Dec. 18, 2006 — -- As business executives look to collect bonuses this holiday season, public school teachers are starting to join that revelry.
The Department of Education recently launched the first federal program to use bonuses to motivate teachers who raise test scores in at-risk communities, and awarded the first $42 million of the $94 million Teacher Incentive Fund last month.
Some states were already handing out merit pay, which remains controversial in school systems. Some supporters say if it works in the private sector, why not try it among educators.
"If you work at a large company … you receive performance pay, so I believe teachers deserve incentive pay," said Marilyn Manjang, a third-grade teacher at Lyons Elementary School in Houston.
At her school, 95 percent of children live at the poverty level, but it is still considered an exemplary school. This year Manjang could earn an extra $3,000 if her students improved their standardized test scores.
In an effort to recruit, retain and motivate teachers, the Houston Independent School District implemented a performance-pay program that would reward individual teachers for their students' performance.
District Superintendent Abelarvo Saaverda believes this program is key to improving the education students in his district receive.
"It's going to attract more high-performing teachers into our school system," he said. "And any time I can put a high-performing teacher in front of a classroom, that's good for kids."
Texas is engaged in a $300 million experiment to find out whether big bonuses can produce big gains in student achievement. It's one of the largest teacher-incentive plans in the country.
Twenty-three other states and the District of Columbia have embarked on similar initiatives. Florida, for example, has launched a program that spends nearly $150 million to give bonuses to its top teachers.
Texas administrators say they don't have enough evidence to prove it's working, but since the program began, standardized test scores have gone up 10 points in Houston, while nationally scores have dropped by seven points.
Merit pay has long been controversial. Proponents say it's a powerful type of school reform that can reduce teacher absenteeism and turnover, and help weed out the weakest educators.
Critics say merit pay could make schools divisive places and often kills morale, and the National Education Association, the union that represents 3.2 million public school teachers, opposes the use of bonus pay.
It says these grants will promote unhealthy competition in a profession that thrives on teamwork and collaboration, and that real learning is the casualty when teachers shift their focus from quality instruction to boosting test scores.
"It's a smokescreen to cover up the real educational problem in the country," NEA president Reg Weaver said. He said there are more important issues to concentrate on.
"What I'm talking about is making sure that students have adequate and equitable funding, smaller class sizes, qualified certified teachers, " he said.
Teachers unions argue that it's not enough to pay some teachers more and that you can only retain good teachers by raising the overall salary level.
Even worse, some teachers caution that merit pay puts too much emphasis on test scores, to the detriment of the student.
"It makes the teachers forget the curriculum and forget trying to achieve high standards and just look at these test objectives and drill and kill to get those objectives mastered, " said Andrew Dewey, an 11th-grade public school teacher in Houston.
But there are programs that focus on more than just test scores, like one in Chicago, which local teachers local teachers support, and will use the new federal money. In Chicago, one-third of the city's teachers are expected to retire over the next five years.
"We're trying to put in place a professional development system where teachers will feel supported, where they will feel they're getting better," said Chicago school district president Arne Duncan.
Struggling schools would hire "mentor teachers," who would make extra money training their colleagues and decide whether they deserve end-of-year bonuses.