Portland Public Schools approved a new labor contract last month after 21 months of negotiations with its teachers union.

While several key details of the 93-page contract changed, one important thing did not: How much Portland Public Schools pays its 3,000-plus teachers still depends on just two factors—neither of which have much, if anything, to do with the quality of their teaching.

First, a teacher who sticks around for many years accumulates annual cost-of-living increases and what are known as "steps." These are routine pay raises based on experience that top out after 12 years.

To move up the pay scale faster, teachers in Portland have a second option. They can take university or community college courses during the summer, weekends or evenings. The school district pays teachers' tuition for up to six credits a year. Then, after a teacher earns 15 credits, the district automatically gives him or her a $2,000 to $3,000 raise. This year, the maximum salary rose to $70,262 a year. It's only $1,500 more if a teacher has a Ph.D.

Teachers say there is much to like about this system beyond the obvious salary incentives. Teachers who take university-level courses not only become more well rounded and intellectually curious, they teach more effectively, they say.

"It's to the district's benefit," says Vickie Chamberlain, executive director at the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission, the statewide licensing agency for Oregon's 35,000 K-12 public schoolteachers.

Not everyone agrees.

WW examined more than a year's worth of Portland Public Schools records and found that plenty of the classes teachers take to get credit (and therefore raises) are what undergraduate students might unabashedly call "Basket Weaving 101."

While examples of serious and appropriate courses abound among the hundreds of classes Portland teachers took in the past two years, plenty of classes appear to be either little more than ready sources of course credits or, less often, opportunities for teachers to pursue their own interests.

To different degrees, these include walking tours of McMinnville, Pendleton and Tillamook; trips on Portland's MAX lines to see art installations; yoga workshops; the history of quilting; personal finance classes; Alaskan cruises; and, in one instance, a couples' therapy course. Increasingly, teachers turn to online courses to earn their credits, even in summer and even though the statewide teachers union has opposed online education for kids.

Representatives of the Oregon School Boards Association and Stand for Children, two statewide education advocacy groups, share doubts about the salary incentives. To the extent districts pay for the classes and then the higher salaries for teachers, the system delivers a double hit to schools with increasingly limited dollars.

"You stack some of those puppies up and it gives you long-term money," says Lisa Freiley, employment services director for the school boards association. "I'm just not sure it gives us much bang for the buck."

Mary Beth Van Cleave, a retired Portland principal who works with Stand for Children, says her experience shows not all teachers use the opportunities for advancement as wisely as some of their colleagues. "It would be a better system if there were more controls, and if principals had an ability to promote the kind of professional growth that makes sense," she says.

All together, these courses cost Portland Public Schools $520,000 to $700,000 a year in tuition. But the true cost to the district comes in the form of higher salaries for teachers. Already, close to 40 percent of Portland Public Schools' 3,000-plus teachers have hit the highest column of the pay scale, thanks to additional education.

The difference in annual pay for a teacher with a master's degree and another teacher with a master's plus 45 additional credits is about $8,500.

There's no doubt some teachers deserve that raise. And while the total amount of money may not be great—at least not compared with the district's annual $445 million general fund budget—there is something bigger at play: accountability. Or, rather, the lack of it.

Portland Public Schools' rules on tuition reimbursement are very liberal. The district doesn't require that teachers' university classes relate directly to their responsibilities, only that they pertain generally to K-12 education. As long as an accredited university endorses the class, principals and administrators typically do not reject it. Only really egregious examples—like courses on deck building or estate planning—have failed to receive Portland Public Schools' rubber stamp in recent months.

Freiley says rooting out bad classes has become a game of Whac-A-Mole. "You think you've got all your bases covered and then someone finds another loophole," she says.

Across Oregon, most school districts—including those in Beaverton, Lake Oswego and east Multnomah County—offer tuition reimbursement of up to around $2,000 per teacher per year.

Locally, Portland State University provides a wide variety of courses to K-12 teachers, although PSU often acts more like a broker in class credits than an institution of higher learning. In many cases, the university works with outside companies. In all cases, the university says it vets its courses rigorously.

A West Linn group called The Innovative Northwest Teacher offers a host of online classes to teachers through PSU.

One class called "Teacher Time-Management Strategies" includes such homework as color-coding files, creating an emergency folder of instructions for a substitute in case of illness, and cleaning out cabinets.

Undoubtedly this is good for teachers, who have far more demands on them today than time allows. But why should a teacher get university credit and a raise for performing what most people would consider work duty?

