AN ARTICLE FRIDAY ABOUT MERIT PAY FOR TEACHERS AND PRINCIPALS STATED INCORRECTLY THAT NO WASHINGTON AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT GIVES PERFORMANCE BONUSES TO TEACHERS. STARTING THIS SCHOOL YEAR, D.C. TEACHERS WILL RECEIVE EXTRA RAISES IF THEY MEET A SET OF PERFORMANCE GOALS, A PLAN THAT WAS APPROVED IN JULY BY THE D.C. FINANCIAL CONTROL BOARD. (PUBLISHED 09/09/99)

The Alexandria School Board has backed away from a plan to offer cash bonuses to principals who significantly raise student achievement, after being unable to convince the city's principals that it is fair to reward them for spearheading academic improvement.

The controversy over Alexandria's proposal illustrates once again how resistant educators are to the concept of merit pay. Alexandria would have been the only Washington area school district to provide such incentives to principals, and none of the districts has performance bonuses for teachers, although several superintendents have discussed the idea.

Supporters of pay-for-performance plans such as Alexandria's say they help both in motivating current principals and in attracting good candidates when vacancies occur. Research has shown that creative and energetic principals are essential in improving schools, and school boards are under increasing pressure to boost student performance as more states are using achievement tests to rank schools and to determine which students graduate.

But many principals and teachers say it is wrong to link their compensation to their students' grades or test scores because student achievement is influenced by social and economic factors over which educators have no control.

In Alexandria, principals also said it would be unfair to reward them and not their teachers, and they warned that the bonuses would hurt teacher morale.

"When I think of pay for performance, I think of paying the school for performance," said Lois Berlin, principal of George Mason Elementary School in Alexandria and one of the leading critics of the bonus plan. She said educators would be much happier with bonuses that could be used only for school improvements, such as more computers or more training for teachers.

Alexandria board members had allocated $34,000 in this year's budget for the bonuses and had asked the city's principals and school superintendent to determine the size of the awards and the targets that the principals would need to reach to qualify.

But in the face of the principals' opposition, board members said there is no point in going forward with the plan this year. School Board Chairman Stephen J. Kenealy said yesterday that the $34,000 probably will be used instead for $2,000 in annual raises for nearly all principals while a consultant tries to create a bonus plan that will draw fewer objections.

Kenealy, who is deputy director of recruiting for the U.S. General Accounting Office, and several other board members said they remain determined to find a way to reward principals and teachers who do the best work.

Leaders of the principals and teachers associations in Alexandria said similar disputes are certain to arise in other Washington area school systems where bonus plans have been discussed.

Fairfax County Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech has said he is interested in cash incentives for principals. The idea has been discussed by Montgomery County school board members and staff, and D.C. School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has suggested more incentives for teachers to raise achievement.

Despite educators' resistance, bonus plans are becoming more widespread. A survey of 1,323 principals conducted last year for the National Association of Elementary School Principals reported that 15.3 percent of them had merit or incentive pay in their contracts.

Three years ago, the Hartford, Conn., school board decided to give principals a reward of about $1,500 each if their students' scores on a state test improved by 3 percent in a year. The principals association, saying the plan would hurt relations with teachers, gave the money back to the school system in the first year. The superintendent refused to take it back the second year, and the principals spent the money on their schools and families, said Baxter Anderson, president of the Hartford Principals and Supervisors Association.

Buzz Wilms, professor of education and policy studies at UCLA, said he expects more struggles between school boards and educators as "we move away from the notion of paying everyone the same."

But measuring educators' performance remains a difficult problem, Wilms said. He said he has found accounts dating back to 19th-century England of unsuccessful attempts to pay teachers based on how well their students are doing. "The inspectors would arrive at the school [in England] and find children reading perfectly, then see that the students were holding the book upside down" because they had memorized the text, he said.

Alexandria School Board member Dan D. Goldhaber said the board and staff must come up with credible ways to measure school performance so that any bonuses awarded do reflect the principal's contribution.

"It must be attached to accountability and the very high expectations we have for principals," he said.