(CBS News) WASHINGTON - Parents and school boards across the country are debating whether to offer bonuses to teachers whose students do well on standardized tests. We look at how the bonus is working in the first city to try the idea.
Tenth-grader Lennard Long attends a public high school in Washington, D.C., where his mom Leticia used to be frustrated that there were no teacher evaluations.
"Parents would say they didn't think was a good teacher, but you didn't have an idea why. They weren't evaluated and there wasn't anything for us to determine why," she said.
Test scores here ranked among the worst in the nation, even though the district was spending more per pupil than most large U.S. cities -- almost $13,000 per student.
But in 2009, Washington D.C. became first in the nation to tie teacher salaries to student test scores under a program called "IMPACT." Teachers rated highly effective can get annual bonuses up to $25,000. If they stay at that achievement level for two straight years, they can also get a base salary increase of $20,000.
A highly effective teacher can earn $76,000 the first year and reach $131,000 in just nine years. Less effective teachers earn $51,000 to start, and are fired if they get poor evaluations for two straight years.
This year, 98 teachers were fired for poor performance. But Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington teachers union, says the system is unfair to teachers when many of their students have barriers to learning, such as poverty.
"The penalties are so immediate and so painful," he said, "not just immediate in terms of paycheck, but also immediate in terms of their careers."
In Washington, test scores are still among the lowest in the nation but improved slightly: up 2.8 percent in math, 5.3 percent in science, and 0.5 percent in reading.
Leticia Long attributes improvements in her son's school to the teacher evaluations.
"It seems like classes are more consistent, that they're all kind of operating towards the same kind of core curriculum standards, which creates I think better experience for the kids," she said.
This year, 988 teachers -- about a quarter of the total staff -- received a top rating, making them eligible for the highest bonus. That's about 300 more than last year.