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Commentary By Marcus A. Winters

Rewarding Great Teachers Just Makes Good Sense

Education Pre K-12

Reforming the nation's schools was the one part of President Obama's State of the Union address to receive bipartisan support.

That's because major players in both parties have come to recognize that, in the president's words, "Teachers matter." Adopting that basic and obvious premise has enormous ramifications for today's public school system.

Among the education initiatives supported by the president in his speech were policies that would reward the best teachers and replace ineffective teachers. The current system achieves neither goal.

Teachers are paid exclusively based on their years of experience in the classroom and the number of advanced degrees they have earned -- two factors research shows are unrelated to classroom effectiveness.

Tenure's job protections are so strong that few principals try to fire even their very worst teachers. And schools make no meaningful attempt to differentiate between their best and worst teachers: It is common for more than 98 percent of teachers in a school system to receive a "Satisfactory" or higher rating on their official evaluation.

The president is pressing states to consider reforms that would distinguish the quality of their teachers in order to reward the best and remove the worst. Such reforms are often lambasted by the teachers unions as "anti-teacher". That's not true.

In fact, it is the current system that fails to recognize great teaching. When we rate all teachers as being equally effective we are treating them as if they are interchangeable.

There is no meaningful difference between treating teachers as if they are all the same and treating them as if they don't matter. But everyone knows that teachers do matter.

A wide body of empirical research over the last two decades has confirmed what most parents already knew intuitively: Some teachers are great, some are bad, and there are a lot of teachers in the middle. Students assigned to a good teacher will learn about a grade level's worth more during the school year than will students assigned to a bad teacher.

We can dramatically improve teacher quality in today's public schools by adopting policies that recognize the obvious fact that some teachers are better than others.

The first step is to design a rich evaluation system based on both quantitative and qualitative measures of the teacher's performance in the classroom that is capable of identifying the system's best and worst teachers. States and school systems across the country are developing such evaluations tools today.

Once in place, we should act upon the information provided by such evaluations. Public school systems need the power to remove those teachers who, even after having been given the correct supports, are simply not cutting it in the classroom.

Further, we should be paying our best teachers more than we pay our worst teachers. Differentiating teacher pay might provide all teachers with an incentive to perform their best.

But more importantly, by paying them more we provide great teachers with more of an incentive to remain in the classroom than we give to bad teachers.

We aren't respecting great teachers when we simply ignore their lower performing colleagues. And kids are hurt when they are exposed to bad teachers who were never removed from the classroom, or when good teachers leave the profession in order to earn higher salaries elsewhere.

Our failure to recognize and act upon the obvious reality that teachers matter is holding back today's kids. The growing bipartisan support to pursue policies that recognize that some teachers are better than others is a promising sign for tomorrow.

This piece originally appeared in Washington Examiner

This piece originally appeared in Washington Examiner