Dear Extra Credit:

If we are having such a hard time attracting and retaining high-quality teachers in diverse, challenging schools, why don't we compensate the teachers who choose to teach in those schools with some kind of bonus or higher pay to provide an extra incentive?

Betsy Devlin-Foltz

Montgomery County

This is an intriguing proposal that is already happening, to a limited extent, in Montgomery County and other districts around the country.

Sharon W. Cox (At Large), president of the Montgomery County Board of Education, notes that Maryland has begun paying a $2,000 annual bonus to classroom teachers who have acquired an advanced professional certificate and are teaching in low-performing schools as designated by the state. There are 17 such schools in the county.

The county also was able to pay teachers at Broad Acres Elementary School higher salaries because they were working the equivalent of 15 extra days a year in what has proved to be a successful effort to raise achievement. This is the same system used in Fairfax County's Project Excel schools, a group of schools with large numbers of low-income children where teachers work longer hours and are paid accordingly.

Dear Extra Credit:

Is it reasonable and defensible to use your Challenge Index to compare wealthy white schools with highly diverse schools? How does/should your Challenge Index take into account socioeconomic diversity?

Stefanie Weldon

Silver Spring

The Challenge Index is a rating of local high schools, based on participation in college-level courses and tests, that appears in the Washington Post Extra editions every December. I take the number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or other college-level tests given at each high school in May and divide by the number of seniors who graduate in June. I also do a list in Newsweek magazine every three years or so (look for the next one in 2006) identifying the top high schools in the country measured this way.

I think it is both reasonable and defensible to compare affluent and non-affluent high schools this way, and Montgomery County's results prove it. Because Superintendent Jerry D. Weast and his principals have committed themselves to coaxing as many students as possible into college-level courses, in 2003 all but one of the county's 23 high schools reached the very high 1.000 mark on the Challenge Index, and that last one, Wheaton, reached it this year. Research indicates that students who try hard in an AP or IB course do better in college even if they don't pass the AP or IB test.

Among those reaching the 1.000 mark were Einstein and Kennedy high schools, where at least a quarter of the students, including many minorities, are from families with incomes low enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies. Kennedy's rating of 1.793 and Einstein's rating of 1.513 were even higher than some county high schools that have a significantly smaller portion of minorities and low-income students. Some county schools have much higher ratings, but it is like comparing Joe Montana with Joe Namath. Montana might have won more Super Bowls, but they are both all stars, just as the Montgomery schools are, because they all rank in the top 5 percent of all U.S. high schools measured this way.

Please send your questions -- along with your name, e-mail or postal address -- to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 51 Monroe St., Suite 500, Rockville, Md. 20850. Or send e-mail to extracredit@washpost.com .