Evaluate teachers so we can pay them what they're worth

Teachers are seriously underpaid, but the public won't support paying the good teachers more without tools to evaluate them. Teachers ought to be leading the way in designing fair evaluation systems.

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A student takes a state-mandated test in a California school.

Teachers are seriously underpaid, but the public won't support paying the good teachers more without tools to evaluate them. Teachers ought to be leading the way in designing fair evaluation systems.

Linking teacher evaluation to pay is an increasingly hot button issue in Washington state and around the nation. Too much talk is about evaluation and too little about compensation. Sure, teacher evaluation is important. But it’s the wagging tail, not the dog. Evaluation schemes won’t attract and keep great people in front of the class unless positive evaluations bring meaningful financial rewards.

Teachers make an enormous difference in what children learn. Every parent knows teachers matter. Extensive scientific evidence backs up the importance of teachers to education outcomes. One oft-cited statistic is that a good teacher moves students up one-and-a-half grade levels in a single year. Students of a poor teacher learn only half a year’s material.

To reward good teachers we need to identify them. Evaluation should focus on measuring what students learn and then associating student learning measurements with the teachers who taught them.

We know we can measure student achievement because that’s what teachers do every time they assign grades. Teachers should be leading the discussion about how to do evaluation sensibly.

What teachers accomplish can be measured. It can't be measured perfectly. A system for evaluating teachers can be created that will do a pretty good job, but no system is going to be perfect.

Teachers and their friends have to realize that there is no public sympathy for keeping teachers immune from evaluation. But teachers should insist that evaluation systems be well-designed and fairly implemented.

While teacher evaluation is possible, what's our goal? If evaluations are simply to identify the small number of truly incompetent teachers, then we can make do with something a lot simpler than the kind of changes that are sweeping the country. But education won’t be changed much because there aren’t very many incompetent teachers.

If evaluations are to affect teachers across the spectrum, then evaluations have to be tied to substantial rewards across the spectrum. Evaluations without rewards are largely useless.

The primary issue should be teacher pay, and teacher evaluation should be the secondary issue. The real problem is that teachers aren’t paid enough. Not even close. Boldness is called for here.

Teachers, their friends, and their unions need to insist on compensation levels sufficient to recruit and retain great teachers.The top end of teacher pay in the new Washington, D.C. contract will be $140,000 per year. Here in Washington state, typical teacher salaries significantly lag salaries for other professionals and salaries at the top end are completely uncompetitive with other professions.

Depending on whose data you believe, Washington state teachers earn between 30 percent and 60 percent less than the state’s average college-educated income. If we want to recruit great college students into teaching and retain the good teachers we already have, then teacher salaries must be somewhat higher than competing salaries in other professions.

The state of Washington isn’t close. In the current budget climate, a pay increase will not all come in one year, but we could certainly set out a schedule of increases over several years tied to improving evaluations. Lots of issues matter for improving our schools. But teacher pay needs to be first on the list.

Too many reformers think that the issues of performance evaluation and inadequate pay can be split apart, and that the politically tough question of adequate teacher pay can be postponed to some imaginary future date. The two can’t be split. Teacher evaluation makes sense only when linked to meaningful financial rewards. Without increased teacher salaries linked to performance, teacher evaluations generate much sound and fury — but little real change.


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