Pr. George's pays $1.1 million to educators who excel

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Many of the country's top educators are talking about the idea of paying teachers in line with their performance in the classroom. On Wednesday, Prince George's County will actually do it.

The second-largest school system in Maryland is paying $1.1 million to 279 teachers and administrators from a dozen schools who volunteered for a new program that links cash bonuses to classroom performance. The amount of money being paid is relatively small, and the number of staff members is a fraction of the 17,000 people employed by the sprawling school system. But as a symbol of how attitudes toward compensation are changing, it's something to be watched.

"I would really like to see this pilot moved to scale," said William R. Hite Jr., superintendent in Prince George's. "We feel like we're on the cusp of this, but the key piece of this is that we're working with our teachers union."

The program offered bonuses of up to $10,000 for teachers, $11,500 for assistant principals and $12,000 for principals. The maximum bonus would be a large pay bump for a teacher with a starting salary of about $45,000.

But none of the 244 teachers who participated in the program last school year attained the $10,000 figure, according to school system data. For teachers, the awards ranged from a low of $565 to $6,050. Typical bonuses ranged from $4,300 to $5,700.

The reason is the way the bonuses are structured: Not all teachers qualify for every piece of the bonus pie. Half of the bonus money is tied to scores on state tests: As much as $2,500 is awarded when the school meets test-score targets, and as much as $2,500 for improving a given class's scores. The other half is granted for teaching in hard-to-staff subjects ($1,500), doing well on an evaluation of classroom skills (as much as $1,500), and engaging in professional development and activities outside the classroom (as much as $2,000).

The idea of merit pay for teachers and principals is an old one, but it often has stalled by opposition from union leaders who support raises for all teachers and fear competition's effects on labor solidarity. Others have questioned whether it is fair to link pay to a superior's evaluation or a potentially flawed state exam.

But merit pay has gained traction recently. With the federal No Child Left Behind law forcing schools to improve test scores or be identified as failures, superintendents have been more willing to try anything that might improve student performance.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has offered states $4.35 billion in so-called "Race to the Top" federal grants for embracing innovative changes. Programs linking teacher pay to classroom skills -- although not solely test results -- are among the changes Duncan has encouraged, and some prominent school systems have embraced policies that have long been too politically toxic to touch.

In New York, for instance, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced last month that the city's public schools would begin using student test scores as a factor in deciding whether teachers earn tenure, expanding an already-existing program of using the scores to determine bonuses for teachers and principals. The teachers union opposes the proposal, and critics say it could put too much emphasis on standardized exams.

The Prince George's program is unusual because it has the backing of the Prince George's County Educators' Association, the union that represents teachers. It has survived the departure of John E. Deasy, the superintendent who introduced it (Hite, his successor, strongly supports it), and has been insulated from the financial difficulties of the recession by a five-year, $17 million federal grant to improve teacher performance.

Donald Briscoe, president of the teachers union, said he had not heard many complaints about the size of the bonuses or how they have been administered. "This office has not heard from many of those teachers, in a negative way, at all," Briscoe said. "As a matter of fact, I can't think of one."

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