Teacher Bonuses Get Unions' Blessing

Pr. George's Offers Rewards of Up to $10,000 Linked to Test Scores, Evaluations

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 25, 2008; Page A01

One of the most ambitious pay-for-performance initiatives in Washington area schools is drawing strong teacher interest and local union support even though many national labor leaders have long asserted that it is unfair to link teachers' paychecks directly to their students' test scores.

Prince George's County plans to offer bonuses of up to $10,000 in the coming school year to exceptional teachers from 12 schools who participate in the incentive pilot program. That kind of money turns heads, especially among beginning teachers, the most difficult to retain: It is equal to a pay increase of more than 20 percent for a typical teacher with a starting salary of about $43,500.

National unions have tended to criticize merit pay in part because they support raises for all teachers and in part because the concept is often considered a threat to labor solidarity. In recent years, however, unions have shown willingness to tinker with traditional pay systems. Some local unions have teamed with superintendents who promote pay for performance as a way to improve struggling urban schools.

At a recent seminar for potential volunteers for the Prince George's program, a forest of hands shot up during the question-and-answer session in the Nicholas Orem Middle School library. Many teachers asked whether they would be eligible for the full bonus.

"I apologize for not being the most politically correct person, but I teach social studies, and I don't see social studies on this list," one teacher said, reviewing a list of qualifying subjects.

"How about seventh- and eighth-grade science? Is that considered hard to staff?" another asked.

"Are ESOL teachers at the elementary level qualified?" a teacher of English for speakers of other languages inquired.

The program's criteria exclude some teachers from certain bonus pools. Half of the bonus money is tied to scores on state tests given in third through eighth grades and in high school: Up to $2,500 is won when the school meets test score targets, and up to $2,500 is given for improving a given class's scores. The other half is given for teaching in hard-to-staff subjects ($1,500), doing well on an evaluation of classroom skills (up to $1,500), and engaging in professional development and activities outside the classroom (up to $2,000).

Many teachers, such as those who teach a class or grade level that does not take state tests or those whose subject expertise is not in short supply, would not be eligible to receive the full $10,000. Not all of the prospective volunteers were happy with the limits. But after the meeting, many said they would try the program.

"I don't see any reason not to," said Beverly Acors, a third-grade reading teacher at Arrowhead Elementary School with five years' experience. "Every day, I give my 100 percent, so if there's an extra incentive, why not take advantage?"

On the national stage, merit pay remains politically sensitive. Union criticism of a proposal to pay bonuses of up to $12,500 to teachers at schools serving low-income areas helped stall efforts in Congress last year to revise the No Child Left Behind law. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, favors linking test scores to bonuses. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the presumptive Democratic nominee, has said he supports bonuses for teachers who earn a "highly qualified" designation but opposes tying pay to test scores.

Local and state educators and elected officials across the country are pushing ahead with pay-for-performance plans. More than 30 governors have talked up the idea in recent state-of-the-state addresses, according to Rob Weil, deputy director of educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers, one of the nation's two major teachers unions. On its Web site, the AFT says it is "encouraging its locals to explore various teacher compensation systems based on local conditions" without entirely abandoning the seniority-based salary schedule.

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