming years, they will be able to apply by submitting a portfolio of work demonstrating professional development in such areas as leadership and parent outreach. The portfolios would be reviewed anonymously by a panel of peers and supervisors.

Arlington officials stressed that evaluations would not hinge on test scores, although teachers could submit them as evidence of success. Officials with the school system and the county teachers association, who designed the program together, said relying on test scores would fail to capture the complexity of teaching and discourage teachers from working with challenging students.

"If I'm only going to be evaluated on the test scores of my kids, I'll take the gifted kids," said Lee Dorman, president of the Arlington Education Association.

There is controversy over using standardized tests to rate schools. Tying test results to teacher pay would raise the stakes. But performance-pay advocates say it's only fair to evaluate teachers the same way schools and children are measured.

The idea of merit pay gained popularity in the 1980s. But some attempts then to implement the concept failed amid teacher complaints that evaluations were too subjective. Critics said principals were given leeway to give bonuses to favorite employees. Fairfax County began a program in 1986 that paid teachers as much as $4,000 in annual bonuses. But by the early 1990s, the program fell out of favor with many teachers. It was abandoned in 1992 as the Fairfax School Board grappled with budget cuts.

The new performance pay movement is rife with experiments that have yielded few definitive national studies showing gains in student achievement. Union leaders are urging lawmakers to hold off on Miller's proposal. National Education Association President Reg Weaver called the proposal an "unprecedented attack" on collective bargaining rights.

Antonia Cortese, executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, rejected the argument that performance pay would lure teachers into hard-to-staff schools. "I would think it would be a disincentive to take on something when you don't know how it will work," she said.

Still, schools in many places are plunging ahead. Systems across Minnesota have adopted performance pay measures, prompted by an $86 million initiative. After a long study, the Denver public school system began a district-wide incentive pay program in recent years.

As debate over performance pay unfolds, Miller said he is sure about one thing: "The demand is there."

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