TEACHER INCENTIVE PAY has replaced block scheduling and wired classrooms as the newest rage in the state’s public schools. So what’s the plan?
Actually, there are two plans. The first is called the Governor’s Educator Excellence Awards Program, which Rick Perry created by executive order with much ballyhoo last November. It provided $10 million to schools that have a high percentage of economically disadvantaged or at-risk students and show improvement on standardized tests like the TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills). For teachers, the bonuses range from $3,000 to $10,000.

That sounds good for those campuses, but isn’t $10 million a drop in the bucket?
Yes, and you can thank your high school math teacher for being able to figure that out. During this spring’s special session, however, Perry signed a bill that expanded the program for the new school year to $100 million.

What about the second plan?
It sets aside $260 million for bonuses that would apply to teachers in all districts, regardless of the school’s wealth or student population. So teachers from El Paso to Highland Park have a shot at earning a bonus. That plan, however, won’t start until 2007.

Now, that’s a lot of money.
It’s the largest incentive-pay program in the nation, which means, for better or worse, that the rest of the country is going to start paying a good deal of attention to our schools, and it won’t be for our football teams.

Incentive pay sounds like an interesting way to improve the quality of teaching. Do we know if it works?
Well, that’s a problem. Even supporters of the plans admit that there aren’t any major studies that connect incentive pay to increased student achievement. But that hasn’t stopped a number of states from starting similar programs in recent years. And in January, Houston started its own $14.5 million bonus plan. Advocates argue that it will motivate teachers to work harder and be more inventive in the classroom. (It’s also a not-so-subtle way to punish teachers who phone it in. An earlier plan in Houston rewarded an entire school for its efforts, so outstanding teachers received the same award as terrible ones. That can’t be good for morale.)

But doesn’t that mean Texas is pouring a lot of money into an unproven program based on TAKS results?
That’s one way to put it. But it was probably only a matter of time. For years administrators have signed contracts laced with possible bonuses. Michael Hinojosa, for example, received incentives to raise test scores when he was hired in 2005 to become the superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District. And in July the Teacher Retirement System of Texas, which, at $97 billion, is one of the country’s largest pension funds, started a plan whereby its top investment managers could receive bonuses of up to 75 percent of their salary. Teachers everywhere hope that pays off when the time comes to take a permanent summer vacation.

Teachers must be thrilled at the chance to fatten their paychecks.
That’s where things get complicated. The plan certainly hopes to encourage talented teachers to stay in the classroom and help attract new ones, but teachers’ groups are all but united behind one idea: Incentive pay is merely window dressing until salaries across the board become more competitive.

So what’s the average salary for a public school teacher in Texas?
The preliminary figure for the 2005–2006 school year is $41,743 (final numbers won’t be available until the spring of 2007). According to the most recent National Education Association study, Texas ranked thirty-third in the nation in pay—which just happens to be the same spot we were at in 1999.

That’s nothing to brag about. Did we at least beat Mississippi? Yes, Mississippi came in forty-ninth. It is worth pointing out that after the special session, teachers received a net pay raise of $2,000. If you’re up on your long division, that equals $167 a month before taxes. Or not enough to pay the August electric bill.

So low pay is hurting the state’s ability to recruit and keep quality teachers?
Exactly. Low pay leads to high turnover, and major studies do show that the worst retention rates occur at the bottom end of the pay scale. Figures also show that the longer a teacher stays in the classroom, the higher the score students will have on the TAKS test, which is exactly what the state is trying to accomplish with incentive pay.

Is the TAKS the best way to measure achievement—and dole out bonuses?
We could cure cancer before experts come to an agreement on that. There’s no doubt that the incentive plan places even more emphasis on the TAKS. Some groups, including a lot of Republicans, love it because they believe the results are tangible and lead to accountability. But many educators argue that children don’t all learn the same way. Teachers can’t measure their progress at the end of the week like, say, a factory worker assembling a Buick can.

Speaking of the TAKS, didn’t a recent report suggest possible widespread cheating?
Yes, this year a consultant for the state found that a jump in scores on the 2005 test was so great that it could indicate cheating at more than six hundred Texas schools, including fourteen campuses that had won money under the governor’s original plan. As one of my favorite English teachers once said, quoting either William Shakespeare or William Shatner, “Irony can be pretty ironic sometimes.”