Incentives for teachers

Our view: An ambitious experiment in Washington holds lessons for Baltimore school reform

November 16, 2008

Give up your tenured job and get a big fat pay raise. That's the deal Washington schools chief Michelle Rhee is offering teachers in the nation's capital, and if enough of them decide to take her up on the proposal, its impact could be felt on school systems across the country.

Ms. Rhee, who was appointed to her job in 2007, argues that all the benefits of tenure go to adults, not students. That's because tenure rules make it harder to fire ineffective or incompetent teachers. Since taking the job, she has dismissed hundreds of central office employees, principals and paraprofessionals as well as more than 200 uncertified teachers in her drive for excellence.

Ms. Rhee's proposal would give teachers who agree to give up tenure pay raises of as much as $40,000 a year. That could boost the salaries of the city's best teachers to $130,000 by 2010. But to keep their jobs, they would have to get a principal's recommendation after the first year.

The plan doesn't abolish tenure outright. Teachers could still choose to keep the tenure they've earned. Those that did also would get pay raises, but they would lose their seniority. If their schools closed or reorganized, they could be bumped by more-junior teachers, and if another school didn't hire them, they could face early retirement, a buyout or eventual dismissal.

Ms. Rhee has relied on private foundations to fund the pay raises as part of a $75 million-a-year commitment to promote reforms over the next five years. Educators across the country increasingly are looking at pay-for-performance incentives that reward teachers and principals who boost student achievement. In Maryland, Prince George's County teachers can earn up to $10,000 extra through various incentives; school systems in Washington, Harford and Anne Arundel counties also are experimenting with incentives. This year, Baltimore will initiate a pilot incentive plan for school principals and administrators, and schools chief Andres Alonso says he also favors incentives for teachers.

Baltimore may never get the kind of multimillion-dollar private foundation support for abolishing tenure that Ms. Rhee won for Washington. And no one believes schools can be improved simply by firing people. But the goal should be clear: Recruit principals and teachers who can really make a difference in the classroom, give them the tools they need to succeed and then reward them with incentives that show up where it counts - in their paychecks every month. That's a lesson school systems across the country could learn from.

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