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Testing Students, Testing Teachers

Is merit pay on the horizon for Idaho educators?

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Back in the day, if you wanted to evoke the ire of a teacher, you'd wad up some paper in your mouth, put it in a straw, and blow as hard as you could when he or she wasn't looking. For more sadistic students, an occasional thumbtack on the chair would do the trick. Today, to get under a teacher's skin and make them feel disrespected, just say two little words: merit pay.

Merit pay, or "performance-based pay" as it is euphemistically termed, is the tying of a teacher's salary to their perceived effectiveness in the classroom. That effectiveness is determined primarily by how much a teacher's students improve on end-of-year standardized tests. Currently, teacher's are paid according to how many years they have worked in the classroom. Teachers who further their education by getting, say, a master's degree, get paid at a higher rate. According to some state officials, that system is anything but fair and equitable.

"The bottom line is the system by which teachers are paid today is archaic. It's an 80-year-old system," says Luci Willits, communications officer for the Idaho State Board of Education. "It's important to reward excellence and right now we only reward for educational experience and years in the classroom. A lot of talented folks would like to leave their current profession and teach, but under the current system it would take five to 10 years to get paid a salary that would justify them doing that."

Inspired by free-market ideology (if you sell more widgets, you should make more money), the merit pay system plays well in red states like Idaho. Already, a small handful of school districts in other states have adopted merit pay programs. In Denver, voters will decide in November whether to make permanent a "relatively successful" pilot program there. And in Idaho, the State Board of Education has formed a special committee on performance-based compensation.

While the committee has been meeting since last summer, they have yet to unveil a timeline for a plan to the full board. It is clear, however, that members and key state staff are proponents of performance-based pay for teachers.

"It's too early to say that it's the cure-all, but this is an avenue that needs to be explored and I am in favor of building a framework for districts to embrace and flesh out on a pilot basis," says Idaho State Senator John Goedde, who sits on the 15-member performance-based pay committee.

In theory, the system would oust lousy teachers (because they'd see their pay decrease or stay the same rather than automatically increase), retain good teachers (because their pay would continue to rise), and attract better and brighter new teachers (because they would be able to earn more money than what beginning teachers make today).

As talent began to concentrate in the teaching pool, student performance would ultimately rise and the American education system would be revolutionized.

In reality, due to the fledgling nature of the pay system, there is little evidence to suggest whether merit pay affects students' scores or not.

"It's political hogwash. It just feeds into the false public perception that teachers working now are not doing a good job," says Ms. A., a veteran teacher in Boise who asked to remain nameless. "People think being a teacher is about leaving at three o'clock and getting your summers off. The reality is that most of us arrive early, leave late, take work home, plan lessons and clean classrooms on the weekend, teach during summer or take classes in order to keep our credential. We're not only educators, we're social workers, mentors, tutors and parents to these kids all day long."

She adds, "If you want to attract and retain good teachers, realize how much they do and pay them better, period."

Based on Mrs. A.'s past job performance-or at least her students' improvement on standardized tests and principal evaluations-she would likely benefit from a merit pay system. So why the hesitancy?

According to Dr. Susan Williamson, principal of William Howard Taft Elementary in Boise, educators are skeptical of merit pay because of the difficulty any system would have in taking into account all the factors that figure into student performance.

At Taft, for instance, students come largely from low socioeconomic backgrounds, a segment of the population typically outperformed on standardized tests by wealthier students. Eighty-six percent of Taft kids are on the free and reduced lunch program.

"The bottom line is it is harder to teach children in lower socioeconomic schools," said Williamson. Instead of merit pay, she says, teachers should be given a stipend when they elect to teach at poorer schools.

Williamson is not making excuses. The 30-year education veteran has overseen remarkable turnarounds on standardized tests at Taft. Four years ago, only 19 percent of first-graders ended the school year performing at grade level. Today, 75 percent of them do. On last year's tests, 100 percent of Taft second-graders performed at grade level.

"These improvements happened without merit pay," Williamson says. "If we ever have a merit pay system, I'd like to know which parents are going to settle for having their child in a class with a teacher who hasn't earned merit pay."

The improvements were possible, Williamson explains, through intense teacher collaboration-like successful veteran teachers being willing to share their teaching practices and ideas with beginning or struggling teachers. Williamson and others believe this sort of teamwork would be jeopardized under a merit pay system.

"Typically, merit pay is brought up as a way to distribute money when there is a scarcity of funds," says Kathy Phelan, president of the Idaho Education Association. "What's the incentive for a topnotch teacher to help a struggling one if they are competing for the same scarce resources?"

Phelan and Williamson both insist that rather than teacher-by-teacher merit pay, they are open to the idea of rewarding schools for overall improvement and passing those rewards on to teachers as well as other staff, such as the paraprofessionals who do remedial and specialized instruction of students.

Some of the hesitancy educators may have toward merit pay may also lie in rumors that have spread regarding the system. One popular idea, for instance, is that all teachers would be paid at a base salary of $27,500, and that bonuses would be tacked on as teachers helped their students to improve test scores. In truth, according to the State Board of Education, the $27,500 figure emerged as a potential starting salary for first-year teachers. Officials say that a merit pay system in Idaho would not cut current teachers' pay and would likely resemble the one proposed in Denver, where new teachers would belong to a merit pay system and veteran teachers would choose if they wanted to be paid under today's model or under a merit pay system.

Another concern for both proponents and opponents is funding. Districts in Dallas and Tennessee ended their costly experiment with merit pay when too many existing teachers turned out to be merit-worthy. In Denver, taxpayers will have to decide whether they want to spend an average of $56 more a year on their property taxes to afford the merit pay system proposed there.

Sen. Goedde believes Idaho can learn lessons from other states as it puts together its own merit pay system. He insists the pilot program in Idaho would need no new taxes. He is also hopeful that a permanent merit pay system would cost no more than the current get-paid-more-as-you-go plan. Teachers, however, are still skeptical.

"If the politicians and the administrators believe in merit pay so much, then let them pilot it on themselves," says Mrs. A. "Tell them they will only get a higher salary if their states and school districts perform well. See if they like the idea when it applies to them."

For more information about merit pay in Idaho, visit the Performance Based Compensation Committee's Web site at www.idahoboardofed.org/PerformanceComp/index.asp.

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