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Teacher bonuses weighed in Talbot

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Talbot County could become the first school system in Maryland to offer merit pay bonuses to teachers based on student test scores.

The proposal by the Talbot County Council would give all teachers and principals 1 percent salary awards if high school SAT scores improve, and another 1 percent bonus if pupils score better on Maryland's annual elementary and middle school exams.

"We're trying to set some goals that we feel are achievable for the teachers," said Wayne Dyott, president of the five-member council. "It's a good thing for the public, because you hear from them about why the test scores aren't improving and now we're tying money to it."

But educators in Talbot County and elsewhere in Maryland are skeptical about the politicians' proposal. They say they'd rather see teachers receive a 2 percent raise as part of their regular salaries, and they worry that tying teacher pay to student scores will intensify the testing mania that grips many schools.

"This really puts teachers in a bad position," said Vickie Wilson, a guidance counselor at Easton High School and president of Talbot's teachers union. "Why would the promise of 1 percent make us try any harder? What if it was 10 percent? I don't even think there's anything different we would do. Teachers already do the best they can for their kids."

The question of whether to tie a portion of teachers' pay to test scores brings the Eastern Shore school system into a national debate about linking teachers' salaries to performance.

Merit pay -- vigorously opposed for decades by teachers across the nation -- often involves giving extra pay to the top 10 percent or 20 percent of teachers in schools.

But the new trend is for a portion of teachers' salary increases to be linked to meeting certain standards, such as passing teacher exams or earning certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

The few merit pay experiments have been part of union agreements in large urban systems, including Cincinnati, Minneapolis and Denver. Unions have typically agreed to a portion of salary increases being linked to evaluations of teachers, based either on the teachers' skills or the academic gains of their pupils.

In a few other states -- including Kentucky and California -- teachers have shared salary bonuses from the state if their schools posted big gains on achievement exams.

Maryland awards money to elementary and middle schools showing improvement on the state's annual exams for two consecutive years, but that money can be used only to support instruction, such as buying new textbooks or giving teachers more training.

The state also awards extra pay to teachers who earn national certification -- money that a few local systems match.

By contrast, the Talbot County Council intends to award the 2 percent bonuses as one-time checks to all teachers, assistant principals and principals if the test-score goals are met. If the school system falls short, the county would keep the money.

Business model

"This is kind of how employees at big companies get rewarded," said Allan Odden, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education. "If General Motors performs well, all workers in all their plants get a bonus."

Odden said that if Talbot's educators and politicians can work out an agreement, it would be worth seeing whether the prospect of bonuses has any effect on achievement. "We would predict that it would have a weak effect," said Odden, one of the nation's leading experts on teacher pay-for-performance proposals.

Patricia A. Foerster, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, also questioned whether the lure of 1 percent bonuses -- the equivalent of $300 to $500 for most teachers -- would have much effect.

"We know there's not a direct link," said Foerster, whose organization brought Odden to Maryland last year for a summit the group held on teacher pay issues.

But Talbot County Council members believe the money would be an incentive for test score gains in the 4,500-student system.

Although countywide scores on the SAT college entrance tests have improved over the past few years, the overall performance of third-, fifth- and eighth-graders on the annual Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams has stagnated.

"I think that with hard work, the goals can be met," said Council member Hilary B. Spence, who also is an administrator in the Talbot school system headquarters. "We're looking for ways to encourage the schools to get better."

Under the proposal, the 1 percent bonus for SAT scores would likely be given in September or October, after the announcement of the performance of this year's high school graduates. The other 1 percent bonus would be paid in December when the results of the MSPAP exams taken over the past two weeks are released. The council could vote on the plan as part of its budget as soon as this week.

8 percent raise sought

Council members also say that the county cannot afford the 8 percent salary increase sought by the superintendent and school board. They would prefer a 6 percent raise accompanied by the 2 percent bonuses that would not be part of the permanent salary structure.

"The rest of the county employees only are getting 3 percent raises, so 6 percent is still very generous," said Councilman Philip Carey Foster.

Talbot County education officials say they appreciate the 6 percent raises the council supports, but insist that 8 percent is critical to ensuring that the county can compete with other systems.

Though Talbot's starting and maximum teacher salaries fall in the middle of Maryland counties, its average salary of $40,805 ranks more than $5,000 below the state average and is third lowest statewide, according to Maryland State Department of Education statistics.

"The people we're trying to hire right now I don't think would be impressed by being told that they might get financial bonuses for something they didn't even do," said schools Superintendent J. Sam Meek. "They want to see what they're actually going to be paid."

Meek said he supports holding schools accountable and is willing to discuss the idea of merit pay for teachers, but questions whether the current proposal has been adequately researched.

"It's a simplistic sort of quick-fix, political approach to a complex problem," Meek said.

Meek says that pressure to improve SAT scores creates a perverse incentive for schools to discourage some students from taking the college entrance exams.

"Every county can make their SAT scores go up by systematically excluding youngsters who may not be as prepared academically," Meek said.

"I think the mission of public schools is different than that, and we go out and recruit kids to taking the SAT because we want them to think about college."

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