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TribBlog: Can Cash for Teachers Fix Poor Schools?

"Not even Jesus could save everybody," one teacher laments.

Texas is among the only states that have tried teacher merit pay systems for years — and has yet to prove they can work. Now, in Houston, where HISD has tried various merit pay systems over a decade, a new federal program is paying teachers $10,000 a year for two years — much more than previous Texas programs — to transfer to one of the city's lowest performing schools.

Of all the vexing questions surrounding teacher quality in impoverished schools, among the most difficult to answer is this: If districts can convince strong teachers from higher performing schools to transfer to the toughest urban campuses, will they be able to hack it? If so, then the question of what big cities must do to fix failing schools gets much simpler: Pay teachers whatever it takes. The community (read: taxpayers) either cares about the least of its citizens, or it doesn't. 

The federal Teacher Talent Initiative admirably seeks to answer this question in several urban districts nationwide, including Houston. (After more than a decade of education reporting, I suspect the solutions are far more complicated; but there's no question money helps.)

The Houston Chronicle has devoted reporter Ericka Mellon to follow two of these teachers at Fondren Middle School, and she's filed two fascinating installments, the latest on Sunday. (Read them here and here.) I'll be eager to see how the year turns out for them and their students; this kind of in-the-classroom narrative journalism that can sometimes be more enlightening than a whole database full of statistics. 

From Mellon's second piece, it appears the teachers have their hands full.

Contreras was pleased with the improvement she had seen in her students’ writing skills. Around Halloween, she had them write scary stories, and several impressed her with their creativity, plot development and foreshadowing.

But she still questions whether she can repeat the 90 percent passing rates she typically reaches on the TAKS.

“Not even Jesus could save everybody,” she said. “I am reaching some. It’s just hard. It can be disheartening at times.”

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