A growing number of local unions have agreed to experiment with alternative pay structures, especially to encourage teachers to move to low-performing schools or to teach high-needs subjects, like math and science.
Promising programs are underway in Denver, Chicago, Austin, and Minneapolis, among others. Many distribute bonuses throughout the school — even janitors and lunch ladies can qualify.
And the pot of money is growing.
Since last November, the U.S. Department of Education has awarded 33 grants to pay out more than $477 million over the next five years. That money will go toward teacher incentives that improve student achievement, and close achievement gaps in high-poverty schools. Many millions more in private funds have also been distributed.
Above all, teacher unions have resisted merit pay in order to keep the focus on their top concern — the need to raise the floor on low teacher salaries.
"If you're not paying teachers a competitive salary to begin with," Jackson said, "then, any professional compensation plan that you come up with on top of that is not addressing the need to get the best teachers in, doing the best work that they can do."
The unions may have to take on the merit pay battle first, though.
Congress is moving to include a measure calling for performance pay and teacher evaluations, based on standardized test scores, in the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law being negotiated in Washington right now.