If merit pay for public school teachers ever takes off in the US, the first successful launchpad will be Denver. After one start-up year under an incentive plan, the city's schools are marking early success – thanks in large part to the teachers union.
One triumph for this accountability tool is that hundreds of additional teachers have applied to work at the city's worst schools, drawn by new higher pay. And even though teachers already on the payroll didn't have to participate in the "ProComp" bonus pay program, nearly half have signed up. (Those hired since 2006 are automatically enrolled.)
The biggest test is yet to come: whether teacher rewards will lead to better student grades and higher test scores. The pilot program suggests they might. School officials are still working on how to tie Denver's state standardized test scores to potential bonuses of about 3 percent. The eyes of many educators nationwide are on Denver to see if it can overcome mistakes of other such schemes.
Unions worry merit pay might be applied arbitrarily and that greater competition between teachers would undermine collaboration. But Denver, which worked with the union to design its plan, has tamped down those concerns.
Plenty of money is being thrown at US schools to prove that merit pay can work. The US Department of Education recently spent nearly $100 million in support of such local programs, and private foundations are putting in money, too. States such as Minnesota and Florida are tiptoeing into the idea, although in Florida's case local teachers unions are thwarting the program. Austin is building on Denver's model, hoping, for instance, to reward teacher collaboration with one another as well as individual efforts.
Some unions have caught onto the idea that they can actually increase their members' income by backing the concept. That was the lure in Denver, and the American Federation of Teachers is helping some local unions negotiate new merit-pay plans. Unions can't help seeing that the rise of standardized tests under the 2001 No Child Left Behind law provides benchmarks for measuring teacher performance.
At the Aug. 19 debate of Democratic presidential candidates, responses were mixed about merit pay. Barack Obama, the strongest supporter, said he'd back the idea if teachers have "some buy-in" into how to measure individual success. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a potential independent candidate, received big applause last month at the mainly black National Urban League in pushing financial incentives for teachers at urban schools.
Such merit plans will succeed only if teachers are consulted in how to design them, although unions should not have veto power over them. Teachers' concerns about subjective judgments or the misuse of tests to evaluate progress need to be addressed. Schools also need to use such rewards to boost teacher-to-teacher mentoring and teacher interaction with parents.
The same fairness that teachers give to students in grading can apply equally to merit pay.
To work, these plans require taxpayers to provide extra revenue beyond the basic school budget. As students improve, taxpayers might then decide to raise teacher salaries in general, knowing such an investment will boost America's global competitiveness.