Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra is breaking ranks with school districts and going up against teacher associations to do what it takes to improve student learning in Houston Independent School District.

How and what teachers are paid has made it difficult for Houston ISD to recruit and retain good teachers. So Dr. Saavedra is introducing salary incentives that will make it possible for the best teachers, those whose students make exceptional academic progress, to earn an extra $3,000 annually. Within five years, he would like to increase this to $10,000 annually.

This is a bold move because teacher associations vehemently oppose salary supplements that are based on performance, although associations support supplementing teacher pay for other reasons. Over half of Texas’ school districts supplement teachers’ salaries today with hiring bonuses and extra pay for good attendance, seniority, and extra duties. It’s rewarding individuals for being great teachers that associations oppose.

Although teachers go on record time and again to support merit pay, teacher associations stand firmly opposed. Salary incentives, critics say, are no substitute for the across-the-board pay increase needed by all Houston ISD teachers – who, the groups argue, earn less than their counterparts throughout Harris County.

This argument is absolutely false. Truth is most teachers in Houston ISD are not earning less than their counterparts. Average salaries for Houston teachers not only surpass average salaries for teachers in Harris County, Houston teachers are also paid, on the average, more than 17 of the county’s 22 school districts.

Although most of Houston’s teachers are paid well, difficulty recruiting and retaining some teachers indicates that some are not paid enough. Houston’s targeted, instead of across-the-board, increases makes good sense. Highly able teachers who may be lured by larger salaries of private sector jobs should be paid more, as should teachers who are qualified for difficult-to-place classrooms, such as mathematics and science.

Despite the vigorous opposition of teacher groups, a small but growing number of school districts in Texas and other states have forged ahead with performance pay incentives for teachers. Unlike Houston’s new initiative, most provide incentives for campuses or groups, rely on performance as merely one of many criteria for incentive pay, and offer relatively small salary supplements.

Districts, such as Aldine (Texas) and Denver (Colorado), serve as models for successful teacher salary incentive programs that are partially based on performance. Here performance incentives have proven welcome with teachers, a useful tool for districts to recruit and retain good teachers, and a stimulus for gains in student achievement.

This success is unsurprising. Even though performance pay is rare in public schools, it is common in the private sector, and has proven effective in focusing employees on achieving new, higher goals. Performance incentives make the powerful statement that individual effort matters.

Until recently, the importance of individual efforts – the impact that one teacher wields over student learning – has gone unrecognized in public schools. New research shows that a student can acquire a whole year of extra academic growth on top of expected yearly gains with a highly effective teacher. In just three consecutive years, students matched with strong teachers demonstrate their ability to close the achievement gap associated with income, race, and ethnicity!

Sadly too few students in Texas public schools are making academic gains now known possible with highly effective teachers. Although driven to help students succeed, few teachers recognize and help students achieve their full potential. This is understandable given our low expectations for students – passing standards for state assessments rank at the bottom of the nation – and for schools, standards for accreditation have never exceeded more than a 55 percent student passing rate for schools to be “acceptable.”

It is time for Texans to recognize the enormous potential of both students and teachers. For the state legislature, this means overhauling teacher pay policies and education standards. For schools, this means employing every tool in their arsenal, including performance pay incentives, to improve teaching and learning. Adults and children alike will benefit when all of Texas public schools follows Houston’s lead and connects earning with learning.

Chris Patterson is the director of research at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit research institute based in Austin.