Teachers who achieve more should be paid more

A few weeks ago, the Florida Legislature enacted some sweeping changes in how public school teachers are paid in the state. Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed the bill, but it’s still worth looking at the reasons for the legislation.

After the Legislature passed the bill but before Crist vetoed it, former Gov. Jeb Bush offered a defense of the bill in an op-ed published in the St. Petersburg Times. Among his points:

A decade ago, the state enacted the A+ plan, which gave schools bonuses if the students in the school achieved specified gains on FCAT, the state’s assessment.

Most recently, reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress for disabled students increased significantly, compared with either a modest gain or even a drop for the nation as a whole.

SB6 would build on that idea. The important factor is to use not test scores at one point in time, or test scores against a standard, but changes in the score over time: “Because some students start the school year below grade level, teachers will not be measured on what their students know. Rather, teachers will be measured on how much each individual student learns during the year in their class. Students will not be compared with each other, only to their own progress from one year to the next.”

The measure, he says, would help retain effective teachers. “Moreover, the bill requires even higher salaries for truly exceptional teachers who help their students make up for lost ground.” Don’t forget, it’s students who are performing at the lowest levels who have the most opportunity to gain–meaning their teachers have the most opportunity to earn a bonus. By contrast, today’s method of paying teachers rewards not effectiveness or even (in most cases) for teaching in challenging schools, but for staying on the job a long time.

Bush says, “Nearly half of teachers leave the profession in the first 10 years, many because of the low pay in the early years. Rewarding effectiveness instead of longevity will keep the best of the best in our classrooms.”

I suppose you could say that we need to raise teacher salaries across the board. But that would do nothing to address the longevity-based compensation scheme. If you’re going to be paid the same amount to work in a challenging school as you are for working in a school of supportive parents, why would you choose the former, unless you had the opportunity to earn a bonus? To be sure, some teachers will voluntarily take on a difficult task for the same pay, but is that fair to expect, as a matter of policy, that will happen on a large scale?

Equally controversial is SB 6’s plan to end teacher tenure in exchange for higher pay.

It also calls for paying math and science teachers more. Again, many teachers will find this objectionable, but it’s a simple recognition of the fact that people who are able to teach math and science have more options for work outside teaching than those who teach other subjects. They will need a greater incentive to work in a school than, say, a history major, whose job prospects are relatively less promising.

I’m leery when someone says that enacting law X or Y is a moral imperative, since it’s so easy to say that, especially when the facts are not on your side. But as Bush makes the plea anyway:

Closing the achievement gap for poor and minority students is the moral imperative of our nation. Thousands of teachers across Florida overcome tremendous challenges faced by their students — poverty, lack of parental involvement, an unstable home life — to ensure their students learn a year’s worth of knowledge in a year’s time. Unfortunately, their hard work in these tougher jobs is currently unrewarded. Many good teachers leave these jobs for suburban schools or leave the profession altogether for higher pay. That’s why the bill requires higher salaries for teachers who work in high-poverty schools.

To be sure, schools have been oversold as the secular gospel of our time, meant to overcome racism, prejudice, poverty, poor parenting, and many other ills. But the way we recruit and reward teachers should be based not simply on time on the job, college credits earned, or even on adhering to some gold standard of teaching methods. All teachers should be paid, but we should give greater rewards to those who have done the most to help their students achieve academic gains.

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