Many pro-reform education experts, including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, will tell you that one of the most important factors in a child's education is the quality of the teacher—and the way to retain the best teachers is to pay them more. But states and teachers unions nationwide are having trouble agreeing on how their salaries should be determined.
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Teachers unions are opposed to many reformers' wishes to abolish tenure and to award bonuses based on students' achievement. A 2008 survey of members of the American Federation of Teachers found that awarding bonuses to teachers whose students perform well on standardized tests was the least-supported reason for awarding additional compensation, with just 21 percent of teachers showing support. More than 80 percent of poll respondents agreed that teachers who attained an advanced degree or who took on additional responsibilities should be paid more.
But despite teachers' wishes and a Harvard University study that found a 2007 merit pay program in New York City didn't improve student achievement, states are pushing forward with plans that would award bonuses to the highest performing teachers. Last week, New York suspended funding to 10 districts which couldn't agree with local teachers unions on educator evaluation system guidelines. Meanwhile, in New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie hopes to abolish teacher tenure in the state.
State governors will have plenty of precedents. In late December, the National Governors Association (NGA), a group that advises America's governors on policy decisions, released its recommendations for states that want to pay teachers for their performance. The recommendations are based on the experiences of six states—Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Rhode Island, and Tennessee—that tried to change teacher pay structures.
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Some states in the study were more successful in implementing reform than others. Florida ended teacher tenure in 2011 and began to roll out a plan to pay teacher bonuses based on their students' performance, while Tennessee and Rhode Island are still working on legislation. Based on the NGA brief, these are recommendations for reform-minded states to keep in mind during 2012:
• Create teacher evaluation systems: According to the NGA, the first step toward merit pay is creating a fair teacher evaluation system, with input from the educators themselves. "States must have student assessments for measuring growth in learning and data systems capable of linking student outcomes to individual teachers," Bridget Curran, the brief's author, writes. "Most of the six states concluded that they needed stronger, more constructive teacher evaluation systems."
[Learn about an Ohio law that forces merit pay for teachers.]
• Don't rely solely on tests: Strong assessments aren't enough, according to the NGA. Classroom observations should play a part because just 30 percent of teachers work in grades and subjects with yearly standardized assessments. "Making determinations about pay based on only one measure … would not be considered fair to teachers," Curran writes.
• Form strong leadership: Teacher pushback can make these reforms hard to pass. That's why the NGA says "teachers need to be included in every step" of the process. The NGA advocates for strong leadership from governors on the issue. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Education Commissioner John King Jr. stood by threats to cut funding to districts that didn't reach agreements with local teachers unions. "In states where the governor and the chief education officer worked together closely to support a common agenda, the results were significant," Curran writes.