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Our Views: Grading teachers
Tying educators pay to performance has merit, but only if a fair measure is found
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Georgia teachers have endured pay cuts and job furloughs in the last year. Now their overall pay structure is being put under the microscope.

Gov. Sonny Perdue has proposed a statewide plan to base teacher pay on students’ performance. The program would not be implemented until 2014, after Perdue has left office. Current teachers could opt into the system, which would apply to all teachers that were hired that year and beyond.

Teachers surveyed statewide, including those in Gainesville among 20,000 polled, supported the idea in general but expressed caution based on how performances are to be graded. The key step, all agree, is to determine what set of standards by teachers should be evaluated. As Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield says, "the devil is in the details."

Basing the pay of teachers, or any employees, on performance makes sense. It’s how the best in any profession earn their rewards and how those who can’t cut it are invited to find new professions.

For too long, ineffective teachers have been able to keep their jobs. The state needs a way to weed out educators who have moved from district to district without reaching the standards set by their schools. Comprehensive job reviews are crucial to see that all teachers are competent and that all administrators are held accountable.

For that reason, many are willing to consider Perdue’s plan as a first step toward rewarding the best teachers. The uncertainty, though, comes in how student success can be accurately gauged to determine teacher performance.

Teachers and administrators already are evaluated on how students perform on standardized tests. That is one of the main tenets of the No Child Left Behind act which, despite its shortcomings, has set a clear level of achievement for schools to attain.

But the punitive measures for failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress are largely institutional, with the schools and their systems forced to adopt certain measures when standardized test scores don’t measure up. Those steps don’t include hitting teachers directly in the pocketbook.

Even now, many parents and educators are concerned that schools are focused on "teaching to the test" to help students succeed on those exams, while more creative disciplines such as art, music, literature and social sciences are sacrificed. Yet if teacher pay is linked directly to student performance, you can expect an even greater emphasis on raising test scores.

The state also must factor in the idea that educating a student is a cumulative effort. Do you penalize a middle-school language arts teacher when the student didn’t learn to read in elementary school? Does a high school chemistry teacher suffer because a middle-school math teacher didn’t do the job? Education stacks like a Jenga game; which block do you blame if it falls?

The concept of measuring achievement in one year is something we don’t have now. Are we talking about a whole new system of start-of-year vs. end-of-year testing, on top of all the standardized testing that’s already done? That’s a lot to expect and develop within a few years.

And any new education initiative needs to factor in the gap between the haves and have-nots. The state already seeks to channel more funds to help underfunded school districts in impoverished areas that can’t get by on their dwindling local tax revenues. Talented teachers who take on these challenging students need to be rewarded and supported.

Perdue hopes to fund his plan with as much as $400 million from the federal Race to the Top program. President Barack Obama has asked Congress for $1.35 billion to funnel to states willing to amend their education laws to encourage innovation.

Earning the federal grant money is key to Georgia’s ability to implement such a program in a time when education budgets are cut to the bone. Without it, there’s no way the state could afford it until tax revenues return to normal, and no one knows when that might be. And the question remains as to how the state would fund such a plan once the startup stimulus funds are gone.

By all means, teachers should be held to high standards, as all paid professionals should be. Their methods, their own academic achievement and training and their ability to connect students to the level material are all fair criteria to determine their pay and job status. They should be rewarded handsomely for high performance and achievement.

Great teachers have a positive effect on our culture, inspiring their students to achieve great things in business, science and the arts. Our economic success depends upon an educated work force, the overriding message from a statewide job summit held last week in Atlanta.

But while we may know a great teacher when they teach us or our children and we can directly feel their impact, it is hard to measure their worth in a tangible way on a larger scale. Such is the challenge of how to implement a pay-for-performance idea.

For that reason, any link between student performance and teacher pay needs to be carefully considered and crafted to benefit students and educators alike. We need to make sure any such effort is truly positive education reform, and not just an attempt by a lame-duck government to make sure the state gets in the line for federal dollars.

In a time when many teachers face pay cuts, furloughs and increased demands, the state should encourage high classroom standards and teacher excellence the right way. Doing so haphazardly could do more harm than good.

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