NJ Legislature To Consider Merit Pay for Teachers

The Courier Post reports that the NJ State Legislature may consider a merit pay bill for public school teachers, according to Senate President Steve Sweeney. However, Sen. Sweeney says he’ll only support a bill that rewards whole schools, not individual teachers “because of the politics involved in giving bonuses.”

Okay. While value-added metrics are evolving, it’s slow business, and it’s hard to measure the value of important members of school staff like child study team members, non-language arts and math teachers, etc. Whole school merit pay is a great first step.

But “the politics involved in giving bonuses?” Really?

First of all, we’re not all Elizabeth Public Schools here, rife with corruption. Most school districts in NJ are run with integrity. Anyway, the corruption chronicled in districts like Elizabeth emerges at the top levels of management, not the principal levels. Sen. Sweeney’s objection is ill-placed.

Secondly, let’s look at Sen. Sweeney’s objection in the context of other bills likely to come up in the Legislature this lame duck session. One of them, of course, is Senator Teresa Ruiz’s tenure reform bill, which assigns tenure decisions to the school principal, rather than the school board. (In reality school boards just rubber-stamp the superintendent’s “recommendations.")

There’s much research that shows that school improvement is linked to strong, empowered principals. This report from the National Center for Longitudinal Data in Educational Research analyzes principals’ ability to predict teacher effectiveness, based not on student data but on classroom observations and other subjective measures. According to the report, test score measures outperform principal ratings in predicting student success when there are six years of value-added data to draw from. In situations with less data, principals' ratings outperform test scores.

But a bill that awards merit pay on a school-wide basis would most likely depend on recommendations from either the superintendent or content supervisor, not the principal, even though the principal is more likely to accurately gauge teacher effectiveness, especially in an environment newly converted to measuring student longitudinal growth. So Sen. Ruiz's bill is right on the money regarding the rectitude of empowering principals with personnel decisions. Sen. Sweeney’s objection to merit pay for teachers is inconsistent with that framework.

Finally, NJEA just announced its willingness to extend tenure to – wait for it – four years, which is exactly in line with Sen. Ruiz’s bill. From NJEA’s publication, “Education Reform Done Right, Right Now”:
The tenure proposal is simple. It adds a fourth year of teaching before tenure is earned. But it does not do so just because four years is longer than three years. Instead, it improves the support and evaluation that new teachers receive during their initial years in the classroom in order to ensure their effectiveness by the time they reach tenure status.

The first year of teaching would involve a residency. Just as novice doctors work under the guidance of an experienced physician, first-year teachers would be partnered with a qualified senior teacher for intensive assistance, support, and guidance. While they would still be respon-sible for their own classes, they would have a colleague responsible for helping to ensure their successful transition to the profession.
Teachers, according to NJEA’s publication, are not widgets, interchangeable cogs on an assembly line. They are professionals, just like doctors. There are good doctors and bad doctors. The good doctors tend to make more money than the bad doctors. They get merit pay.

NJEA's leadership deserves acclaim for shifting to a proactive discussion on education reform issues like tenure, rather than reactive recalcitrance. Sen. Sweeney has shown courage on many education issues. Why quibble about school-based merit pay rather than teacher-based merit pay? Ah well. Maybe consistency isn't all it's cracked up to be.

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