On learning and earning

The Baltimore Sun

Should teachers be paid on the basis of performance? Although merit pay has long ruffled feathers in the profession, many school districts have successfully implemented extra-pay-for-performance programs, and it's an idea whose time may have come in Baltimore. The new schools CEO, Andres Alonso, has spoken favorably, and rightly so, of monetary rewards for teachers in challenging schools who manage to improve student performance.

Increased emphasis on merit or differential pay has been fueled, in part, by the federal government. The U.S. Department of Education has given more than $40 million in grants to local districts to promote performance-based programs for teachers and principals through its Teacher Incentive Fund. And the federal No Child Left Behind law has raised the stakes for teacher performance because of its focus on student achievement.

The law requires adequate yearly progress of schools generally based on standardized test scores. Schools that fail to make progress face consequences such as restructuring, which may result in reassigning teachers who cannot succeed in improving student achievement.

As Congress works this year to reauthorize NCLB, it is likely to include funding bonuses for teachers, but the criteria should be realistic. The major teachers unions rightly object to extra pay based strictly on student test scores. But broader considerations, such as teachers who take assignments in high-needs, high-poverty schools or who become nationally certified, are certainly appropriate.

For example, Denver rewards teachers who agree to work in schools that are considered "hard to serve" because of poverty, large numbers of students who don't speak English or other special needs. Minnesota has also implemented a merit pay initiative that has been adopted by dozens of local districts in agreement with local teachers.

Maryland offers stipends to teachers with advanced certificates who take assignments in low-performing schools, a smart approach to keeping experienced professionals where they are needed most. Mr. Alonso, who took over as Baltimore's schools chief last week, also puts a great deal of emphasis on what goes on in classrooms. He could - and should - raise the bar on teacher performance by looking for additional ways to reward teachers who take on challenging assignments and improve student achievement.

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