Education groups consider 'merit pay' tied to scores

WASHINGTON - While the words "merit pay" drew hisses and boos at a recent teachers' union convention, educators are endorsing contracts that pay bonuses for boosting students' test scores.

The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers oppose linking a teacher's paycheck to how well their students do on tests. But that is not stopping Rob Weil, the AFT's deputy director of educational issues, from helping local unions hammer out contracts that include new merit-pay plans.

"We don't have a message on a board that says, 'Hey, thinking about this?' " he said. But he said the AFT feels obliged to assist chapters that have decided to go this route.

Teachers usually are paid according to a century-old career ladder that rewards seniority and levels of education. The system was designed to ensure fair compensation for women and minorities. The average starting salary today is about $31,000.

"They don't make enough money, especially the good ones - especially the great ones," said Louis Malfaro, the teachers' union president in Austin, Texas, where nine schools are part of a pilot program to overhaul how teachers are paid.

Malfaro said Austin's approach is modeled partly on Denver's, which links salaries to students' test scores and other measures. Malfaro says the Austin effort will expand slowly and be evaluated methodically to avoid the kinds of mistakes made elsewhere.

"Our approach has been a slow, deliberate and steady one," Malfaro said. "This is a highway with wrecked cars all over it."

Florida recently had to retool a merit-pay plan after a large number of districts opted out, citing teacher concerns. A plan in Houston came under criticism because it was put in place over teachers' objections.

Vanderbilt University education professor Jim Guthrie said the involvement of teachers is essential.

"I just put myself in their shoes. All of a sudden you are going to change all the rules and you're not going to talk to me?" said Guthrie, who is assisting districts that got federal grants to implement merit pay.

Weil, the AFT official, said teacher compensation has to be bargained locally. He also said the new plans should make good professional development available to increase the chances that teachers will raise students' achievement.

Union opposition to merit pay stems partly from failed efforts of the 1980s. In those cases, principals generally were given the power to decide who would get the additional dollars.

"They often had no basis of any objective measure of performance," said Susan Moore Johnson, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "So what sometimes happened is there would be different awards made to different individuals and they would become public, and people would be appalled at the individuals who were given the awards or not given the awards."

On the web

Denver compensation plan:

Austin teachers' union:

American Federation of Teachers:

National Education Association:

Teacher's salaries

A look at average and beginning teacher salaries in each state for the 2004-05 school year, the latest for which such figures are available:

State Average Beginning

Ala. 38,186 31,368

Alaska 52,467 38,657

Ariz. 39,095 30,404

Ark. 41,489 28,784

Calif. 57,604 35,760

Colo. 43,965 35,086

Conn. 57,760 39,259

Del. 52,924 35,854

Fla. 43,095 33,427

Ga. 46,437 34,442

Hawaii 47,833 35,816

Idaho 40,864 27,500

Ill. 56,494 37,500

Ind. 46,591 30,844

Iowa 39,284 27,284

Kan. 39,351 27,840

Ky. 41,075 30,619

La. 39,022 31,298

Maine 40,935 26,643

Md. 52,330 37,125

Mass. 54,688 35,421

Mich. 53,959 35,557

Minn. 47,411 31,632

Miss. 38,212 28,200

Mo. 39,064 29,281

Mont. 38,485 25,318

Neb. 39,441 29,303

Nev. 43,212 27,957

N.H. 43,941 28,279

N.J. 56,635 38,408

N.M. 39,391 33,730

N.Y. 55,665 37,321

N.C. 43,343 27,944

N.D. 36,449 24,872

Ohio 49,438 33,671

Okla. 37,879 29,174

Ore. 48,320 33,699

Pa. 53,281 34,976

R.I. 56,432 33,815

S.C. 42,189 28,568

S.D. 34,039 26,111

Tenn. 42,076 32,369

Texas 41,009 33,775

Utah 37,006 26,521

Vt. 44,346 26,461

Va. 45,377 33,200

Wash. 45,722 30,974

W.Va. 38,404 26,704

Wis. 43,099 25,222

Wyo. 40,487 31,481

Nation 47,602 31,753

Source: American Federation of Teachers, annual survey of state departments of education.