Here is a teacher writing in favor of merit pay. This piece runs Monday on the AJC education page.
By Warren Buck
As a public school teacher, I’ve been encouraged by the spirited debate among Georgia educators and policy makers around performance compensation (or “merit pay”) for K-12 public school teachers. I am excited about the opportunity we have as teachers to re-energize our profession and find new and creative ways to drive student achievement.
What makes me hopeful is my own teaching experience. I taught in Gwinnett County public schools before becoming a founding teacher at KIPP STRIVE, an open-enrollment charter middle school in West Atlanta. While we don’t currently have merit pay at KIPP STRIVE, we try to foster a school culture that emphasizes accountability for parents, students, and teachers and also prepares young people for college and life. Everything we do is designed to maximize student learning and a culture of achievement through collaboration.
The benefits I’ve experienced from this strong teamwork ethos lead me to believe that teachers and school leaders can work together to develop an equitable performance-compensation system that rewards the excellent teaching going on in Georgia schools. With teachers leading the way, an effective pay-for-performance system could become another tool to raising student achievement. To accomplish this, we’ll have to pay attention to some key areas.
First, it’s fundamental that teachers need to be involved in the design of any pay-for-performance program, since we bring classroom experience on what great teaching looks like and how to implement it. In Denver, Colorado, the ProComp program was developed in partnership with Denver Classroom Teachers Association. This successful merit pay program has been effective in large part because it has been phased in over time and had the explicit support and buy-in from teachers.
Second, common sense also dictates that no single measure should determine whether a teacher receives merit pay. Effective pay-for-performance systems rely on multiple data points. Data is imperfect, true, and we should always work to improve student assessment tools. But data still gives us an important objective measure to evaluate how well students are progressing toward their learning goals.
A third and related area is the type of data we would use, since when evaluating teachers, we will want to measure not only how many students pass the end-of-year course exam, but how much progress students make in a given academic year. Cumulative student achievement data reflects not just one teacher’s work but the many other excellent teachers a student has had prior to entering their current classroom. Using “value-added” achievement data would take into account the learning in the classroom and allow for more precise and fair evaluation of the current teacher’s impact on a student.
Fourth, a merit pay system should take into account school-wide student achievement results, since teachers are part of a broader community. We should reward teachers if a school meets its own goals and objectives. This promotes a team-oriented, collegial environment, since all teachers stand to benefit if a school succeeds. I see this spirit at work every day at KIPP STRIVE and I can attest to its amazing impact on school culture and student learning.
Looking at other evaluation areas, no effective system would be complete without an observation and peer review component. A fair, evaluative and developmental system could show new or struggling teachers a path to improving their teaching skills. A recent survey indicates that 80% of Georgian educators support such a system. Personally, I have grown the most as a teacher from the feedback I receive from my teacher colleagues at KIPP STRIVE. By learning from my peers, I feel more invested in my goal of helping my students grow.
Finally, in terms of incentives, just as we should reward a high-performing school, we should also reward teachers who self-select into low-performing or otherwise hard-to-staff positions, like math and science. In Florida, for example, teachers are eligible for bonuses for teaching in high-needs areas.
There’s no question in my mind that all K-12 teachers in Georgia share the same goal: helping students reach their full potential. We can achieve this goal if we work with policy makers and elected officials to frame this debate, rather than letting others frame it for us. It’s my hope that teachers will take the lead in developing a merit pay system that elevates our profession and equips our students to succeed in the 21st century.