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Support Grows for Teacher Bonuses
More Schools Offer Performance Pay as House Debates Issue

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.

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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