Can Teacher Incentive Pay Close Achievement Gap?

In Chicago, once described as having the worst public schools in the nation, they are trying something new.

Veronica Griffin, who colleagues consider to be an exceptional teacher, was going to leave her job in a struggling inner city school for a higher-paying one. To keep her, the city of Chicago did something a business might do: They offered her a $15,000 bonus.

It may be common sense in other businesses: If someone's performing well, pay them a little extra. But it's a radical shift in America's public schools. For decades, teachers have been paid solely by seniority and by how much higher education they've accumulated.

[See what teachers in your state earn by CLICKING HERE]

Chicago is just starting its experiment with paying for performance this school year.

"What this represents is the first time in the history of the Chicago public schools where teachers have a chance to make more money," says Arne Duncan, the Chicago schools' CEO, "to make a bonus based upon student success, based upon students doing well in the classroom."

  However, the idea of merit pay for teachers is hugely controversial.

The idea is being fought over in Washington, D.C., right now, where it may be included in the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, and in cities all over the country.

Teachers in Houston rallied in large numbers when their school board approved bonus pay tied to test scores over their objections.

But some wonder whether treating failing inner city schools more like businesses -- through merit pay -- would help bridge the achievement gap between white and minority students.

There's no question that something needs to be done. New government numbers out this week show blacks and Hispanics still lag behind whites on standardized tests.

The achievement gap in eighth grade reading test results shows no real improvement since 1992. This year, black students scored 9.9 percent lower than whites, and Hispanic students scored 9.1 percent lower.

[See how your state matches up by CLICKING HERE. Use the Data Explorer tool for a breakdown by race.]

Opponents of merit pay for teachers, including the powerful teachers' unions, say bonuses based on student performance will go mostly to white, wealthy schools -- where students perform better on standardized tests.

That's exactly what happened in Orlando, Fla., according to an analysis by a local newspaper. The Orlando Sentinel found teachers in wealthier white schools were twice as likely to get bonuses.

So Chicago is focusing its bonuses only on poor, minority schools, where teacher turnover is as high as 30 percent a year.

"In the inner city you have to be more than just a teacher," said Griffin, the teacher who was offered the bonus. "You have to be a teacher, you have to be a counselor, you have to be a social worker. ... And oftentimes we have teachers who come in and it's more than they can handle. And what they do is they go to where it's easier to teach."

That usually means teaching in richer neighborhoods.

Chicago's experiment involves not only paying for performance, but also assigning master teachers like Griffin to help her colleagues become better teachers.

Teaching children in schools like Griffin's is a tall order. Many children start school already behind because they get little support at home.

"There are students that have come into kindergarten who can't write their names," Griffin said, "don't recognize colors, they don't know the shapes."

Yet the stakes are high. If the schools fail kids like eighth grader Niva Williams, who lives with her grandmother and nine siblings and cousins, the future is not bright.

"They're gonna fall behind," her grandmother Irene Williams says. "They're gonna eventually drop out. They're gonna eventually be on drugs, maybe get pregnant.  Or whatever. ... I've seen that happen."

Failure at school could doom such children to what's called the "cradle-to-prison pipeline." Veronica Griffin knows how likely that is to happen.

"Absolutely," she said. "My husband is a correctional officer for a federal prison and so we have conversations all the time about what I see here and what he sees there -- and how what I see here ultimately leads to what he sees on a daily basis."

Griffin and her colleagues say they're happy to get paid for good work, but they point out that they chose their job for idealism, not money.

"I wanted to save the world," she laughed.

No one knows if performance pay will work. Even if it does, Veronica Griffin says it's unlikely to wipe out the achievement gap.

For that, she believes, inner-city public schools may have to be totally re-invented.

ABC News' Dan Harris and Karen Mooney contributed to this report.