Erika Schneider, a teacher at Clarendon-Portsmouth K-8 School, says online classes with a practical bent can quickly improve teaching and learning, perhaps more so than some theory classes. She's taken several of the West Linn group's classes.

"A lot of times in education classes there's a really big focus on theory and not as much focus on practice," Schneider says. "As a teacher, I am really action-oriented. I want to talk long enough to find a solution, and then I want to put it in motion. I just love that after the TINT classes, I can immediately go and it affects my practice right away."

In other cases, the public pays teachers to enroll in classes that sometimes appear to be more about personal enrichment than student achievement.

Danelle Chapman, a guidance counselor at Lane Middle School, recently took a three-credit course at PSU on "couples therapy." The district paid $958 for the class.

"The basic question this course asks and addresses is: What is the basic purpose and work of marriage?" the course syllabus reads.

Asked how her couples' therapy course related to middle school, Chapman answered frankly. "It doesn't. It is a completely separate side of work that I'm working on," she said. "It has nothing to do with the schools."

So why did the district pay for the class? "I need to ask my principal if it's OK that I speak with you," she said.

Minutes later, Chapman called back to say she couldn't talk. Pressed to explain, she hung up.

George Bisorca, an algebra and geometry teacher at Jefferson High, recently took "Personal Economics for Teachers" online through the University of San Diego for the relatively inexpensive price of $65. He says the coursework included learning about credit scores and similar topics. And although the class certainly relates to math, Bisorca says he enrolled to further his own interests. "I took that class initially for myself," he says, noting it could one day help him craft an elective.

Occasionally, a teacher's personal interests dovetail with his or her lessons. Carol Davidson, a quilter, studied the history of quilting last summer and got one credit from PSU. She's still moving up the pay scale. "I've used quilts in my classes for years," says Davidson, a second-grade teacher at Alameda Elementary. "It's great for geometry…. Quilt squares easily adapt to the curriculum."

Other classes raise eyebrows despite teachers' insistence on their value in the classroom. A couple named Jim and Lynea Gillen, educators and yoga instructors, offer teachers PSU credits for their "integrated approach to wellness" workshops that focus on yoga as a classroom-management tool. Jim Gillen says his courses help teachers create relaxing environments while also incorporating exercise into their classrooms.

Those workshops sometimes take place at the Still Meadow Retreat in Damascus. Guidance counselors, who fall under the same union contract as teachers in Portland, are among those who have recently taken the Gillens' yoga classes.

Joshua Zeller and Ashley Collins, teachers from two different schools, took the yoga classes and then started teaching yoga techniques at their schools, Richmond Elementary and the Creative Science School. "I can see why people might judge it," Zeller, now a teacher on special assignment, acknowledged. "But they would be wrong."

Collins, who teaches yoga to all 310 students at her school on a rotating basis, also defends the program. "Parents were looking for a nontraditional PE class," she says. She didn't need the credits.

But Portland Public Schools doesn't check on teachers to make sure they're using the yoga content in their courses.

Byrdene Schneider, an English teacher at Roosevelt High School's POWER Academy, took a five-day cruise from Washington to Alaska in 2008. She wrote a two-page paper about the experience and earned five university credits. The district picked up the $415 bill for tuition.

Schneider didn't need the credits since she's already at the top of the pay scale, but similar ventures got her there, she says.

For every questionable trip, there are clear-cut examples of teachers using the tuition-reimbursement money wisely. Jennifer Sirotek, a math teacher at Lane Middle School, works with Latino students and families in Lane's outer Southeast Portland neighborhood. And this school year, Lane's principal wanted to offer a Spanish-language elective. A Spanish major in college, Sirotek wanted to brush up on her Spanish before launching into a new class. So she spent two weeks in an immersion program in Guatemala, living with a Guatemalan family and meeting with a tutor daily for four to five hours of Spanish instruction. Sirotek estimates she spent several thousand dollars of her own money on the trip. PPS paid just $435.

"This was the first year we offered Spanish, so I wanted to boost up," says Sirotek.

If she had wanted only credits, she could have stayed closer to home.

Every year in Oregon, students in certain grades take statewide writing assessments. Teachers who agree to grade the standardized tests earn an hourly wage of about $19.25—and, when the school district pays a fee, they also get credit from Western Oregon University.

Kara Marx, a fifth-grade teacher at Ainsworth Elementary, graded the tests last spring. For $50 from PPS, she got one credit and, presumably, a paycheck. Marx didn't return phone calls. But she stood to gain even more; teachers who write papers about the experience get two more credits from WOU.

