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Can't Ignore Merit Pay For Teachers

They Also Need Classroom Support, More Instruction To Get Students To Improve

Rick Green

October 01, 2010

A major study discredits an idea that seems very basic to most of us working stiffs.

You work hard, do a good job and you might be rewarded.

But the research out of Vanderbilt University suggests that in education, the formula might not be as simple as paying teachers a cash bonus when students score higher on tests.

Significantly, the Tennessee teachers weren't offered extra training or other support to go along with the money. Still, the cash incentive was substantial as much as $15,000.

"If teachers know they will be rewarded for an increase in their students' test scores, will test scores go up? We found that the answer to that question is no,'' said Mathew Springer, executive director of the National Center on Performance Incentives, when his study was released last month.

Teacher unions have jumped all over this study as evidence why we should stick with the current system, which hands out guaranteed annual raises to everyone, regardless of performance.

Anyone who cares about children and public schools should pay close attention to the Vanderbilt study. Which is why it's important to look deeper.

"We know the existing [teacher] compensation system in the United States is broken. Sixty to 80 percent of a district's operational expenses go to teachers. But what we are paying teachers for has no systematic relationship to our outcome of interest, and that's student achievement," Springer said.

"Would you invest in a firm that was spending 80 percent of its resources on something that had nothing do with its output? Probably not."

Yet, with few exceptions that's what we do in public education. It's what President Barack Obama and some education reformers think we ought to change.

There are many factors behind a good teacher. Classroom support and more instruction for teachers are essential. Rewarding who is doing the best job should also be a part of this formula.

"It is all but incomprehensible to suggest that you shouldn't look at student success as a component of judging how well teachers are performing,'' said Cam Vautour, a former Rocky Hill school superintendent who now leads the state's most significant effort to tie teacher compensation to student achievement.

"If you are consistent year after year having students in your classroom who are not progressing, then that has to change,'' Vautour said. "It is a false argument to say you can't use student performance. People who are careful thinkers are saying it is an aspect of the total picture."

Vautour 's program, Project Opening Doors, is a privately funded national initiative that trains and supports teachers working with students who take AP classes in public high schools. When students excel, the teachers are rewarded with bonuses of up to $3,000. Combined with additional support for teachers, pay-for-performance can work.

"In our 19 schools we showed a 38.1 increase in passing the math, science and English AP exams. The state only showed a 12.6 pecent increase. It's a model that has as a component to it incentives for teachers. We are getting the results. "

The Connecticut Education Association, which argues that "merit pay simply doesn't work" has fought Project Opening Doors from its inception. A complaint is currently pending before the state Board of Labor Relations.

The good news is that interest in rewarding teachers who excel is growing, despite union opposition, particularly when it is tied to more training and ongoing support for improved classroom instruction.

New Haven's much-acclaimed new teacher contract is a good example. Instead of forcing pay-for-performance on teachers, administrators and teachers will work out a plan that both union and management can agree with.

Nobody is arguing that a teacher's paycheck should hang solely on the number of students who pass the Connecticut Mastery Test. But to support and nurture the best teachers and encourage talented college graduates to join the profession we can no longer ignore hard work.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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