Linking teacher pay to student performance, once a topic off-limits in public education, is now the hot new idea in public education, from the Rocky Mountains to Prince George's County.
For Iris T. Metts, Prince George's new superintendent, the issue is familiar. As Delaware's education secretary until this year, she began negotiations with principals and teachers to develop an accountability program that includes standards for certification, training for new teachers and staff evaluation, the framework for performance pay.
"We will do it in Prince George's. I believe in it," Metts says of performance pay. "We need to gain back the respect that teachers have lost over the years and document quality so that the public can see it."
Metts says making teachers and principals accountable for their professional progress and the progress of their students also would go a long way toward restoring the confidence of state lawmakers in Prince George's, the state's largest school system and next to last in its performance on state tests.
That pleases Maryland Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who sees performance pay as a "bold" but logical next step in Maryland's accountability process that rewards improving schools and threatens underachievers with state takeover.
"It's certainly going to be controversial," Grasmick says. "We are in the business of results, and for too long we have used excuses for why students haven't achieved. Those days are over."
Among recent developments on this issue across the country: Two teachers unions in Colorado have agreed to performance pay packages. Denver is beginning a two-year pilot program involving 10 percent of its teachers; nearby Douglas County is in the final year of phasing in a pay-for-performance system that began in 1994.
This month, Minneapolis teachers ratified a contract that offers additional pay for reaching goals.
Elected officials, business leaders and educators participating in the 1999 National Education Summit in New York recently endorsed a proposal that encourages states to begin pay-for-performance programs.
"Performance pay for teachers has been bubbling for the past five years. It now looks like an idea whose time has come," says Allan Odden, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin who is studying teacher compensation for the Consortium for Policy Research in Education.
State educators say Prince George's is the first Maryland school system in which the issue of performance pay has been raised by a top official. Grasmick says she will be discussing performance pay with Metts, adding that the state is ready to provide technical and moral support to develop a plan.
The county school system's contract with the 8,000-member Prince George's County Education Association expires in June, but Metts says there are other issues that must be addressed before performance pay, such as raising teachers' pay so that it is competitive with that of teachers in nearby Maryland jurisdictions.
Metts says her experience in Delaware taught her that instituting accountability measures takes time and requires negotiations with teachers and the support of parents, lawmakers and the business community. The plan requires a staff development program and "defining what is quality instruction."
"You don't do this overnight. If you do, it won't be successful," she says. "The bottom line is to prove to the public we are serious and we want to be held accountable."
In the 1980s, school districts experimented with merit pay proposals. Unions opposed the proposals, which for the most part were hastily devised with little input from teachers and were vulnerable to complaints of favoritism.
"They died on the vine," Odden says.
Renewed interest in incentive pay has rekindled opposition.
In April, teachers in England threatened to strike after the government announced it would institute a performance pay package next September.
The Denver proposal faced opposition from teachers until they were included in the planning and given the final say on whether to continue the program after the two-year trial.
The president of the Prince George's union, Celeste Williams, says talk of performance pay is premature in a system hampered by crowded schools, uncertified teachers and obsolete teaching materials.
"It's not the right time. Other issues come first. If somebody wants you to do a job, they have to give you the tools to do it right," Williams says.
Grasmick says she is sympathetic to Williams' concerns but adds: "We could have used those reasons to not have an accountability system in Maryland. If we waited for optimal conditions in every school across the state, we would not be fulfilling our responsibilities."
She says Prince George's would need to establish a well-defined evaluation system, highly trained principals and supervisors and objective data to judge student progress.
"It is a challenge, but it's not impossible," she says. "Everyone agrees that an absolute change is necessary [in Prince George's]. It doesn't surprise me that Dr. Metts is willing to be bold."
Odden says school districts have used different methods to reward teachers: raises for faculty members whose students improve, bonuses to those who enhance their skills or take on additional responsibilities, schoolwide bonuses for staff when an entire school shows improvement.
The Denver contract combines the first two, which Odden believes increases the chance for success.
The director of research for the American Federation of Teachers cautions that school districts shouldn't turn a performance pay system into a tool to weed out bad teachers.
"We have teachers out there who shouldn't be teaching, and we already have the tools to identify them, document the problem and fire them," says Jewell Gould.
"What we need to do is reward the teachers who work together to make themselves and their schools better."
Pub Date: 10/10/99