Reform with rewards

Our view : Incentives to outstanding teachers should be tried

July 09, 2008

Should schools follow the rules of the marketplace in how they pay the people who teach our children? It's a question educators across the country are asking as they consider pay-for-performance incentives designed to reward teachers and principals who boost student achievement at their schools.

In the past, teachers unions generally have been skeptical of plans that award bonuses to teachers based on student performance on standardized tests. Critics argue that because test scores are so closely correlated with family income, teachers in wealthy school districts would get most of the money while those in poor and minority communities would hardly benefit at all. In Florida, one of the few states that offer such incentives, that is exactly what happened.

Yet as pressure mounts on schools to improve student achievement, officials are taking another look at incentives as a way to recruit experienced teachers for underperforming schools and to staff hard-to-fill slots in areas such as special education and Advanced Placement math and science. There's a dawning realization that schools can tailor incentives that are both effective and fair.

In Maryland, Prince George's County has rolled out the most ambitious pay-for-performance plan in the state. Teachers there can earn up to $10,000 extra by excelling in a variety of areas, from raising student test scores to plugging a gap where there's a shortage of staff to mentoring another teacher. Washington, Harford and Anne Arundel counties are experimenting with smaller-scale incentives for some personnel.

Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso says he favors some incentives. This year, the city will roll out a pilot plan for principals and administrators. But talks with the teachers, who are the backbone of any school's success, have not even begun. That should be a top priority for Mr. Alonso over the coming year.

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