Gov. Nathan Deal all in on merit pay for teachers


Gov. Nathan Deal said he’s ready to ask lawmakers to make a “significant” step toward tying the teachers’ pay to their performance in the classroom, setting up a showdown with educators’ groups who have long opposed the policy.

But it’s unclear how much political capital he’s willing to put on the line for the controversial proposal. Equally unclear is whether lawmakers - all of whom face re-election next year - will be willing to sign on for the battle, knowing full well that they will get blow-back from teachers.

Georgia policymakers have flirted for decades with the of idea of merit pay for teachers, and more than two dozen school districts have received money from the state’s $400 million federal Race to the Top grant that rewards teachers on their performance.

More comprehensive changes have been stalled by critics who question, among other aspects, how teachers will be evaluated and how any pay increases would be funded.

Deal, though, indicated he’s willing to pick a fight with teachers groups. He said he plans to endorse merit pay as part of a broader education overhaul from a reform commission he tapped to recommend changes to the way Georgia divvies up money between 180 school districts.

“We’re not going to go to a fully merit-based pay system, but I do think there is a portion of the teachers’ pay that should go to how good a teacher they are,” Deal said after a recent policy conference. “Now, getting the education community to support that is sometimes difficult.”

The governor’s Education Reform Commission made merit pay one of its top recommendations despite numerous meetings with teachers who didn’t mention it as a priority. It led teachers’ advocates to openly criticize the commission’s work last month, saying the group failed to address more pressing issues such as recruitment and retention of educators.

School districts in Georgia generally pay teachers based on how long they’ve been teaching and degrees they’ve earned. Their salaries rise according to a fixed schedule that specifies minimum pay, though some districts pay above that.

That forces some teachers looking for bigger pay bumps to move into administrative roles, Deal said. Top administrators earn more than most teachers.

The challenge is coming up with a metric that satisfies skeptical educators groups and policymakers. Teachers advocates often question the reliability and rigor of, say, using test scores or other factors to determine a teacher’s salary.

“We want it to be an objective assessment,” said Deal. “Much of it has to, of course, be subjective. We think there’s a way to do it, and we’re going to try to move it along the road. We’re not going to get as far as perhaps some would like for us to go, but we think the first step is significant.”

A recent analysis by the Georgia Association of Educators, one of the state’s largest teacher groups, evaluated merit plans in other states. “There is little research evidence to support the notion that pay-for-performance incentives have a positive impact on student learning,” the report concluded.

Sid Chapman, president of GAE, said the commission Deal put together to give him guidance included no working teachers.

“The entire process has led to increased low morale among teachers and many are voicing to me that they want to retire as soon possible or leave the profession altogether,” he said. “Proposed changes such as those on teacher compensation and eliminating the state salary schedule will make the morale even worse.”

John Palmer, a Cobb County middle school band director and spokesman for the teacher protest group TRAGIC, said, the group opposes merit pay. “We are not opposed to it because we don’t want to be held responsible. We are opposed to it because they don’t have an effective way to determine how we are doing.”

Palmer said there are so many variables that go into good teaching that it would be hard to construct a model to use to decide who gets merit bonuses. Some teachers, like physical education teachers, might not be eligible. Some teachers work in schools that already have top test scores and are less likely to see big gains in the classroom.

“You can’t just put numbers in and put some statistical model together to tell you how a teacher should be paid,” he said.

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