I devoted the entire Monday education page that I put together for the AJC Opinon section to merit pay. Here is a guest column by a UGA researcher that runs Monday in the print edition, Enjoy
By Eric A. Houck
The governor’s proposal on teacher compensation is back on the table for consideration as an amendment to Senate Bill 521. The proposal would alter teacher evaluation policies without any direct implications for compensation. Nevertheless, this proposal has rightly generated a great deal of discussion.
Editorials, blog posts and columns have all discussed the merits and flaws of moving teacher compensation to a plan that is based on classroom observation, parental feedback, and student learning as measured by growth on standardized assessments.
While many may be happy to see the proposal fail — as a recent merit pay plan did in Florida — few have asked questions about the current manner in which teachers are compensated. What is the state’s motivation to move away from a step-based system? What is wrong with the status quo?
Now, teachers receive pay increases for every additional year of teaching experience and advanced degrees. (Some teachers in high needs areas receive bonuses, and master’s degrees in educational leadership are no longer valid for pay increases for classroom teachers.)
Overall, this salary structure rewards teachers for persistence and for actions they take to improve themselves professionally via graduate degrees. While there are measurable benefits to having a more experienced teacher — especially in the early years of a teacher’s career — there is little research to indicate that other elements of the current system actually improve student performance as measured on standardized assessments.
Yet, the most pernicious effect of the current salary structure is that it underfunds Georgia’s lowest-performing schools. Research finds that, overall, teachers with higher degrees and more experience migrate to schools with fewer high-needs students. District-level transfer policies allow this to happen.
The effect is that the state pays for more expensive teachers in schools with fewer needs and for less-experienced, less-credentialed teachers in schools with higher needs. If these teachers are reduced to mere dollar figures, the gap within a district can sometimes run to over $100,000 between schools.
Preliminary analysis of state data indicates that teachers in schools that do not make Adequate Yearly Progress receive, on average, $900 less in salary money per teacher than schools that do make AYP. While $900 is less than a traditional step on the current salary schedule, this total amount of state spending can vary a great deal when aggregated to all the teachers in a school. This figure is calculated using just the standard state salary figures, and does not include additional local salary supplements provided by some districts.
Georgia has a salary structure that rewards teachers for qualities that are far from certain to impact student achievement and that systematically supports the chronic underfunding of our most-challenged schools.
One way to address this inequity would be to change how teachers are evaluated and, eventually, compensated. Of these three elements proposed in the legislation, the idea of using student performance is the most controversial.
Student performance has been measured by standardized assessments with teachers being judged relative to the percentage of students attaining a given level of proficiency in a given year.
This system is blatantly unfair and serves only to reward those teachers who draw the lucky card of already high-performing students, which researchers believe may be one reason teachers migrate to higher-performing schools in the first place.
Recent work with standardized assessments has allowed educators to examine student growth in performance within a school year, and have been able to provide feedback to teachers in a manner that is much more authentic than simple percentages — and rewards teachers for what students learn, not the level at which they perform. Shifting the state’s emphasis to learning instead of performance level may help to bring more high-quality educators back into high-needs schools, where their work can be recognized — and, perhaps, rewarded.
Such a move demands that the state invest in better tests. Current tests across the nation — Georgia’s included — place too much emphasis on student recall and too little emphasis on application of knowledge. Investing in assessments that ask students to demonstrate mastery and application of material would perhaps reassure educators that their work consists of much more than test prep.
Models of this system exist at the national and international levels, and the U.S. Department of Education has made funds available to support the development of the next generation of performance assessments.
Nationally, over 80 percent of all money spent in education goes to the salaries and benefits of teachers and administrators.
Since the quality of a child’s teacher is of critical importance to that child’s learning, teacher salary and benefit policies are the single biggest lever educators and policymakers have to ensure that all students receive high-quality instruction and equitable school funding.
While it seems unlikely that pay-for-performance is in the near future for Georgia’s teachers, reforming the broken aspects of teacher compensation in Georgia must remain a policy priority.
Eric A. Houck is an assistant professor in the University of Georgia College of Education’s department of lifelong education, leadership and policy.