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Can Merit Plans Raise Teacher Pay Without Raising Eyebrows?

Can Merit Plans Raise Teacher Pay Without Raising Eyebrows?

by Steve Crabtree

Most Americans, regardless of political persuasion, agree that good teachers are undervalued. But although the problem is commonly recognized, trying to solve it opens up a can of worms. Should single-salary systems be preserved, meaning all teachers would be paid more? Or should districts attempt to allocate pay raises more selectively in order to recognize the most effective teachers?

Denver's public school system made national news earlier this year when Denver teachers ratified a compensation plan designed to reward teachers for achieving student growth, pursuing their own professional development, and receiving positive evaluations from administrators. This type of solution to the teacher salary dilemma may spur improved teacher quality, a central concern of the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind law. But it also carries risks for teachers if the criteria used to drive the salary increases are oversimplified or otherwise unfair.

Results from the 2004 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll survey on public schools* illustrate how Americans view the issue of assessing teacher quality. Americans are divided on the question of whether students' performances on standardized tests should be used as one measure of a teacher's quality, with 49% saying yes and 47% saying no.

A majority of Republicans -- 62% -- like this idea, but the figure drops to 51% among Democrats and just 39% among political independents. The results also vary by age group: Among 18- to 29-year-olds, just 37% say standardized test scores should be used to gauge teacher quality. Almost half of 30- to 49-year olds (48%) agree with the idea, as do 57% of those 50 and older.

Many teachers are skeptical that any single test can capture the multifaceted development they see in their students every day. "Student growth is important, but the SOL [Virginia's Standards of Learning test] is awful," says Apryl Shue, a special education teacher in Fairfax, Va. "I don't know that using this one standardized test should be the indicator of student progress. As a special educator, it is important for me to see growth in each individual student."

Brad Draeger, chief academic officer for Fairfax County Public Schools, is also skeptical that a traditional standardized test can provide a comprehensive look at student achievement. "One thing we've been pursuing is the growth model," he says, "not testing cohorts and saying here's how all third graders did, but how much growth did you have each child make in your classroom this year? If you had some assessment where you could say this child actually achieved 13 months of growth in the nine months you have them, that's a powerful statement -- but we don't have those assessments yet."

What Merits Extra Pay?

Respondents to the PDK/Gallup survey were also asked more specifically about a few possible criteria for awarding extra pay to teachers. For each criterion tested, majorities of Americans favor extra pay for teachers. But some options -- mostly notably higher pay for advanced degrees -- receive more support than others. At least 7 in 10 Americans say teachers should receive extra pay for advanced degrees, length of service, and high evaluations from principals. Americans are a little more hesitant to endorse evaluations from students or other teachers or the opinions of the students' parents.

Buy-in from teachers themselves is important to the success of any new compensation plan. Teacher concerns shed light on the complexities that must be addressed to avoid the perception among educators that they are still not being treated fairly.

For example, it may seem obvious that teachers who pursue advanced degrees and other professional development opportunities should receive higher pay, but such incentives create a chicken-and-egg problem for some teachers, many of whom are parents themselves and might work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Finding the time and resources for additional education and development can be difficult.

Principal evaluations may also meet with skepticism among teachers. "What happens if the administrator is not the objective evaluator that they should be?" says Shue. "It could be extremely subjective and where someone's salary is concerned, I could see lots of problems if there was a disagreement."

Draeger notes that his district did implement a merit pay system in the late 1980s with some success in elevating the compensation of high-performing teachers, but it was eventually phased out under criticism that the teacher evaluations used were too subjective.

Draeger sees potential for merit pay systems, but feels that given how undervalued teachers are they're probably not enough. "My philosophy would be, all teachers' salaries need to move higher," he says. "But then you have to find some methodology for rewarding the best, or those in critical [hard-to-fill] fields."  

Bottom Line

Whatever the criteria, the value of good teachers needs to be reassessed if the tide of new teachers leaving the profession is to be stemmed. Last year, a report from the National Commission of Teaching and America's Future found that almost a third of all new teachers leave the classroom after three years and close to 50% leave after five years.

Tim Krupica, a first-year elementary school teacher in Fairfax, expresses the frustration many educators may feel. "I'm making about $8,000 less than my dad, and he's taught for 27 years, he's almost got a PhD," Krupica says. "[Pittsburgh Steeler running back] Jerome Bettis took a pay cut and they make a big deal about how he's a hero. He still makes $1 million. We help the future, we help kids become great engineers, help them read, introduce them to literature and science -- and we get paid $35,000. It really is unfair."

*The findings of the survey are based on telephone interviews with a random sample of 1,003 U.S. adults, aged 18 and older, conducted from May 28 to June 18, 2004. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points.

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