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Georgia teachers already dealing with new tests and standards. Is merit pay next on state's agenda?

Given the higher standards and tougher tests introduced into Georgia schools, couldn't we spare teachers any more new initiatives for a while and let them teach?

If the governor has his way, teachers could confront a merit pay system that would attempt to quantify how their instruction enhanced student learning and pay them accordingly.

“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. “Now, getting the education community to support that is sometimes difficult.”

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.”

Georgia began talking in earnest about merit pay a few years ago. Several factors stopped the concept from moving forward, including opposition from teachers. The political support for performance pay has cooled a bit as research shows it's difficult to quantify teacher effectiveness based on student scores. Without a reliable way to judge the most effective teachers and tease out what a teacher brings to the student performance equation, it's hard to defend merit pay.

Value-added measures --- using student growth as measured by tests to analyze how much a teacher advanced the learning of each individual student ---  are still being debated as studies show a large proportion of teachers rated highly one year fall to the bottom the next.

Good teacher evaluation systems are complex. In Denver, teachers and administrators created a system that incorporates 10 weights to assess success, such as pursuing professional development, working in a high-needs school, receiving a glowing evaluation and raising test scores.

What does not work – and where Deal appears to be headed – is a top-down performance pay system developed without the input of teachers.

The governor already stands accused of excluding teachers from the table. He did not appoint any practicing classroom teachers to his 35-member Education Reform Commission. The commission had five subcommittees; funding, early childhood, move on when ready, educational options committee and teacher recruitment, retention and compensation.

As PAGE Director of Legislative Affairs Margaret Ciccarelli told the commission, "The commission missed an opportunity to include classroom teachers' experience, expertise and concerns. That critical voice would have been very helpful in policy proposals aimed at preparing students for the future and recruiting, retaining and compensating teachers ...Georgia is poised to double and triple down testing by continuing the rollout of high-stakes educator performance evaluations premised on student test scores. Now, the first priority recommendation from the teacher recruitment, retention and compensation committee, in coordination with the funding committee, is to raise the stakes even higher by mandating districts base new teacher pay on their performance."

A few years back, I talked to researcher Richard Ingersoll about this issue. Performance pay can’t work, he said, if we don't address the deprofessionalization of teaching, citing his own research that teachers report less of a role in decisions about textbooks, content and grading, all of which are foundational to what they do.

"The whole accountability regime tends to be a top-down thing that hasn't included teachers. It violates basic management principles --- you can't hold employees responsible for things that they don't have any control over or don't have the tools to do," he said. "If you give people autonomy and tools and don't hold them accountable, then you get corruption. If you hold them accountable and don't give them autonomy and tools, then you drive employees out --- the best ones first."


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.