From rural Washington County to suburban Prince George's County, school systems around the state are beginning to wade into a promising but controversial topic in education: pay for performance.
School officials are starting to offer teachers and principals extra pay or bonuses when they take on challenging assignments or raise test scores.
So a Prince George's County teacher could earn a bonus of up to $10,000 a year, and a Baltimore principal might someday get an extra 10 percent for exemplary work.
The move toward pay for performance, driven by increasing pressure for schools to improve student achievement as well as by shortages of teachers, comes despite the influence of Maryland's powerful teachers union.
So far, the idea has not been embraced by union leaders.
Here and around the nation, the unions are skeptical about the value of bonuses and worried that the rewards could be made in unfair ways.
"We have not seen any hard evidence yet that it improves achievement," said Daniel Kaufman, a spokesman for the Maryland State Teachers Association.
Across the nation, the cities of Denver, New York and Houston have offered additional compensation, but the practice is not widespread, educators said.
Some systems such as Harford and Anne Arundel counties have taken small steps by offering merit pay to principals and assistant principals.
Principals in Harford County, for instance, are reviewed every two years to see whether they will receive an additional 3 percent in pay.
As part of the evaluation procedures, the principals put together a thick portfolio that contains everything from test scores to surveys of the school community, before sitting down with the superintendent for several hours, said Jon O'Neal, the Harford County assistant superintendent of human resources.
Historically, only 12 percent to 20 percent of principals have received the merit increases, O'Neal said.
Baltimore is expected to roll out an ambitious plan to pay principals up to 10 percent of their salary in an annual bonus.
School officials have negotiated an agreement with the principals and administrators bargaining unit.
But details have yet to be worked out because the role of city principals is changing as they gain greater autonomy in running their schools, said Laura Weeldreyer, who is negotiating for the city school system.
The new incentives, Weeldreyer said, could be used as a "lever for school reform."
But merit pay for principals is seen by some school officials as just the beginning.
Nationally, more educators are beginning to view teachers as the center of their efforts to improve schools, so they think that it is important to extend pay for performance to teachers.
"We think teachers are fundamentally essential to any school success," Weeldreyer said.
"We have to get into conversations with the Baltimore Teachers Union as quickly as possible."
She thinks that pay incentives should eventually be offered to every person in a school building, whether they are teachers, janitors or cafeteria workers. But no system in Maryland seems close to that.
Prince George's County will be the first district to institute pay for performance for teachers, using a $17 million federal grant spread over five years to begin offering bonuses.
John Deasy, Prince George's school superintendent, said he began by sitting down with teachers and negotiating what was a prickly topic.
"We talked this out for over a year," he said.
The talks were lengthy and technical. "It was a model of success for working together, in my opinion," he said.
One major issue for many teachers union representatives has been the fairness of the process. Could a principal play favorites?
The Prince George's system tries to overcome those issues by giving teachers extra pay for a variety of well-defined categories.
For instance, under the current plan, teachers could receive $1,500 for teaching in a subject that is hard to staff, such as special education or chemistry.
In addition, teachers who take on extra duties, such as mentoring a new teacher, writing a grant or organizing a meeting with parents, could get a bonus.
But the biggest bonus for a teacher, up to $5,000, would come for raising test scores.
Deasy said that teachers aren't judged only on whether their students pass tests, but also on how much progress their students have made over the course of the year.
So if a student comes into the class reading two years below grade level and gains a year and a half - 50 percent more than expected - the teacher would be rewarded, even if the student still can't pass the test.
"If they learn more, then you get rewarded. Think about the technical expertise that goes into that teaching," Deasy said.
The pay-for-performance plan is voluntary for teachers and will begin in only 12 schools, all deemed low-performing.
"I believe very much that we need to move in the direction of different compensation for teachers in different areas," Washington County Superintendent Betty Morgan said.
"It has to be detailed and well thought-out and fair."
Washington County has moved as far as getting teachers additional pay for taking on leadership responsibilities within their schools. "I think school systems will have to do it in stages," she said.
But teachers unions are skeptical that pay for performance and merit pay will be successful, said Kaufman of the MSTA.
"I think on the most general level, the issue of tying test scores to incentive pay is something we have had issues with in the past, but we also recognize that locally, it is important for [teachers unions] to work collaboratively [with school district leaders]."
State Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a former teacher and a field representative for the teachers union, is not convinced that this trend will take off in Maryland, particularly in a time of increasing budget constraints.
He says that having a good teacher evaluation system is more important to school systems than increasing pay for some teachers.
Prince George's has teachers who should not be in the classroom, he said, adding, "They haven't cleaned up their own ranks yet, among teachers and administrators."
Kaufman argues that whether teachers are eligible for a bonus may not be as important as their general work environment: whether there is collaboration among teachers in the school, the class sizes are small and the principal is supportive.
But Morgan said that money does matter.
Certain teachers, she said, have become hot commodities and can command extra pay.
For instance, advanced-placement calculus teachers are in such high demand that some school systems have offered $20,000 signing bonuses.
"There is a kind of mythology in the public sector that teachers are going to do it because they love kids," Morgan said.
"Financial motivation is not everything, but it is still a part of what teachers want and deserve," she said.
Prince George's County, the 18th-largest school district in the nation, has launched the most ambitious teacher pay-for-performance plans in the state.:
Here is how a teacher could earn up to an extra $10,000::
*Teach in an area where there is a shortage, such as special education or math: $1,500
*Do well on an annual evaluation: $1,500
*Increase student achievement: $5,000
*Make a professional contribution, such as mentoring another teacher: $ 2,000