Better than apples

September 20, 2004

IN ANNE ARUNDEL County, at least two theories are being tested by the school system this academic year. First, paying more money to teachers and principals who are willing to work at less-desirable schools will likely improve those schools. And similarly, an incentive bonus to these same employees should help lift student test scores.

Both ideas are worth exploring, and Superintendent Eric J. Smith deserves to be commended for moving forward with this experiment. Unions traditionally view such incentive plans skeptically, but Mr. Smith made the case this summer, and after some negotiation, the county's education unions relented. Ultimately, it became an offer too good to refuse -- what labor leader wanted to stand in the way of bonuses in these lean economic times?

Here's how it works: More than 400 teachers and staff members at Anne Arundel's eight "challenged" schools will receive a $1,500 bonus for simply showing up for work at those schools this year. The school's principals do even better -- they're slated to receive $5,000 by the school year's end. If test scores at these schools rise sufficiently to lift them out of challenged status, teachers and principals will be eligible for another bonus of $1,500 and $5,000, respectively. Total potential cost for the program: about $1.2 million this year.

The teacher retention bonus makes a lot of sense. Ask any educator; it's tough to work at an underachieving school where students may arrive ill-prepared and unmotivated. It doesn't help when quality teachers and principals leave these schools as soon as a better opportunity beckons. But who could blame them? A bonus, albeit a relatively small one, sends the right message. State lawmakers, take note: What's good for the suburbs might just work elsewhere. Baltimore's teacher salaries shouldn't be comparable to surrounding jurisdictions, they should be a bit higher.

The second bonus is a trickier proposal. Standardized tests are, at best, an imperfect measure of school performance, let alone teacher performance. Rewarding an entire school faculty in one fell swoop and basing that decision purely on test scores is problematic. An individual teacher, working as hard as he or she possibly can, cannot raise the test scores of an entire school. Conversely, rewarding a school's entire faculty means that a number of underachieving teachers will likely benefit, too.

Yet, as an experiment, this is worth pursuing. When standardized test scores become the principal measure of school performance, logic suggests they ought to have some impact on salary decisions, too. After all, if improved test results are the goal, shouldn't there be some reward involved? Many parents recognize good report cards in just the same way. Private employers give raises. Corporate CEOs get stock options.

Naturally, if these bonus plans do prove effective, it will demonstrate something else that teachers have been saying for generations -- that in public schools, as in the rest of society, you get what you pay for.

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