Teachers and principals at eight Anne Arundel County schools that have struggled to reach goals on statewide tests could receive up to $1.2 million in bonuses this year -- half for committing to work at those schools, and more if their charges make the grade.
The windfalls, approved in this year's school budget, make Anne Arundel part of a national push to offer money as a way to promote higher academic achievement.
"It recognizes effort in schools that have had a history of low performance," said superintendent Eric J. Smith.
Districts across the country long have offered signing bonuses and other payments to attract and keep experienced teachers.
But now school systems are trying to tie money to student performance.
On the federal level, the No Child Left Behind Act allows high-poverty schools to create pay programs for teachers and principals based on merit and other qualifications. In Maryland, school systems such as Queen Anne's County's are considering it as well.
In Anne Arundel, the formula developed through union negotiations over the summer incorporates incentives both for agreeing to work at a troubled school and for teaching students who perform well.
More than 400 teachers and staff members at schools designated as "challenged" because children failed to meet targets set by the state on the Maryland School Assessment will receive $1,500 in June. If students hit the state's goals this school year, the teachers will get an additional $1,500.
Principals, who earn between $70,000 and $110,000 a year, will get $5,000 in June and an extra $5,000 if they make the targets.
Reward for effort
"It's a recognition, finally, that you've got to encourage people to take on tougher challenges," said Richard I. Kovelant, executive director of the county's Association of Educational Leaders, which represents principals and assistant principals.
The plan comes as a relief for principals such as Tina McKnight, who long has sought rewards such as tuition reimbursement for her staff at Tyler Heights Elementary School in Annapolis.
"I am always looking for ways to let teachers know we value what they do because what they do is so valuable," she said.
Tyler Heights is a Title I school. It receives extra federal funding because of its large number of children who receive free- or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of low-income populations. In addition, about one-third of its families speak Spanish.
Sheila Finlayson of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County said she wants to reserve judgment on the incentive plan.
"If it works, that's great," she said. "At the same time, all teachers need to be rewarded for their effort and hard work in all of our schools."
A difficult task
Anne Arundel's plan avoids some of the problems that have forced school systems to abandon similar efforts, said Harry P. Hatry of the Urban Institute, who has written several books on teacher incentives.
The goals are clear and objective and the system has budgeted the money to support them, he said. But the targets must be attainable, he said.
Dan Goldhaber, a research associate professor at the Evans School of Public Policy at the University of Washington, agreed that the objective is clear but thinks that basing the incentives on test performance is unwise.
"This is a very crude measure," he said, adding that factors other than teacher involvement affect performance on most standardized tests -- particularly home environment because children only spend 11 or 12 percent of their lives in school.
"To be fair to teachers you want to isolate the contribution they are making," he said. "That's a very difficult thing to do statistically."
Both Goldhaber and Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, said methods that reward both individual and group efforts are the most successful.
Even if teachers try to achieve the goal, "their efforts only pay off if everyone works as hard as they do," Hess said.
On the other hand, "there's always a very real danger that you're going to wind up rewarding the laggards based on everyone else's efforts," he added.
Anne Arundel's superintendent said he believes individual bonuses would pose more problems -- teachers may have less incentive to work in the best interest of the student.
Some details of the Arundel plan are unclear. School system officials said they are considering offering partial bonuses for part-time and itinerant faculty, but representatives of the teachers union said that was not discussed during negotiations.
Before school started Aug. 30, Smith visited schools such as Lindale Middle in Linthicum to announce the change.
Standing in the media center at a faculty meeting, Smith commended the staff for its willingness to serve.
"We negotiated with the unions what I consider to be a recognition of teachers that are part of a school that does have special challenges," he said before describing the bonuses.
Upon hearing the news, a few teachers looked at each other in surprise. "Are you with me?" he said.
They responded with applause.
"I call this recognition pay because all of us have choices, and we have chosen Lindale," he said.
Smith said the school has a "shared commitment" to ensure achievement by children of all races, some of whom receive special services, such as English lessons for non-native speakers.
Last year, 11 of 59 eighth graders in special-education classes at Lindale Middle reached proficient or advanced levels on the state's mathematics exam. As a result, Lindale had to develop plans to ensure that all children will meet the state targets for two consecutive years.
'A nice little perk'
Teachers at Tyler Heights also were glad to be recognized.
Children at the elementary school met targets last year. If they can do it again, the school will no longer be subject to extra monitoring.
"It's a nice little perk," said Mandy Panetta, a third-grade teacher at Tyler Heights, about the pay. "The fact is, we worked really hard last year. We did that before we had this" incentive.
Said special-education teacher Gail Rogers-Payne: "It's not about the money. They couldn't pay us for all the work we do."