In an era of high-stakes testing in American public schools, politicians around the country are looking for strategies to motivate teachers.
And in city after city, state after state, they are turning to financial rewards for those who take on tough assignments and produce gains in test scores.
Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed on to the trend last week, saying that if he is re-elected, he will allocate $800,000 next year for school systems to design a teacher incentive pay program. State education officials say it could go into effect as early as 2008.
Most teacher incentive pay programs are just a few years old and too new to evaluate, educators say.
Maryland officials are looking to model their program after one recently adopted in Minnesota. The Minnesota program is noted for its flexibility: Individual school districts can decide whether to participate, and they can design their own pay scales.
Proponents of merit pay for teachers say it is common sense to reward employees for good performance.
But the programs are often criticized by teachers unions, which say they pit teachers against one another. Reg Weaver, president of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, calls merit pay "a quick fix to a multifaceted problem."
"It doesn't do anything to enhance student achievement," Weaver said in an interview Friday. "It is something that is constantly tossed out there whenever somebody wants to make the news."
Yet from Florida to Texas, more and more places are buying in. In Denver last year, the teachers union backed a successful ballot measure overhauling the teacher pay scale.
"In the private sector and everywhere else, performance is rewarded," said Maryland Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who would spearhead the initiative here. "We're all aspiring to have the best results for our students, and we're dependent on the adults who provide those services. We want them to feel that their dedication to this profession is rewarded."
Most details of an incentive pay program in Maryland, including the size of the raises that teachers would receive, have yet to be determined. But Grasmick said no teacher would lose money, and participation by local school systems would be voluntary. She envisions the extra pay as part of a larger initiative stressing teacher training and creating advanced teaching positions for seasoned educators. Systems that elect to participate would change their salary scales for teachers, so that annual raises would be determined at least in part by performance, rather than seniority.
Whether Grasmick's plan will come to fruition probably hinges on who wins the gubernatorial election in November. Ehrlich, a Republican, faces Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who opposes incentive pay for teachers. In an interview last week, O'Malley said he supports giving all teachers competitive salaries, pensions and health benefits.
Asked whether he would support giving teachers more money for going to the most challenging schools, O'Malley reiterated a proposal he has made to give successful principals $200,000 bonuses for going to failing schools and turning them around.
"What I find is that there are many teachers who are attracted to schools that are in challenging neighborhoods when they have good leadership," he said. "I think the better incentive for teachers is good and strong leaders. That allows them to use their talents to the fullest where it is the most needed. I have yet to see a merit pay system that looked workable."
The Maryland State Teachers Association, an affiliate of the NEA, also opposes any merit-based pay scale. President Clara Floyd said the union supports other incentives for teachers, such as housing and tuition reimbursement, but she said the first step toward school reform is to pay all teachers adequately.
Maryland Education Department officials say they are researching merit pay programs around the country, but they are particularly interested in Minnesota's, which was adopted in 2005. Twenty-two of Minnesota's 343 school districts have signed up for the program, and 134 have written letters of intent to do so, according to figures provided by the Minnesota Department of Education.
But in one Minnesota school district that tried incentive pay as a pilot before statewide adoption, teachers voted overwhelmingly this year to scrap the initiative.
Around the country, rewards to individual teachers for high performance are generally replacing programs, popular about five years ago, that gave money to the entire staff at schools where test scores were soaring.
Behind both types of incentives is recognition of the pressure being placed on teachers to produce gains in test scores. The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires all children to demonstrate proficiency on standardized tests in reading and math by 2014. Schools that do not make adequate progress on the tests are subject to sanctions as drastic as staff replacement.