SAY "performance pay" in the company of most teachers and you'd better duck to avoid being pelted with questions about fairness.
How can you hold teachers responsible for students' academic achievement, they ask, when so many kids come to school with empty bellies, raggedy clothes or deep emotional scars from their chaotic lives? How can you expect teachers to teach without sufficient pencils, books, or without enough support?
Those are reasonable questions.
And as the idea of linking teacher pay to student achievement catches fire in Maryland and around the country, no one ought to dismiss the obstacles that trip up good teachers who try to make a difference.
New Prince George's County Superintendent Iris T. Metts needs to balance expectations against classroom realities as she pursues performance pay in her schools. State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick must ensure fairness doesn't get trampled in the rush toward teacher accountability statewide.
But here's another smart query about performance pay for teachers -- one that doesn't always receive equal attention in the debate: Is the current pay structure -- which rewards only length of service and level of education -- fair to teachers who get their students' achievement to soar despite their environments or lack of materials?
You only need look as far as Pimlico Elementary in Northwest Baltimore to answer that question with a resounding "No."
At Pimlico, nearly all the students come from impoverished neighborhoods near Upper Park Heights. Supplies and parental support are no more abundant than they are at other city schools. It's a place where Principal Sarah Horsey's playful singing in the halls masks problems like drug-addicted parents or abused children.
That hasn't stopped Ms. Horsey and her staff from excelling with their children, but the current pay system hasn't rewarded Pimlico's instructors any differently than teachers whose children can't read or write.
Pimlico Elementary teachers got no bonuses in 1997 when their students posted 17-point gains over their previous year's score on state reading tests. There was no incentive plan that inspired them to get the school's basic-skills test scores to rank with those of better-off elementaries like Mount Washington and Roland Park.
The best Ms. Horsey could do was a crab feast and endless accolades -- nice reinforcements, but hardly the same as cash.
"We celebrate our successes, believe me," Ms. Horsey says. "But money would make a difference. Some will do their best work because of an intrinsic desire to have our kids do well, but others need that external prod as well."
Ms. Horsey knows it wouldn't be fair to expect teachers with the slowest children to make the same progress as teachers with the quickest students. She knows if teachers don't think a performance pay system is equitable, they won't buy into it.
But she also knows her teachers deserve better than they're getting. And they give even more despite the lack of incentives.
Thirteen of Ms. Horsey's experienced teachers are mentoring rookie instructors this year. Teachers and administrators in the school have helped build a PTA that draws as many as 300 parents to meetings.
And this year, when one of her first-grade teachers fell ill, the others stepped in so Ms. Horsey didn't have to hire a substitute.
They worried that a substitute might take too long figuring out the school's reading program and the children would fall behind.
So they asked to divide the sick teacher's children among themselves, raising their own class sizes and increasing their workloads for the good of the school.
"Shouldn't they be rewarded for doing that?" Ms. Horsey asked. "Teachers just want to be appreciated for all they do. Is that so unreasonable?"
It's not. And as this debate unfolds, teachers who might benefit from a good performance pay system shouldn't be shouted down by those who fear what will happen to those who won't make the cut.