Teacher Incentive Programs Gain Ally in Duncan

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

THERE ARE basically two ways a teacher today can earn a bigger paycheck: collect graduate credits or wait on seniority. It's a system that is indifferent to teacher effectiveness or student achievement. That's why Education Secretary Arne Duncan is right to want to encourage schools to reward teachers and principals who deliver.

Mr. Duncan is seeking to boost funding for a program that awards grants to local school systems for pay-for-performance programs. The 2010 budget proposal submitted by President Obama would provide a massive infusion of money for the Teacher Incentive Fund, which would grow from $97.3 million in fiscal 2009 to $487.3 million. This boost would come on top of $200 million already awarded in the stimulus. Started under the Bush administration, the program has generated huge interest, with 34 grants awarded and more than 130 applications pending.

There is, though, some pushback against the proposed increase. Mr. Duncan encountered skeptical questioning when he testified earlier this month before Senate and House appropriations subcommittees. Critics of pay-for-performance are right that there have not been extensive studies on its effectiveness, but that's largely because the one-size-fits-all pay schedule is so dominant. Recent research has been promising, and the experiences of systems that have experimented with pay-for-performance, such as Chicago and Prince George's County, are promising. Besides, there are tons of studies showing that anything that helps to identify and act on the differences in skill among teachers can only benefit their students. Not to mention the gains for teachers who, as a recent study by the New Teacher Project found, are too often treated as interchangeable widgets.

Because teachers are the single most critical factor in improving student achievement, it's time to start drawing distinctions in how they are retained, promoted and rewarded. If there were any concern about Mr. Duncan's proposal, it should be in the particulars of what schools will need to do to qualify for this money. Specifics are still being determined, but there must be rigorous requirements, including the use of student test scores to show results. Mr. Duncan's scheduled address tomorrow before the National Education Association, which has opposed performance pay tied to test scores, is a good opportunity for him to reiterate that he means business on this score.

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