In most school districts, being named Outstanding Teacher would have garnered Sarah Staebell a pretty plaque to put on her wall. But she works in Douglas County, near Denver, where things are done a bit differently. For Ms. Staebell and her colleagues, special awards come with a special benefit - cash.
In honor of her efforts at a local elementary school, Staebell has gotten a $1,250 "Outstanding Teacher" bonus several times. "My favorite thing I ever got in acknowledgment of my work was a note that my math class wrote to me.... But the reality is that you need to make more money, and to receive a stipend helps out in more ways than just making you feel good," Ms. Staebell says in a phone interview.
Staebell can also earn more money by meeting goals, training other teachers, and helping to boost her school's performance.
By contrast, in many school districts in the United States teachers are paid according to their level of experience and education, with little consideration for how they do their jobs.
But now it looks as if Staebell's experience will become more common. Districts across the country are experimenting with merit pay, and in the most closely watched case, Denver schools are poised to make major permanent changes to their salary structure. The plan, which voters take up this fall, already has support from the teachers union.
Governors in states such as California, Nevada, Minnesota, and Rhode Island have also begun pushing for merit pay in recent months.
As expectations for student achievement ratchet up, districts are looking for whatever ways they can to improve teaching as well.
"In American schools, we've known for a long time that we've graduated people who can't read ... [but] we're finally looking for some accountability," says Mel Fugate, assistant professor of management at Southern Methodist University.
The challenge, he says, is to design a system that fairly and accurately evaluates teachers. To many teachers union officials, the creation of such a system seems unlikely.
"It's a very subjective thing," says a skeptical Barbara Kerr, president of the California Teachers Association. "How do you [determine] that I'm a better teacher than my colleague?"
Since teachers gauge performance all the time through report cards, surely teachers can be evaluated too, counters Gaynor McCown, executive director of The Teaching Commission, a bipartisan group in New York that works toward improving the quality of instruction. She wrote in a commentary last year: "If recognition of this sort is so troubling, divisive, and unfair, why do we continue to give grades to students? We give grades because they help us understand which areas need improvement and because they acknowledge superb effort and ability."
But merit-pay proponents may not have history on their side, Ms. McCown and others say. With some exceptions, merit-pay systems often crumble under teacher resistance or lack of funding. And then there's tradition: Schools have paid teachers the same way for about a century.
In the country's early days, educators had no job security and were paid at different levels, with women and all elementary school teachers getting less. "Beginning in the late 19th century, there were efforts to develop a single salary schedule," says Larry Cuban, an education historian and professor emeritus at Stanford University. "It was a major reform in helping teachers become a profession and providing some stability."
The pay reform widened the gulf between teachers and private-sector employees who get raises when their supervisors decide to grant them. Meanwhile, teachers became suspicious of merit bonuses because "the judgment of their supervisor, usually the principal of the school, is suspect in their minds," Mr. Cuban says.
In contrast to many other kinds of workers, teachers typically make more money simply by staying on the job: Their salary levels are linked to their years of service. Extra education - a master's degree, for example - can boost their salaries even more. On top of that, union contracts often include automatic cost-of-living raises.
In Colorado, Staebell's employer found a way to reward teachers without alienating them, by creating a program that provides incentives but not punishments. Since 1993, the fast-growing Douglas County School District has given bonuses based on a variety of factors, from an entire school's academic performance to an individual teacher's willingness to take on extra duties and train colleagues. A group of art teachers, for instance, can get together, create goals for themselves, and make more money in the process. "Outstanding Teachers" such as Staebell can get bonuses by creating portfolios that demonstrate their performance and their students' growth.
Thanks to the bonuses, district teachers - who make an average salary of $48,000 - can boost their paychecks by several thousand dollars a year. "This is encouraging people to go over the top, above and beyond," says Pat McGraw, a physics teacher and president of the local teachers' union.
Nearby in Denver, voters will soon decide whether to implement a more radical performance-pay program. New teachers would be paid based on principal evaluations, student achievement, and willingness to work at unpopular schools; current teachers would be able to stick to the old pay system or join the new one.
While teachers' unions have opposed merit pay elsewhere and are especially worried about linking pay to student performance, the Denver proposal managed to attract support from a majority of teachers - 59 percent of 2,700 who voted.
The key to creating a popular program, says Denver teachers' union president Becky Wissink, is inviting educators into the process. The proposed system wasn't "imposed," she says, and that made all the difference.