Can Cold Hard Cash Woo Better Teachers?

In a broad effort to lift quality of teaching, Massachusetts looks to market incentives.

It sounds like a job offer straight from Wall Street: a $20,000 bonus for signing on the dotted line, full repayment of college loans, and more cash rewards later for achieving specific career goals.

Actually, it's part of a new Massachusetts proposal to lure stellar candidates into the teaching profession.

Besides the pocketbook measures, the plan encourages kids as young as 12 to aspire to a classroom of their own, not a corner office. It would create, too, a core of well-paid "master teachers" to mentor rookies.

The package puts Massachusetts at the forefront of a growing national effort to boost the quality of teaching by bringing greater respect - and cash rewards - to the profession. Yet it also raises questions about whether the noble but ascetic profession begun by the likes of Aristotle and Plato can thrive if people are drawn to it for profit, not by their own passion.

"You're going to attract people with dollar signs in their eyes," says a skeptical Shari Campbell, who just finished her first year of teaching in a Boston suburb.

In today's hot job market, however - where signing bonuses are increasingly common - money is a crucial inducement.

"People don't go into teaching to maximize their incomes, but they do have to pay their bills," says Richard Murnane, a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass.

Indeed, college students are racking up more debt than ever - and want to be sure they can get out from under it. Even with a $20,000 bonus, which would be spread out over the first few years of a teacher's career, debt repayment could take a long time: The average starting salary for Massachusetts teachers is $26,000, compared with at least $35,000 for most other fields.

Ms. Campbell, for instance, says she'll be paying off loans from undergraduate and master's degrees for 10 to 15 years. "I'm up to my eyebrows in it," she says.

Debt-ridden teachers would also be helped by the planned expansion of the state's college-loan repayment program. Yet it would likely help only a handful of top-flight candidates.

Meanwhile, attracting good teachers has become harder because women and minorities - the traditional pool of new teachers - now have many other career options. In the late 1960s, for instance, 3 in 5 college-educated black women became teachers. Now fewer than 1 in 4 do.

As a result, states and cities are starting to offer incentives. Dallas enticed 200 new teachers this spring with $1,500 bonuses. Baltimore offers $5,000 toward a house.

Indeed, many elements of the Massachusetts plan have been tried elsewhere. But the Bay State is the first to consider putting them all together to make a high-profile grab for quality teachers.

The proposal outlined this week by Acting Gov. Paul Cellucci (R) and top lawmakers could cost as much as $10 million. The state would use some of the $1 billion in surplus revenues this year to pay for it. While the plan has strong backing, it may be months before a final version is passed.

More than trying to attract top-quality teachers, the plan aims to add benefits before and after people become teachers. It would set up programs such as the Future Teachers of America Clubs to excite middle- and high-schoolers about teaching. It would also reward current teachers who pass the rigorous certification program of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a group in Southfield, Mich. Teachers who pass could join a corps of higher-paid "masters" who train "apprentice teachers."

It's this kind of investment that backers say is needed to attract and keep good teachers.

"There isn't really a career ladder in most of our school systems," says Paul Reville, director of the Pew Forum at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. "You either promote good people into administration - and lose them as teachers - or they just accumulate time."

To be sure, there are benefits to teaching (such as June, July, and August). And there's the satisfaction of challenging children and seeing them progress.

BUT for some current teachers, that's the trouble with incentives like the $20,000 bonus. "You're not attracting teachers who necessarily enjoy being with kids," says veteran Joe Galeota, a popular eighth-grade math teacher at Thompson Middle School in Boston.

He and other teachers would rather see new funds go toward things such as professional-development classes teachers must take - yet have to pay for themselves. Or to basic supplies, or to salaries of teachers who've proved themselves.

Yet plan supporters say veteran teachers typically like their jobs enough that they don't pine for more money. It's the first-timers, who often have a tough time adjusting, who need incentives to stay on.

Campbell, the new teacher, acknowledges that the $20,000 bonus sounds pretty good: "If it were me, I'd say, 'Sure, give it to me.' But I just think it could be better spent."

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