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Performance pay for teachers would quadruple under bill approved by Hill

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 13, 2009; A05

Federal funding for performance pay in public schools would quadruple, to $400 million a year, under a bill moving through Congress that reflects the growing political momentum behind an education reform idea once considered anathema to many Democrats and labor leaders.

The Teacher Incentive Fund, launched during the Bush administration, has become a priority for President Obama. It has awarded more than 30 grants to school systems, states and public charter schools to develop new ways to reward top-performing teachers and principals in high-needs schools, with student test scores a significant factor but not the only one. Classroom evaluations are also considered.

The Prince George's County school system, one of the grant recipients, this month distributed $1.1 million in bonuses to 279 teachers and administrators from a dozen schools who volunteered for a trial program that ties cash awards to classroom performance.

The increase in performance pay funding, now at $97 million a year, is included in an omnibus spending bill approved by the House on Thursday. The Senate is expected to vote on the measure Sunday, and Obama has said he will sign it.

"If we want our students to succeed, we have to begin giving our teachers the respect and resources they deserve," Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said in a statement. "This will require a seismic shift in the way we talk about and treat teachers and it starts with this important investment in programs that reward teacher excellence."

Many educators make a distinction between performance pay, which is based on multiple criteria, and merit pay, which they say is a more simplistic approach that offers bonuses for high test scores. Labor unions have long criticized merit pay as unfair, but in recent years they have begun to team up with school systems on performance pay plans. Such plans sometimes offer bonuses to the entire staff of a school in a poor neighborhood that exceeds testing targets -- an incentive, advocates say, to help keep top talent in places where it is needed most.

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