Teacher incentive plan faces union opposition

State, Balto. Co. hope cash can lure veterans to high-risk schools

February 17, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Innovative plans by Baltimore County and state officials to offer bonuses to experienced teachers to work in poorly performing schools face county teacher union opposition -- and skepticism from education experts who question whether the extra money will be more than a short-term solution.

The proposals -- among the first of their kind in the country -- are an attempt to take advantage of recent studies that have shown that veteran, qualified teachers are one of the most important factors in improving student achievement.

The latest financial incentives differ from efforts by other urban school systems -- including Baltimore -- to hire new teachers for high-poverty schools by offering signing bonuses and perks. Under the county and state plans, bonuses would be offered to experienced teachers already in the system to work in those schools.

Some experts question whether even $3,500 will influence teachers to take on tougher assignments without such broader school reforms as smaller class sizes and better classroom materials.

Nationwide, schools with the highest poverty tend to suffer from having the most rookie teachers and the least stability in staff. Historically, schools and government -- unlike the private sector -- have not built financial incentives into salary structures.

"It's a very innovative approach," said Lawrence E. Leak, the state's assistant superintendent for certification and accreditation. "I think that having a qualified, caring and competent teacher in any school makes a difference."

Under legislation before the General Assembly, teachers with advanced professional certificates would receive an extra $1,000 a year to work in Maryland's "high-risk schools."

The Baltimore County school board is expected to discuss a proposal tonight that would pay 100 experienced teachers an extra $3,500 a year to work in the 20 to 30 county schools with the highest staff turnover.

National education experts -- while applauding the goals of the Maryland and Baltimore County proposals -- question whether the extra money will be much more than a short-term solution without more meaningful reform, such as smaller classes, repaired buildings and more supportive administrators.

"If a school is a very difficult environment for teachers, money isn't going to make a big difference," said Susan Moore Johnson, academic dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "It's a Band-Aid solution to simply try to give a few teachers money without improving the environment of the school."

Baltimore County and Maryland educators have proposed a variety of other reforms for next fall, including tentative plans to add teachers to cut class size for beginning reading instruction and middle school math.

Baltimore County's plan is being opposed at the bargaining table by the Teachers Association of Baltimore County. Union leaders fear that giving a handful of teachers extra money to work in poor schools will, among other things, create jealousy and resentment, particularly among veteran teachers already in those schools who aren't given the $3,500 incentives.

"The problem of schools with high teacher turnover is not an issue that is going to go away by itself," said Mark Beytin, president of the union which represents the county's 7,000 teachers. "We think that you need a multifaceted plan, because without things like supportive administrators, schools are not going to keep their staffs."

Baltimore County's financial incentive plan -- dubbed "Education Excellence in Teaching" by schools Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione -- would be an addition to a mentoring program begun almost three years ago in schools with high teacher turnover.

In addition, the county has proposed substantial pay raises for veteran teachers for next year to encourage them to stay in the system. City educators said this week they want to offer teachers an extra month of work -- and pay -- to keep them from leaving.

"Even though we have the mentoring, we need to do more for those schools," said Baltimore County school board President Dunbar Brooks. "We have got to find ways to keep experienced teachers in those schools and bring other experienced teachers there, too."

It's not clear whether the board will support the superintendent's proposal. At a school board work session on the budget last week, board members asked for a more complete presentation to be made tonight.

"I think the current plan, as it has been explained so far, is going to alienate some good teachers," said school board member Michael Kennedy. "I think that better administrative leadership, smaller class sizes and more help in the classroom are the kinds of things that a teacher would gravitate to."

The state legislation -- based on a proposal by the Maryland State Department of Education and state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick -- has drawn far more support from teachers and officials, largely because all teachers who meet the criteria would receive the extra money.

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