Across the country, teacher quality and new models for pay have taken on increased importance with President Obama last week unveiling his proposed changes to No Child Left Behind. Yet locally, School Board members express little concern about the Portland system of giving pay raises to teachers after subsidizing their classes.

Board member Martín González, for example, has repeatedly agitated for improved classroom instruction. But he balks at criticizing the way the school district uses its limited professional development money for tuition reimbursement. "I'm not here to second-guess teachers in regards to what they need," he says.

Two board members admitted they knew very little about the details of Portland's compensation model. Bobbie Regan, who's been on the board since 2003, said the topic hadn't come to her attention before, as did Ruth Adkins, who's served since 2007. "It's an interesting question," Regan says.

Board member Pam Knowles says she sees some value in the current system. "I think we need teachers who are well rounded," she says.

John Tapogna, president of the Portland research group ECONorthwest, has studied teacher development for the education nonprofit Chalkboard Project. He holds a different point of view. Successful professional development for teachers, he says, should combine high-level study of specific content like math, instruction on how to translate the subject matter and follow-up in the classroom to see how the teacher is doing.

By and large, that's not the world Portland Public Schools teachers inhabit, but that could change. "If somebody is going to take something that does not at first appear to look like it's directly pertinent to instruction, then the question ought to be asked," says Hank Harris, PPS's human resources director. "I think those are fair questions to ask. It's taxpayer money."

How My Trip On Tri Met Could Have Earned Me Grad School Credit

Antioch University in Seattle jumps to the top of the list of popular providers of university credit among Portland teachers.

Despite its location in Washington, the school offers numerous classes for teachers in Oregon through what it calls the "Heritage Institute."

On paper, the institute's classes look like little more than walking tours, with names like "Hidden Hillsboro," "Tillamook's Educational Treasures" and "Historic Pendleton." Even Chamberlain, of the teacher standards agency, admits, "I could see why people could see that's a stretch."

On a recent Saturday morning, I joined one of Antioch's classes on a tour of the sites along TriMet's new Clackamas Green Line. An affable man in a bright yellow fleece pullover and Trail Blazers cap named Peter Chausse led our one-credit, nine-hour class. (I offered to pay the $120 class fee, but after I told Chausse I didn't need the credit, he insisted I pay only $5 for the class handouts.)

Chausse told me he used to teach primary school full time in Gresham until, he explained, he started having trouble managing his students' behavior. Chausse left full-time teaching in 1995.

Three others joined Chausse's class, including a teacher from Portland Public Schools and another from David Douglas School District, both of whom had taken other courses from Chausse.

One of our first activities took us to a new parking lot next to the MAX line. There, Chausse discussed public transportation and urban infrastructure, the idea being that these two topics could enliven classroom lessons or field trips.

The parking lot was empty that early Saturday morning, and Chausse encouraged us to think of ways we could get kids to count the empty spaces. Pausing for a moment to look at a sculpture of a ginkgo leaf, we then looked at a stormwater drain that rose higher than the ground around it and talked about how rainwater would soak into the earth before flowing into the drain.

Our walk next took us to a skybridge crossing Interstate 205, where we paused to count the cars passing underneath. We learned northbound traffic was slightly higher than southbound traffic. And Chausse, who carried a tool to measure decibel levels, showed us that a motorcycle is, surprisingly, louder than an 18-wheel truck.

The day carried on in similar fashion with stops at most every Green Line station to look at sculptures. We walked through Lents Park, and Chausse told us about exercises to get kids to write essays. He said taking kids on a similar walk and asking them to record what they see, hear and smell would give even obstinate students something to tackle. After lunch at the Clackamas Town Center, we headed to downtown Portland for more opportunities to look at TriMet's art.

Chausse said he leads dozens of classes a year for perhaps hundreds of teachers and he's never given them a failing grade, not even if they show up late or want to leave early. On hot days or rainy days the classes sometimes end early. When some of Chausse's students spend much of the day sending text messages, he doesn't hold it against them. For homework, teachers are required to write about lessons from the trip they can incorporate into their classrooms.

It's not a requirement that teachers do this exploring with a guide; materials from the Heritage Institute are available to teachers who want to take self-guided tours. And they still receive credit.

—Beth Slovic

Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Peter Chausse as a former secondary school teacher. He used to be a full-time primary school teacher. The story also incorrectly reported the professional development requirements for teachers to maintain their Oregon licenses. Oregon requires that veteran teachers take 25 hours of professional development for every three to five years of their license renewal.WW regrets the error.