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National Perspective | Washinton Outlook

Make the Buck Stop With Teachers by Linking Raises to Student Results

February 05, 2001|RONALD BROWNSTEIN

Testing with teeth is the wave of the future for students in U.S. schools. Local districts in a dozen states now require students to pass standardized tests to be promoted from at least certain key grades--ending the long-standing practice of moving kids along each year even if they haven't mastered the course work. Also, 24 states now require high school seniors to pass an exit exam to receive their diplomas.

Mostly this has been a positive trend. Tying promotion and graduation to demonstrated competence embodies a key Information Age principle: measuring performance not just by inputs (how long students sit in a classroom) but by outputs (how much they have learned).

Yet these new systems are developing in an oddly unbalanced way. Students are facing increased consequences for their performance. But teachers have almost entirely avoided responsibility for how their students perform. None too soon, that's starting to change.

An increasing number of governors, mayors and school superintendents are trying to tie teacher raises to student achievement. Limited experiments linking raises to classroom results are underway in Cincinnati and Denver. In Minnesota, independent Gov. Jesse Ventura is offering $15 million in grants to local districts that tie pay to performance. Iowa and New Mexico are looking at variations on the theme.

In New York City, outgoing Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani wants to impose a merit pay system in the new contract he's negotiating with the teachers' union. Roy Romer, the new superintendent in the Los Angeles Unified School District, pushed similar ideas--without success--in the teacher contract he just finished negotiating.

"There is widespread interest in this," says Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, a group representing the largest urban school districts. "It's coming up in contract after contract. It doesn't mean the school system is being successful in the negotiations, but it now gets on the table pretty consistently."

Straightforward logic argues for tying teacher pay to student achievement. In most professions, the best performers take home the biggest checks. But most teachers are compensated based on their seniority, not their results; they are rewarded for endurance, not excellence. With all the demand for improved results from the school system, it's difficult to see that system surviving indefinitely--especially as students face tougher consequences for substandard performance.

"I don't see any particular reason why the students should bear the sole responsibility for their performance," says Casserly. "We are paid to improve student achievement, and when student achievement isn't as high as people want then there ought to be consequences for the adults."

So far, though, few districts have sold the teachers' unions on that proposition. Los Angeles' experience was typical. Romer hoped to include in the contract concluded last month provisions tying part of teacher pay to student performance. But the unions dug in and Romer went home virtually empty-handed. Asked if he was satisfied with the level of teacher accountability in the new contract, Romer said flatly: "No. I would like to have some additional tools and accountability. But we'll get there."

Teachers have some legitimate fears about the pay-for-performance idea. One is that those teaching in the most troubled urban schools will unfairly lose out because students there typically score much lower on standardized tests than kids from more affluent communities. But there's an obvious solution to that concern: linking raises not to a student's absolute score but to his improvement from year to year.

Teachers also worry that merit pay systems will undermine cooperation and set teachers against each other. But Romer correctly argues that that problem can be overcome by using two variables to determine raises: the performance in an individual classroom and the gains in a school overall. Adding that latter dimension, he notes, encourages the best teachers to spend time helping their newer colleagues.

A bigger problem is developing measures of student achievement that are timely and accurate enough to provide a legitimate gauge of their teachers' performance. That's where President Bush's education agenda may give this movement a jump-start. Only 15 states now test every student in reading and math in at least every grade from three through eight, according to the Education Commission of the States. Bush has proposed that every state be required to test students that often. That would provide a yardstick on students that also could be used to assess teachers.

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