Merit pay and "Race to the Top"

I think accountability for schools and teachers is a great idea. I think that school districts and school boards need to be able to dismiss bad teachers for not being able to teach - instead of waiting around for them to violate some other rule. I also believe that standardized testing is a good thing when done right.

That said, I'm still not sold on the idea of merit pay for teachers. Don't get me wrong, I want to reward the best teachers with more than a pat on the back, but how do we define who the best teachers are?

Rep. Davis and Sen. Hopper have introduced legislation in Madison that will make the state eligible for federal "Race to the Top" funds that reward the best teachers. I like both of these guys a lot, but we need to change our testing mechanism in order to better evaluate student and teacher performance if this is going to work. If I remember correctly, Rep. Davis introduced legislation last session to do just that, I hope he does so again. The reason this is important is because the current Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam is not administered to every class each year and is done in the fall - rather than the spring - which makes it more difficult to accurately judge teacher performance.

Merit pay - as well as teacher pay in general - has been a popular discussion on the Janesville Gazette's website and blogs. Most of the reaction seems to be in favor of rewarding the best teachers and one of the biggest proponents is former civics teacher at Janesville Parker, and current Gazette community blogger, John Eyster. In a post today, Mr. Eyster applauds Rep. Davis and Sen. Hopper and points to other coverage in state media in favor of merit pay. He even takes on WEAC and challenges their commitment to quality education and not just the benefits of their members.

Still, questions persist. How do we reward excellent music, art and phy ed teachers? There are no standardized tests for these subjects yet we cannot discount the benefit of quality teachers in these fields, so we must find a way to reward them as well. Likewise, I'm uncertain that any standardized test for Kindergarten students would be easily administered, so how do we judge those teachers' performance? What if the excellent teachers are given the "worst" students because they are the ones who can get the best results? The test scores may not be that good, but the improvement may be impressive. How does that scenario factor in to the "Race to the Top" formulas?

These are important questions that must be addressed if merit pay is to work. We also need to change the way we test students like I mentioned earlier. I don't buy the "teach to the test" nonsense - we've had standardized testing in Wisconsin for decades and I don't think that is the cause of our problems. The best teachers will be able to teach students to think critically regardless of how their students are tested.

We all know that we need to do something to reward excellence from our teachers. Merit pay has its benefits, but there are serious questions that need to be answered first.