WASHINGTON -- When English teacher Trixi Bicknell took a job at a Fairfax County, Va., magnet high school for science and technology, she got a 7 percent bonus, an extra $4,000 a year. She didn't go there for the money, but all the school's teachers got the salary bump, and there was no point in giving it back.
When Rheutelia Sizer went to work at a Washington elementary, she received no salary bonus. Her skills as a reading teacher made a great difference to her students, who needed more attention than the budding young scientists out in Fairfax, but no one thought to reflect that in her pay.
That is the way it usually works in American schools. The teachers instructing the most disadvantaged students get modest wages. Those guiding well-prepared and often well-motivated suburban children enjoy higher salaries.
Teachers choose their profession because they like kids and think they can inspire them to learn. The mediocre wages are an annoyance and keep some people from considering the field. But those bitten by the teaching bug usually stick with it, well paid or not.
The two major presidential candidates have mostly ignored these salary problems as they squabble over how to fix our worst-performing schools. The argument is whether to give money to parents who want to transfer their children to private schools.
Republican candidate George W. Bush wants federal funds given to parents in the worst schools in the form of $1,500 vouchers. Private voucher systems in New York, Dayton, Ohio, and the District of Columbia give parents as much as $1,700 a year. Voucher ballot measures would provide $3,000 in Michigan and $4,000 in California.
Democratic candidate Al Gore wants to reform or close the worst public schools, but rejects vouchers as a dangerous drain on resources and parental support.
The debate has grown stale, with all the players reciting words memorized long ago. But there remains something in the voucher idea that a resourceful principal could use, with a slight twist and a willingness to start small.
Consider several hopeful developments: The continued public reverence for the ideal of teaching, the unions' acceptance of extra pay for special qualifications and new methods for measuring classroom performance.
Tennessee has been using a rating system devised by William L. Sanders that shows which teachers consistently improve their students' test scores and which do not. He is working with the Arlington, Va.-based National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to add something to the new certification process that has given nearly 5,000 teachers the educational equivalent of a CPA license. Some states are giving nationally certified teachers extra money. California Gov. Gray Davis wants to award them a one-time $10,000 bonus, and add $20,000 if they commit to at least four years in a low-performing school. Gore proposes a one-time $10,000 bonus for mid-career professionals switching to teaching.
But that is not nearly enough of an incentive. A principal trying to save a lousy school needs to offer an annual bonus of at least $20,000 to catch the eye of the best teachers. Where would she get that kind of money?
Give the parents a $2,000 check, then give them an extra choice. They can put their child in a private school (the clever principal would point out that the vouchers rarely pay the full tuition bill), or they can use it to pay a bonus that would draw a teacher of proven ability to their neighborhood school. If 10 families say yes, that is enough money for one high draft choice of a teacher; 20 vouchers would get you two, and so on.
Call the bonus recipients master teachers or voucher teachers. Once they show what they can do, other funding sources would likely materialize. Some private high schools put shiny plaques with the names of important donors on classroom doors. A $300,000 gift could support a $20,000 bonus indefinitely for the teacher assigned to the Throckmorton J. Moneybags Memorial Master Classroom at Public School 91.
A national certificate could be one qualification, but for that much money the principal should insist on proof, using the Sanders method, that the applicant had a three-year record of making students much better than she found them.
More bright and energetic people might then think of teaching. Good teachers don't do it for money, but some good prospects decide they can't do it because of the money. Use vouchers to draw them into the classroom and give children who need good teachers more of them than ever before.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.