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Better teaching, better pay

THE ACHIEVEMENT gap -- the difference between school performance of low-income and minority students versus middle-class white students -- may soon take the back seat to a traditionally less-publicized education issue currently gaining momentum: the teacher gap. Education Week recently released its annual special report "Quality Counts 2003," focused on the quality of our nation's elementary and secondary school educators. The report was less than praiseworthy of teacher quality, citing high numbers of educators in charge of classes outside their expertise and pointing the finger at loose requirements for teacher certification.

The series of articles mentioned a number of financial incentives for attracting better teachers that have been implemented particularly in low-income, low-performing schools. Most of these programs, such as loan forgiveness and housing aid, aim at drawing in younger teachers. Once teachers enter these districts and their higher-performing counterparts, however, there is little in place to encourage teachers to improve within the profession. It's time all school districts consider a merit-based salary system -- using a number of complex factors to evaluate teachers -- as another way to improve teacher quality.

The idea of a system of merit-based pay never entered the magazine special. The topic is, however, presented in the "Improving Teacher Quality" section of the Bush administration's famed No Child Left Behind Act. Merit-based pay systems previously existed in some large school districts. In recent years, most school systems have moved away from this method, favoring instead a salary calculator based almost solely on level of education and teaching experience within the district.

Today in the vast majority of school districts across America, there is very little monetary incentive for teachers to transform themselves from average teachers into good or outstanding teachers. Ideally, teachers are motivated to increase their content knowledge and improve their teaching skills in order to more competently serve their students. When the realities of packed schedules and administrative difficulties interfere with teachers' altruistic intentions, economic incentive could help get teachers back on the right track.

In a press release responding to "Quality Counts 2003," Secretary of Education Rod Paige argues that, "We must do a better job of preparing future teachers, and providing current teachers with rigorous professional development to help them strengthen their knowledge and skills" ("Paige Issues Statement on Education Week's 'Quality Counts '03' Report on Teacher Quality," www.ed.gov, Jan. 7). Yes, teachers can go through the motions of professional development sessions. Often, however, such short courses merely reiterate topics discussed in teacher education courses taken in college, and thus may do little to truly improve a teacher's performance. Sometimes monetary reward provides the motivation for improvement other options do not.

Granted, there are a couple important issues involved with switching to such a salary system. Besides the ever-present question of where such funding would come from, there is also the matter of how teachers would be evaluated. To examine this issue, it's best to turn to the data Education Week dug up.

The magazine ranked states according to their commitment to improving teacher quality. The ratings were based on a variety of factors, including licensure requirements, incentives for pursuing National Board certification, percentage of secondary school educators teaching within their field, opportunities for professional development, pre-service teaching requirements and average teacher salaries.

The categories within the licensure requirements offer some ideas concerning how teachers can be evaluated within a proposed merit-based salary system. For example, in Virginia, in order to receive state certification, pre-service teachers must complete a state-approved teacher education program and pass two Praxis tests -- one that assesses basic skills, and another that evaluates subject knowledge. The Commonwealth does not require performance assessment beyond that outlined in teacher education programs.

Virginia is not alone. Although most states require teachers to pass written basic skills and subject knowledge tests, few expect any type of performance assessment for certification. Only seven states perform local team evaluations, two states require classroom observation, two more ask for videotaped lessons and four employ portfolios in the teacher licensure process.

Because teaching is a performance-based profession, it is time for more states to place as much emphasis on performance assessment as they do on written tests for certification. Evaluations of classroom teaching and portfolios then could also serve as some of the criteria used to determine a teacher's merit-based salary. Further evaluations could continue at designated increments as teachers spend more time in the district.

The face of education is changing as schools become more focused on student achievement and increasingly competitive. With attention turning to teacher quality, it's time to make their pay competitive, too.

(Stephanie Batten's column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at sbatten@cavalierdaily.com.)

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