Merit pay for teachers is a hot topic these days, especially since it’s a crucial requirement if your state is trying to win any of the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” funds.
So far, Denver, CO, has been the city to implement the nation’s highest profile experiment in merit pay. In the Denver model, known as Pro-Comp, teachers can earn bonuses for teaching in hard-to-staff schools or subject areas, as well as for increasing student achievement. Standardized tests are one of the measures used in the evaluation of teachers.
And now, amazingly, as the New York Times reported yesterday, New York will join the ranks of those who are tying teacher evaluations to student test scores. Hard to believe, after the unions have opposed such a move so fiercely for years.
How will this system work? If the State Legislature approves the agreement reached between the State Education Department and New York’s teachers’ unions, it will mean that teachers are no longer rated simply satisfactory or unsatisfactory. Instead, annual evaluations will rate teachers as highly effective, effective, developing, and ineffective. (Sort of similar to the ratings their students receive on those standardized tests.)
To earn their rating, teachers will be measured on a 100-point scale, with just 20 percent based on how much their students improve on standardized tests. Another 20 percent will be based on local tests, to be developed by each school system, and the remainder of the evaluation points will come from observations by principals and other measures. If rated ineffective for two consecutive years (it’s unclear what number of points equals ineffective), they would face firing.
There are a couple of interesting points to note here: New York did not win one of the coveted Race to the Top award on the first try, but if the State Legislature approves this legislation within ten days, New York will be in a better position to apply by June 1, the second deadline. It’s also the case that not all teachers instruct in areas that are tested by state exams, so the evaluation program would have to work differently for them.
How did this agreement make it past the teachers’ unions? It was a compromise. Richard Iannuzzi, the president of the state union, explained, “The concept of this has never been unacceptable. But doing it unilaterally or making evaluations solely dependent on students’ test scores were not options.” It’s also important that those evaluation points are based on how much students improve, rather than on attainment of a “one-size-fits-all” score.
There is no question that the current tenure system for teachers has to be modified; the challenge lies in finding a system that is fair, rigorous, and effective. Around the country, things are moving. This fall, the Harrison School District Two, in Colorado, will replace the traditional salary system with a pay system based entirely on observations of teacher practice and student-achievement results. In Louisiana, the House of Representatives agreed on Monday to revise public school teacher evaluations so that teachers would be partially graded on student test scores. The idea would be to tie at least half of a teacher’s evaluation to how much improvement students make on accountability tests.
It is good that progress is being made on revamping the teacher tenure system, but merit pay alone is not the answer. Students and teachers both need multiple measures of evaluation, and a great deal of work remains to be done on those standardized tests, to bring them up to par. There are plenty of ways to develop excellent supervision and assessment models for our schools and teachers without relying on merit pay. And let’s not lose sight of the goal of encouraging a love of learning and maintaining a climate of excitement in the classroom, the reasons most of us went into teaching in the first place.
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