- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 10, 2007

President Bush wants more money in the 2008 budget for a fund that encourages performance-based pay systems for teachers — a request that will no doubt feed into the larger debate on Capitol Hill about how best to attract, create and retain effective teachers.

The administration is asking for $199 million for its Teacher Incentive Fund, which was created in 2006. The fund provides financial incentives for teachers and principals who improve student achievement in high-poverty schools and helps to recruit top teachers to these schools. Rewards are left up to the states to decide and can include bonuses or raises.

The fund received $99 million in 2006. In November, the administration awarded the first 16 grants — totaling a little more than $40 million — to school districts across the country, including Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Memphis, Tenn.; and Philadelphia.

The administration requested an additional $99 million for the program for 2007, but in the interest of belt-tightening, the House essentially zeroed out funding for it in the recently passed fiscal 2007 funding package. That measure has yet to pass in the Senate, so the White House and some Republicans are working hard to get the money.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said last week that there is a consensus about using compensation “to make sure our best teachers are in our most challenging” schools nationwide.

“We think that is a sound principle,” she said, adding, “I think we’ll have a lot of discussion about how our teachers are rewarded for doing the best work.”

The top teachers union has criticized the fund.

Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, recently said the setup “is nothing more than a merit-pay system, and merit pay hasn’t worked wherever it has been tried, for the most part.”

Far from spurring teachers on to greater effectiveness, extra bonuses for some and not others simply “creates tension” between teachers and kills any teamwork, he said.

“It doesn’t work and it’s not going to do anything to attract and retain quality teachers,” Mr. Weaver said. What will work is getting teachers involved in the decision-making process, giving them a safe and orderly school and a decent salary, he said.

The issue will be front and center as lawmakers work this year to renew the No Child Left Behind Act and pass the Higher Education Act.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, and Rep. George Miller, California Democrat, have crafted a comprehensive bill to improve teacher quality. Included in it is a grant initiative to encourage high-needs schools to implement teacher-incentive programs.

However, their plan would require the financial rewards to be based not just on student test scores, but on broad criteria, including whether the teacher takes on a leadership or mentorship role with other teachers. Each performance-based setup would have to be approved by the local teachers union as well.

Most public school teachers are paid based on years of experience. Merit-based pay systems for teachers are scattered throughout the country, and are more common in private and charter schools than in public schools.

Some recent studies have indicated positive results.

The University of Arkansas examined a Little Rock elementary school that gave bonuses to teachers based on their students’ test scores. The study found that math scores rose more in that school than in similar schools in Little Rock that didn’t implement such merit systems. Students in the school where teachers received bonuses made gains over the other students equivalent to a 6 percentile or 7 percentile jump for a student who started at the 50th percentile.

“It’s a pretty substantial gain,” said Marcus Winters, a senior research associate at the Manhattan Institute, which was involved with the study.

A broader study released recently by University of Florida economics professors examined about 500 public and private high schools and found that having any salary incentive was associated with a 1.3 point to 2.1 point rise in test scores. It also found merit-pay programs were more effective if they targeted just a few teachers for rewards.

But researchers say more studies must be done to fully determine the effectiveness of such programs.

“I know we’re not done evaluating nationwide,” Mr. Winters said.

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