In a first, teachers in Hartford now have the chance to earn more if their students are learning more.
This won't save the city's schools, but it's one more essential tool we need to try to help more children succeed. Because whatever you think about teacher pay, things aren't working at all right now in our classrooms in the cities, the place where most of our future workforce will come from.
Don't just listen to me — ask Cathy Carpino, president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers, who told me that although she doesn't think much of bonus pay, she's willing to try it.
"If you are not open to some new idea, to at least try something new," Carpino told me, "then you are limiting yourself."
Certainly there are many reasons why city children are failing — poverty and the implosion of the stable family are at the top of the list — but as we look for every opportunity out there, shouldn't teacher pay be part of the equation?
We're talking about a simple concept: Do a good job, and you get rewarded for it.
I wrote with disappointment last year when an ill-informed arbitration panel rejected a proposal by the Greenwich Board of Education to pay better teachers more. The rule too often in public education has been that the ability to breathe has been about the only requirement to qualify for your annual union-negotiated pay raise.
But now, "performance pay" is gaining traction, as Time magazine wrote in a cover story last week revealing how districts and entire states — desperate to retain and attract teachers — are again looking at the idea. Significantly, presidential front-runner Barack Obama also supports the idea, endorsing a free-market concept that Democrats have traditionally run from.
Education lawyer Thomas B. Mooney told me that Hartford's new contract could set in motion a shake-up across Connecticut, where for generations there has been no effort to link student learning with teacher pay.
"The landscape has changed," said Mooney.
This could be a critical point for us, because although we have the best-paid teachers, we also have one of the largest gaps between white and minority students in all of the land.
That's why the Hartford Federation of Teachers — the most aggressive, outspoken teacher union in the state — deserves credit for taking a chance and agreeing to Superintendent Steven Adamowski's plan for a "school improvement bonus."
In return for a generous contract that will boost salaries by 12 percent over three years, Hartford teachers have agreed to a plan that could hand them an annual $2,500 bonus if students improve. To earn the cash, an entire school must demonstrate that students are learning the concepts assessed on the Connecticut Mastery Test and Connecticut Academic Performance Test.
Adamowski told me that teachers must show they are moving children forward regardless of how much they knew at the start of the school year.
"We are trying to encourage teachers to work as a team. We are trying to encourage principals to lead," he said.
School districts, struggling to attract high-quality teachers, have no choice but to link pay with performance, Adamowski said. "You have to have competitive-based pay. You can't keep people if your pay is not competitive."
Matthew G. Springer, director of the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University, told me that the United States leads the world in spending on public education, yet student performance lags closer to the bottom.
"There may be better ways to improve educational opportunity for students," Springer said. "One of those is pay-for-performance."
It's not the only answer. It won't solve the problems of 5-year-olds showing up for school never having seen a book or teenage mothers and fathers without jobs.
But rewarding teachers who do good work should be a part of any plan to improve our schools.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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