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Linking teachers and student test scores gains some momentum

The issue of judging or paying teachers based on student test scores has stirred up high-profile controversies in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. But school districts across the United States are collaborating with unions and moving ahead with such plans – often as part of a broader set of changes to professionalize the career.

From Tampa, Fla., to New Haven, Conn., recent contracts are incorporating merit pay while giving teachers other incentives to stay, particularly in schools serving the most disadvantaged kids.

Merit pay “should be just one part of the picture,” says Emily Cohen,district policy director for the National Council on Teacher Quality, a policy and advocacy group in Washington. “The point is to recognize effective teachers, to create a path where really top teachers can stay in the classroom … and they don’t have to become a principal to receive higher pay.”

In Washington, some outside money for its plans may now be in jeopardy because funders pinned their hopes on outgoing school Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Ms. Rhee’s push for merit pay and other changes generated huge opposition from the teachers union, although she’s been hailed by many education reform advocates nationwide.

Rhee announced last week that she would step down at the end of the month, which has been expected since Mayor Adrian Fenty, who appointed her, lost a primary election to Vincent Gray. Mr. Gray, who is expected to win the upcoming mayoral race, said that school reform would continue to move forward and that Rhee’s senior leadership team would stay in place.

Baltimore was in the spotlight last week as teachers rejected a new contract to radically alter the traditional salary structure. It was designed to pay teachers based on their level of accomplishment and responsibility, as well as their students’ achievement gains – rather than their seniority or academic degrees. Under the rejected contract, which now is the subject of further negotiating, “lead teachers,” one per Baltimore school, could earn $100,000 a year. The schools could also set up working conditions that vary from the standard contract, such as longer workdays, if 80 percent of teachers in the school agree to it.

On the other side of the country, controversy erupted over the issue of evaluating teachers when the Los Angeles Times published a database of their “value added” scores, based on student gains on standardized tests. District officials in Los Angeles are trying to move forward to include such scores in future teacher evaluations.

Public opinion is split on the issue. Forty-nine percent say that pay should not be linked to how well a teacher’s students score on standardized tests, while 44 percent say it should, according to a new Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll.

Merit pay receives more support when the question is phrased more broadly, however. Seventy-three percent of Americans say a teacher’s salary should be somewhat or very closely tied to his or her students’ academic achievement, according to the 2010 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll.

In the PDK/Gallup poll, 60 percent also said the primary purpose for teacher evaluations should be to help them improve their teaching, rather than to set their salaries (13 percent) or to document ineffectiveness that could lead to firing (26 percent).

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Hillsborough County, Fla., this month to highlight school systems that are changing their approach to effective teaching through collaboration between school leaders and unions. Dozens of districts “are moving beyond the battles of the past and finding new ways to work together to focus on student success,” he said at an event with leaders of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Hillsborough, which includes Tampa, is the eighth-largest district in the country. It’s building on a compensation program that incorporates student test scores with input from the union. A seven-year plan there that recently received a $100 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation includes peer evaluation of teachers and mentors for new teachers.

The collaborative approach “is not cut and dry; it’s relationship work; it’s really hard work … [and] in the current reform movement, it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of time and patience for that,” says Elena Silva, senior policy analyst at Education Sector, a think tank in Washington. “But in the long term, what we see is that it can sustain reform.”

While momentum for merit pay seems to be building, some studies cast doubt on its value, and there is not enough research yet to know how best to judge and incentivize effective teaching.

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