Paying teachers based on talent and student performance instead of seniority is gaining traction in the states thanks to support from governors and new federal incentives to tie teacher pay to student achievement.
Minnesota and Florida are at the forefront of the movement. Minnesota inaugurated the nation's most sweeping teacher pay changes last fall, and Florida announced last month that all schools must begin compensating the state's top-performing teachers by next year under a system based on student test scores.
Governors in at least five states (Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Mississippi) are pushing for similar changes, arguing that this will attract higher quality educators and reward the ones who get better results in the classroom or take-on tough assignments.
Massachusetts teachers, for example, could earn up to $15,000 in cash bonuses under a proposal announced by Gov. Mitt Romney (R). It would reward teachers based on a combination of student performance and classroom evaluations. Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski (R) proposed giving all school employees - including teachers, principals and janitors - bonuses ranging from $1,000 to $5,500 in schools that show the most improvement raising students' standardized test scores.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) also wants to give school-wide bonuses to teachers in schools that show the largest test-score gains each year, as well as higher salaries to teachers in hard-to-staff schools. And Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle (R) proposed in her State of the State address $10,000 bonuses for teachers with National Board Certification - only 111 Hawaiian teachers have earned the prestigious certificate - that agree to work for three years in a failing school.
"Governors are recognizing that the iron is hot for states to move on this, especially as they're coming under increasing (federal) accountability demands to significantly boost student achievement," said Scott Emerick, a policy expert for the nonpartisan Center for Teacher Quality, a research organization based in Chapel Hill, N.C., and funded by major education foundations and state contracts.
Governors also have an incentive to experiment with ways to reward teachers for student performance: $100 million in federal grants that will be awarded to states starting in July.
The federal dollars can be used to create performance-based pay systems for teachers and principals in schools that are failing to meet the achievement requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings told governors at the National Governors Association annual conference in Washington, D.C., Feb. 27.
It's a "dirty little secret" in the education community that the lowest-performing schools in the nation are staffed by the least-experienced personnel, Spellings said.
"We need to be better and smarter about getting our most gifted and talented professionals teaching in our most challenging environments," she said.
Republicans aren't alone calling for "merit" or "performance-based" pay, and other ways that deviate from traditional teacher-salary systems based strictly on the number of years on the job and level of college completed. Four states led by Democratic governors - Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, North Carolina Gov. Mark Easely and Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry - currently have policies in place to reward teachers for boosting student test scores or demonstrating excellence in the classroom. However, those governors have been battling with their state legislators to fully fund teachers' bonuses.
Teachers unions have been skeptical of performance-based pay systems, especially those that tie teacher pay directly to student test scores. Packing considerable political clout, state teachers' unions have successfully defeated many attempts to reform teacher pay.
Of the 14 states that considered teacher pay proposals last year, Minnesota was the only state to adopt new legislation, according to the Education Commission on the States, a Denver-based education research group. The biggest defeat was in California, where a proposed constitutional amendment by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) that would have required schools to pay teachers based on merit rather than seniority was overwhelmingly defeated at the ballot box last November.
Florida's new teacher pay rules, approved by the State Board of Education on Feb. 22, are the most sweeping in the nation and will require schools to adopt standardized tests in nearly every subject, including art, music and physical education. About half the teachers in Florida already have their students assessed by the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) in subjects like math, reading, writing and science.
The new program, called Florida Effective Compensation, or E-Comp, will require every school district to give 5 percent salary bonuses to the top 10 percent of teachers based on improvement in student test scores starting next year.
State teachers' unions and school administrators are protesting the new rules and are considering suing on the grounds that only the state legislature, not the state Department of Education, has the authority to force schools to adopt such changes, said Mark Pudlow, spokesperson for the Florida Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union.
"Teachers have no way of knowing what to do to get this bonus. Two teachers could do the exact same thing in the classroom and any number of factors could result in one being in the top 10 percent and the other in the bottom 10 percent," Pudlow said.
Florida lawmakers passed a law in 2002 supported by Gov. Jeb Bush (R) requiring that schools create performance-based pay systems, but so far only 16 out of the state's 57 school districts have complied, said state Department of Education spokesperson Cathy Schroeder. Florida Education Commissioner John Winn and the governor believe the 2002 law gives the state the authority to mandate the new test-based performance pay, she said.
Minnesota's alternative teacher pay system was proposed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) and adopted by the legislature in July 2005. Pawlenty said the program could not have passed without bringing the state's teachers' unions to the table.
"It's very important to work with teachers because even though it may not be their first love as a reform, if you don't have them at least open to the idea they have sufficient clout to kill it," Pawlenty told Stateline.org .
Minnesota school districts can voluntarily opt in to the new $86 million program that requires schools to award salary increases based on performance-based measurements. About one-third of the state's 339 school districts are working on plans to join the program, according to the Minnesota Education Association.
Charles Ellenbogen, a 9th-grade English teacher at Harding High School in St. Paul, Minn., said that paying teachers based on seniority is problematic because being older doesn't make you a better teacher. But teachers are skeptical that schools can fairly and objectively measure what goes on inside the classroom, said Ellenbogen, who has been teaching for 13 years and worked in four different states.
"Everybody wants the chance to get paid more for doing outstanding work, but there must be very specific and very clear standards that allow for a variety of ways to measure students' and teachers' performance," he said.