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Story Last modified at 10:09 p.m. on Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Take testing out of the equation, and merit pay could work


Driving into Anchorage one day recently, I listened on the radio as a reporter interviewed legislators in Florida who were discussing the reorganization of pay scales for teachers in the Florida education system. The "step system" used there is much like that used across the country, including Anchorage, in which teachers receive pay raises based on their tenure, along with allowable bumps in pay grade for extended education or degrees. On March 24, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law, creating a merit pay system designed to reward those teachers who do the best job.

When worded this way, it sounds simple: You want the best teachers to be paid the most. A teacher who inspires children to learn is worth more than just the numbers on their paycheck. Not only do such teachers educate our children, they also encourage them emotionally and socially. They teach them confidence and courage. They teach them to value themselves.

Teachers like that are far and few between, but even now, 25-plus years later, I can recall the gentle encouragement of my high school English teacher Mrs. Sheffer, who taught me to believe in my writing, experiment with it and put it out there to be picked apart by the experts. Without the upbeat mentoring from Coach Humphreys, I never would have believed my 400-meter dash could be fast enough for the state championships. And if not for my geography teacher Mr. Turk, I would not know Mali from Miami.

These are the kinds of teachers who make the true difference in education, whose lessons last a lifetime. Not every one of them fit the mold. But there were a special few who did. They were there when I was in school, and they are here now, working with my children.

The trend toward tying teacher pay to student achievement is not a new idea. Baltimore last fall came up with a pay scale that rewards teachers for their success in the classroom, too. President Obama, since he was inaugurated, has touted it as a necessary change in the education system. During the radio program, the moderator said The National Education Association has opposed merit pay, while the United Federation of Teachers supports it.

Still, though, the idea seems flawed. Merit pay for teachers remains contentious because it ties a teacher's ability to thrive to students' test scores. That is one heck of a lot of pressure to put on one person.

It doesn't seem fair to hold teachers responsible for how well a student does on a test because a test simply is not the measure of a good student. Some kids test well; others panic. Some kids are simply smarter than others. How gently can one put it? Their brains are just better.

Teachers don't get to cherry pick the best and brightest students. In the public school system, they get them all: the underfed, the over-pampered, the highly gifted and the slow learners. They see coddled kids, abused kids, kids on drugs and kids who come to school only when they feel like it.

To me, the teacher's job then becomes keeping these kids engaged, interested and motivated to learn more.

I'd place more value on a teacher who could bring a failing student an average grade than I would the teacher who helps the gifted student go from a B to an A.

The test scores won't necessarily show that accomplishment, but the slow shift in attitude among the students in that teacher's class will.

If the State of Alaska or the Anchorage School District were ever to devise a merit-based pay raise system, I would be all for it because the sad truth is, there are teachers out there who shouldn't be anywhere near a classroom. Showing up for the job is not enough. They must be actually present, and engaged, in their work.

Fortunately, we have plenty of those engaged teachers, and their hard work should be recognized.

But there needs to be a fair form of assessment. Would merit pay encourage teachers to seek favoritism with principals? Would it actually be an incentive to teach harder, or would it prove disheartening? Would it really weed out the bad teachers? Would it force teachers to churn out expert "test-takers," driven to succeed in tests but not necessarily in life?

And, most important, would it really improve education? Getting a good test score is not necessarily the measure of a good student, or a good citizen. So much emphasis is put on test scores that it is easy to lose sight of that.

These are hard questions, but as is the case in most private sector jobs, hard work is generally recognized, and rewarded. The cream of the crop most naturally rises, and there is no reason it should not be the same with teaching.

For the many, many teachers out there already doing their jobs well, merit pay, if not tied solely to test scores would only validate the good work they're doing.

The others just waiting to pick up a paycheck, though? Those are the ones we can do without.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, April 6, 2011.