Education should have merit!

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By Chris Kniesler, Executive Director of Solutions for New Jersey

Two major initiatives proposed by the Christie Administration in New Jersey call for instituting a merit pay system for teachers and eliminating automatic teacher tenure. While these are bold moves for New Jersey, we have clear models we can use as a guideline. If we make use of existing research, we do not need to re-invent the wheel.

Merit pay and retention based on effectiveness were the norm in the early 1900’s. As the unions grew in power during the 1960’s, they forced the replacement of these practices by automatic raises and guaranteed tenure. Since 2000, the cost of education has risen dramatically and education levels have declined. Bloomberg News recently reported that US students ranked a dismal 25th in math, 17th in science and 14th in reading out of 34 industrialized countries. In college graduation rates, we dropped from 2nd in the world to 9th.

In New Jersey, the news is not as bad. The Report Card on American Education, by the American Legislative Exchange (ALEC) ranked New Jersey 10th in academic achievement. Unfortunately, ALEC gave New Jersey a “D+” in identifying high quality teachers and a “C-” for retaining effective teachers. Simply put, New Jersey must develop a way to evaluate teachers and provide incentives for them to achieve and maintain the highest level of teaching standards.

According to a University of Florida study, 16% of American schools already have “pay-for-performance” programs. In fact, the federal government is spending $437 million on the Teacher Incentive Fund to develop incentive programs. Similarly, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has committed $290 million to create programs to financially reward teachers who perform at the highest levels. Merit pay was also a component of President Obama’s Race to the Top grants. The trend is obvious.

Opponents to these initiatives tout the Vanderbilt study and the Texas pilot program as examples of failure. The general conclusions of both studies were that merit pay does not work for public school teachers and that test scores are not an accurate gauge of a teacher’s ability. As usual, the details contradict the spin.

The Vanderbilt study was inconclusive. The study looked only at student test scores. and the attrition rate of the participants was very high. Moreover, the 5th grade classes showed improvement, but the investigators failed to investigate the cause. In Texas, the administrators lowered the amount of the bonuses and diminished their value by awarding them to 70% of the teachers. Ultimately, serious flaws in the program design compelled the administrators to suspend the program.

San Francisco evaluates teachers according to criteria other than test results. Using observation and vague criteria such as maintaining class decorum, administrators awarded satisfactory ratings to 98% of teachers. Conversely, when the Los Angeles school system used a valued-added system, included test scores, and published the teacher rankings, student test scores improved.

The Florida study concludes that pay incentives are more effective than class size or strict attendance policies. They caution, however, that administrators must link performance pay to student achievement, not principal assessment. Basically, principals do not want to give poor ratings to a colleague or admit that their school has problems.

Bill Gates recognizes that our public education system is failing and that we are losing our competitiveness in the world. Gates believes that taxpayers are spending $59 billion per year on a teacher compensation system that does not work. According to Gates, schools spend $5 billion annually on seniority raises and another $9 billion in bonuses for obtaining masters degrees. Neither incentive is linked to classroom performance.

The designers of Gates’ Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) Project sought to develop an accurate method of evaluating teaching effectiveness. MET uses multiple criteria to create a complete assessment of a teacher’s abilities. Along with test scores, MET uses direct student feedback, videotaped classroom observations, assessments of the teacher’s pedagogical content knowledge and the teacher’s perception of their classroom conditions and instructional support. The results should be available in early 2012.

As with the Opportunity Scholarship Act, New Jersey lags behind other states and is not breaking new ground. Data and models exist to create a workable educator evaluation system. The Christie Administration is in the position to avoid the mistakes of the Vanderbilt and Texas programs while learning what works from Florida and Bill Gates. They merely need to ignore the critics to get started.

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Terry A. Hurlbut has been a student of politics, philosophy, and science for more than 35 years. He is a graduate of Yale College and has served as a physician-level laboratory administrator in a 250-bed community hospital. He also is a serious student of the Bible, is conversant in its two primary original languages, and has followed the creation-science movement closely since 1993.

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