Boston gave out more than $400,000 in bonuses to teachers and classroom aides this year at 12 academically struggling schools that showed progress, marking the first time the city - after intense resistance from the teachers union - has rewarded rank-and-file educators for boosting the performance of their students.
The city based bonus amounts on the overall performance of a school, rather than individual classrooms, rewarding most generously those staff members whose schools showed the strongest gains last year on MCAS tests and improvements in attendance or graduation rates.
The bonuses, issued in December, ranged from $275 to $750 for 704 teachers and $75 to $225 for 181 aides, according to information the Globe requested from the School Department. The bonus program involved only these 12 schools and was developed as part of a multiprong strategy to accelerate student achievement after the schools were declared underperforming by the state in 2010.
While the amounts are modest, Superintendent Carol R. Johnson hopes the experimental program is the first step toward creating a salary system that can reward teachers across the city for individual performance, a highly contentious issue with the teachers union. Boston has more than 5,000 teachers and aides across 125 schools.
The varying bonus amounts, covered by a federal school improvement grant, also offer insight into which of these 12 schools are gaining greater traction in their overhaul efforts.
The largest bonuses went to educators at five schools: Dearborn Middle School and Orchard Gardens K-8 School in Roxbury, Harbor Middle School and Trotter Elementary School in Dorchester, and Elihu Greenwood Leadership Academy, an elementary school in Hyde Park.
The smallest bonuses went to the South End’s Blackstone Elementary School.
“When we see a school on the right path, all of us share in the excitement,’’ Johnson said. “I find that people do appreciate being recognized for hard work.’’
Principals at the schools also received bonuses, ranging between $2,000 and $5,000.
Richard Stutman, the teachers union president, said the union supports basing bonuses on schoolwide performance but not on individual classrooms.
“Individual rewards set up an unnatural competitiveness in schools and leads to a potential divisiveness and a potential lack of sharing of best ideas among teachers,’’ said Stutman, who doubts the bonuses motivate any teachers. “Teachers work hard regardless of a reward.’’
Boston joins a small but growing number of school districts in Massachusetts and across the country trying out performance-based pay. Fueling much of the experiment in Massachusetts is a $27 million federal grant awarded to the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in September 2010 to create merit pay and other financial incentives to attract the best educators to low-performing schools and keep them there.
The state is in the midst of rolling out a major component of that effort: getting school districts to adopt new teacher-evaluation systems that make student achievement a central factor in judging teacher effectiveness. US Education Secretary Arne Duncan will visit with some school administrators attending a workshop on the evaluation system today at Boston University.
For decades, teacher salaries in Massachusetts and elsewhere have been based on experience and academic credentials, a pay structure that many school administrators, business leaders, and other critics fault for financially benefiting teachers who are merely sliding by to the detriment of their students.
Unions, however, defend the method as equitable and objective, preventing principals from cherry-picking favorite teachers for hefty bonuses or raises.
Nationally, research into whether teacher bonuses lift student achievement has been mixed, creating confusion for many school districts.
New York City, for instance, has flip-flopped on performance pay. Last summer, the city scrapped its three-year-old teacher bonus program, which dispensed more than $50 million during that period, after an independent study found the program had no effect on student achievement. Undeterred, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced last month the possibility of $20,000 raises to teachers who repeatedly receive strong performance reviews.
But an evaluation of a bonus program in Little Rock, Ark., in 2008 found that standardized test scores rose more rapidly in schools where teachers received awards, although when researchers surveyed teachers, their opinions were mixed on whether bonuses of as much as $11,000 motivated them more.
A problem with judging bonus programs is that many are too short-lived, said Gary Ritter, who holds an endowed chair in education policy at the University of Arkansas and supervised the Little Rock study. But Ritter said merit pay holds promise, drawing comparisons to athletes who tend to perform better in the final year of contracts.
“We need to be as creative as possible in drawing the best people to the neediest students,’’ Ritter said. “We know putting a good teacher in front of kids makes a difference.’’
But bonuses alone are not enough to accelerate student achievement, said William Guenther, president of Mass Insight Education, a Boston nonprofit organization.
“It has to be part of a strategy of pulling multiple levers at the same time,’’ Guenther said.
Mass Insight irked the Boston Teachers Union about three years ago when it gave teachers who taught certain college-level courses at the John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science privately financed bonuses of $100 for each of their students who earned high scores on Advanced Placement exams.
An arbitrator ruled that the bonuses violated the union contract because school officials failed to negotiate them with the union. Nevertheless, Mass Insight is still giving out the bonuses at the O’Bryant and about five other schools, Guenther said, as well as providing teacher training and student tutoring.
Johnson negotiated the taxpayer-financed bonus program for the low-achieving schools with the teachers union under a two-year-old state law that gives superintendents the ability to reopen contracts to make radical changes at underperforming schools. Details had to be resolved by an arbitrator.
“We want to make sure we can continue to look for ways to identify exemplary practice, reward that practice, and learn from that practice so we can replicate it,’’ Johnson said. “Our best teachers want to work next door to teachers who want to improve and work as hard as they can on the behalf of students.’’