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Commentary By Marcus A. Winters

Face It, Teacher Quality Matters

Governance, Education, Cities Pre K-12, New York City

In his State of the City address last Thursday, Mayor Bloomberg laid the groundwork for an ambitious plan to reward the city's most effective teachers with substantially higher salaries. If enacted properly, his plan will dramatically improve the education provided to Gotham's kids.

Two decades of empirical research have quantified what parents already know: Great teachers make enormous differences in the lives of their students. A wide body of research shows that to which teacher a child is assigned can mean as much as a grade level's worth of learning for that student in a given year.

Even more importantly, a new study by economists at Harvard and Columbia shows that the "great teacher" effect stays with kids throughout their lives: Students assigned to great teachers are less likely to have an early pregnancy, are more likely to go to college and earn higher salaries as adults.

Yet, the current system in New York City and across the nation fails to distinguish between the best teachers and the worst ones. Typically, more than 98% of teachers are identified as "Satisfactory" or above according to their official evaluations.

Nor is a teacher's compensation based on any consideration of performance. Public school teachers are paid exclusively based on the number of advanced degrees they have earned and the number of years they have spent in the classroom—two factors that research shows are unrelated to classroom effectiveness.

Bloomberg is proposing to replace the current rubber-stamp policy with a system that assesses teacher effectiveness and then acts upon that information by rewarding the best teachers. That's just common sense.

The foundation for the new system would be an evaluation tool that is capable of distinguishing between the system's best and worst teachers. The evaluation would take into account the teacher's observed performance in the classroom according to a rigorous rubric, as well as measures of the teacher's contribution to student standardized test scores. That is, a teacher will finally be evaluated based on what we care about most: his or her performance in the classroom.

Teachers who demonstrate themselves to be highly effective for two consecutive years will receive salary increases of $20,000 a year. That substantial raise would provide effective teachers with salaries that are truly competitive with those offered to professionals in the private sector.

It's true that the evidence on the effects of performance-pay programs in the U.S. has been mixed at best. However, the research to date is limited in its scope and has not considered policies similar to what the mayor has proposed.

Thus far, research has focused on short-run gains in student performance due to programs that offer one-time bonuses to teachers based on various measures of their performance. Evidence from the TAP salary ladder program offered in several school systems has been relatively positive, and some research has found positive effects from the ProComp system operating in Denver. However, recent research shows that a program in Nashville and a small pilot program in New York City (very different from the one that the mayor just proposed) had no effects on student achievement.

But the mayor's proposed policy looks very different from most of the others that have been tried. Rather than provide one-time bonuses, New York's system would improve the ongoing salaries of effective teachers. Further, the salary increases to be offered dwarf those found in most other policies that have been tried. The closest model to what the mayor has proposed in New York is the system that is still in its early stages in Washington D.C. Unfortunately, we don't yet have research evaluating the effects of that policy.

More importantly, research has not yet weighed in on the effect of compensation systems tied to performance on the type of teacher who remains in the profession. It is in this way that the mayor's proposed system would have its biggest impact.

What makes the D.C. and proposed New York programs particularly intriguing is that they produce permanent salary improvements for effective teachers. Unlike one-time bonus programs, the intention of these policies is to fundamentally alter the salary structure for teachers in a way that the best educators are attracted to pursuing a long teaching career.

By differentiating teacher pay according to effectiveness, the new policy will improve the city's ability to retain its best classroom teachers. Teacher attrition is very high, in part because teachers' salaries are lower than those of other professionals. Simply raising salaries under the current system would decrease attrition, but it wouldn't substantially improve teacher quality. Higher salaries are just as attractive to bad teachers as they are to great teachers. By targeting higher salaries to more effective teachers, the public school system can compete for the best talent and shuffle bad teachers out the door.

Though it is very encouraging, a note of caution about the new proposal is warranted. As is so often the case, everything depends upon the details that have not yet been hammered out. Developing an evaluation system that measures teacher effectiveness and is also palatable to the unions is a daunting task that has not yet been completed. Also, the policy must address what is to be done with a teacher who earns a bonus but later burns out, or for some other reason becomes ineffective.

Those with a stake in the current system like to argue that policies that reward some teachers and not others are "anti-teacher." That's not true. In fact, it is the current system that is anti-teacher because it fails to recognize great teaching. There is no meaningful difference between treating teachers as if they are all the same and treating them as if they don't matter.

Bloomberg's proposed policy would finally recognize the city's great teachers and justly reward them for their important contribution.

This piece originally appeared in New York Daily News

This piece originally appeared in New York Daily News