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School systems argue merits of 'bonuses' tied to test scores

Ohanian Comment: I actually have worked in corporate America, and I never saw exemplary work rewarded by merit pay. I saw this culture conditioned to being secretive about their paychecks: nobody was supposed to know what anybody else made. After all, the people in charge didn't want their policies of favoritism to be public knowledge. One thing I really liked about teaching was that pay wasn't an issue: no jockeying for bonuses, no competing for whatever. What you got was clearly spelled out on a salary schedule. I was regarded as a top-notch teacher, named teacher of the year and all that. I didn't give a damn if teachers who didn't work as hard as I did got paid the same thing. My work was my pride, and I got lots more out of it than they did.


I wonder if reporters feel they are paid on merit.

By Ledyard King

WASHINGTON Business executives often get year-end bonuses if their employees meet certain goals. Coaches earn more when their players perform well. So why not reward teachers based on their students' test scores?

A growing number of school systems are doing just that.

In the past year, Minnesota, Florida, Texas and the cities of Houston and Denver have established merit pay programs that partly or completely tie bonuses to student achievement. Other states, including Ohio, Iowa and Mississippi, are considering similar programs.

Merit pay for teachers has been around for decades in various forms as a way to reward instructors whose salaries are chiefly determined by years of experience and post-graduate degrees. Teachers unions have been critical of most merit-pay incentives, arguing the money for such programs would be better and more fairly used to raise basic pay.

Now researchers say the increased testing required by the No Child Left Behind education-reform law has fostered wider interest.

Last month, Florida unveiled one of the nation's most aggressive programs, with 5% bonuses for teachers whose students show the most gains on year-to-year state tests.

This year, states must start testing children on math and reading in grades three through eight and once in high school under No Child Left Behind. The law also requires that students take a science test at least once in elementary, middle and high school by 2007-08.

Teachers unions have given the new plans mixed reviews.

Those in Minnesota and Denver have been receptive after government representatives worked with local unions to develop the awards program, which provides bonuses for far more than test scores. But Florida and Houston angered their teachers after developing incentive plans without union input and tying them solely to scores.

"It's another silver bullet that someone is going to use to fix education," says Gayle Fallon, executive director of the Houston Federation of Teachers.

Critics say any test-based bonus system has side effects. It might mean no reward for teachers of art and music, which don't have exams. And it could discourage teachers from sharing ideas and techniques with colleagues.

Maybe, merit-pay supporters say, but the current system isn't working great right now.

"We have to recognize and reward teachers who are outstanding at raising student achievement," says Ross Wiener, policy director for the non-profit Education Trust. "Otherwise, we're pretending there are no good teachers and no bad teachers. And that's demeaning to the profession."

— Ledyard King
USA Today


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