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Guest column: Teacher evaluations, proper funding go hand in hand
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The single, most important variable in a student’s access to learning, no matter where one is on the globe, is an effective teacher. A recent study found that assigning great teachers to a class of disadvantaged children for five consecutive years closed the achievement gap between them and their peers. Who could argue that there is an urgent need for a highly effective teacher in every classroom, as well as highly effective school and district leadership to enable them to work to their optimal level?

The call for a "pay for performance" measure in Georgia, as part of the Race to the Top initiative, reflects a desire to improve the quality of all educators, not only teachers, by taking them out of a lock-step teacher compensation system that ensures uniformity and predictability for educators and for the school boards who pay them. There is a growing belief that compensation decisions should be made on what matter’s most — student learning — instead of the number of years or degrees held by an educator.

Education performance pay is nothing new. In the mid-1800s, British schools and teachers were paid on the basis of the results of student exams. Thirty years later, the practice was abandoned after cheating and cramming became widespread, and public opposition grew.

In the early 1960s, under President Richard Nixon, there were brief attempts to implement performance-based systems, which also ended in cheating scandals and failure. The 1980s, under President Ronald Reagan, brought experiments with merit pay that introduced incentive programs based on merit, measured by meeting objectives, and career-ladder or staffing differentiation. Similar attempts were made in the 1990s, yet none had staying power.

Several vanguard programs are in place at this time. Most notable, due to the longevity and the similarities to the proposed Georgia plan, is Denver’s ProComp, a program that allows teachers and supervisors who opt-in to use a combination of classroom observations and student achievement gains to both reward teacher effectiveness and help teachers focus on professional development. The Denver program was initially led by Brad Jupp, who now advises President Barack Obama on teacher quality.

In 1999, Denver began a partnership effort between the school board and teacher associations. The first attempt, designed with input from teachers and widely accepted, was to connect teacher performance with measures in their designed instrument and to apply evaluation based on standardized test scores. They found that their measure of student performance was inadequate to fully address teaching quality and that standard measures, like test scores, were hard to apply to more than half of their teachers, like physical education, art, music and media specialists.

Furthermore, the model did not address teachers who take on the most difficult situations, like teaching in high poverty schools or special-needs students. After four years, and a lot of work and effort on their part, teachers and administrators collaborated on a revised plan that the board, teachers and voters ultimately approved. Denver expanded its definition of performance to include compensation plans that replaced the traditional pay increases to an annual "step" increase for performance and a "lane" increase with advanced degrees.

There are four components in their teacher (educator) quality measure, and only one of those is directly tied to standardized test scores. It appears that Denver’s lessons are good ones: Involve the teachers and educators in decision-making, compensate teachers who work in hard-to-staff positions, high needs areas or for taking on additional roles and responsibilities, and create a broad assessment measure that not only evaluates teachers, but gives them a professional growth path.

Georgia will be well-served to keep in mind that evaluation systems for educators are best used to drive improvement of practice, not just measure it. Successful attempts at pay for performance have included using multiple indicators all aligned to school goals, and evaluations that are not solely the responsibility of the principal, but involve peer reviews. At the present time, there is ample evidence that high-stakes tests have overemphasized "getting the numbers" rather than improving the art of teaching and learning.

In short, we are focused on the wrong thing; we need to spend our time on improving how to provide deep and meaningful learning experiences, and the test scores will surely follow as a result.

However, the most dangerous area of this proposed policy is in the area of funding.

How will Georgia continue to fund a teacher incentive program when the stimulus funds are gone? Already we have seen legislation, such as mandated class sizes and National Board Certified teachers, fold in the wake of the economic downturn. Well meaning policy from both the state and federal level has never been funded fully, and local taxpayers have increasingly been expected to pick up the tab.

As Gainesville’s schools continue an aggressive approach to teacher quality, most, if not all, of our teachers may be eligible for performance compensation by 2014 based on evaluations and student achievement score results. Will the state be able to fund all those that earn it?

My hope is that Georgia will approach pay for performance in a budget-responsive manner. Consideration could be given to appropriating incentive funds, based on actual state revenue projections, and award them to local districts to compensate teachers to take on the most difficult needs of their districts. Furthermore, local districts might consider leveraging their local supplements and any Title I dollars to support incentive compensations, again responsive to the actual revenue projections.

In developing this policy, we must be mindful that it be crafted to ensure improvements for children that can be sustained, regardless of the economic situation in our state. After all, in this race, when we get to the top, we want to be able to stay there.

Merrianne Dyer is superintendent of Gainesville City Schools.