Teacher pay set by the results

Performance-based bonuses cropping up across Maryland

July 06, 2008|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Sun reporter

From rural Washington County to suburban Prince George's County, school systems around the state are beginning to wade into a promising but controversial topic in education: pay for performance.

School officials are starting to offer teachers and principals extra pay or bonuses when they take on challenging assignments or raise test scores.

So a Prince George's County teacher could earn a bonus of up to $10,000 a year, and a Baltimore principal might someday get an extra 10 percent for exemplary work.

The move toward pay for performance, driven by increasing pressure for schools to improve student achievement as well as by shortages of teachers, comes despite the influence of Maryland's powerful teachers union.

So far, the idea has not been embraced by union leaders.

Here and around the nation, the unions are skeptical about the value of bonuses and worried that the rewards could be made in unfair ways.

"We have not seen any hard evidence yet that it improves achievement," said Daniel Kaufman, a spokesman for the Maryland State Teachers Association.

Across the nation, the cities of Denver, New York and Houston have offered additional compensation, but the practice is not widespread, educators said.

Some systems such as Harford and Anne Arundel counties have taken small steps by offering merit pay to principals and assistant principals.

Principals in Harford County, for instance, are reviewed every two years to see whether they will receive an additional 3 percent in pay.

The principals

As part of the evaluation procedures, the principals put together a thick portfolio that contains everything from test scores to surveys of the school community, before sitting down with the superintendent for several hours, said Jon O'Neal, the Harford County assistant superintendent of human resources.

Historically, only 12 percent to 20 percent of principals have received the merit increases, O'Neal said.

Baltimore is expected to roll out an ambitious plan to pay principals up to 10 percent of their salary in an annual bonus.

School officials have negotiated an agreement with the principals and administrators bargaining unit.

But details have yet to be worked out because the role of city principals is changing as they gain greater autonomy in running their schools, said Laura Weeldreyer, who is negotiating for the city school system.

The new incentives, Weeldreyer said, could be used as a "lever for school reform."

The teachers

But merit pay for principals is seen by some school officials as just the beginning.

Nationally, more educators are beginning to view teachers as the center of their efforts to improve schools, so they think that it is important to extend pay for performance to teachers.

"We think teachers are fundamentally essential to any school success," Weeldreyer said.

"We have to get into conversations with the Baltimore Teachers Union as quickly as possible."

She thinks that pay incentives should eventually be offered to every person in a school building, whether they are teachers, janitors or cafeteria workers. But no system in Maryland seems close to that.

Prince George's County will be the first district to institute pay for performance for teachers, using a $17 million federal grant spread over five years to begin offering bonuses.

John Deasy, Prince George's school superintendent, said he began by sitting down with teachers and negotiating what was a prickly topic.

"We talked this out for over a year," he said.

The talks were lengthy and technical. "It was a model of success for working together, in my opinion," he said.

One major issue for many teachers union representatives has been the fairness of the process. Could a principal play favorites?

The Prince George's system tries to overcome those issues by giving teachers extra pay for a variety of well-defined categories.

For instance, under the current plan, teachers could receive $1,500 for teaching in a subject that is hard to staff, such as special education or chemistry.

In addition, teachers who take on extra duties, such as mentoring a new teacher, writing a grant or organizing a meeting with parents, could get a bonus.

The scores

But the biggest bonus for a teacher, up to $5,000, would come for raising test scores.

Deasy said that teachers aren't judged only on whether their students pass tests, but also on how much progress their students have made over the course of the year.

So if a student comes into the class reading two years below grade level and gains a year and a half - 50 percent more than expected - the teacher would be rewarded, even if the student still can't pass the test.

"If they learn more, then you get rewarded. Think about the technical expertise that goes into that teaching," Deasy said.

The pay-for-performance plan is voluntary for teachers and will begin in only 12 schools, all deemed low-performing.

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