Georgia teachers on governor's merit pay proposal: Unfair to us and students

Dr. Allene Magill is executive director of the 90,000-member Professional Association of Georgia Educators. In this piece, she discusses the governor's proposal to create merit pay for Georgia teachers.

By Allene Magill


The most rewarding aspect of teaching occurs when a former student lets an educator know the difference he or she made in their life. After more than 40 years as an educator, I’ve experienced that many times. I assure you that not once has a former student told me how much he appreciated my contribution to his score on a standardized test. Students have, however, talked about the importance of their relationship with me as their teacher — the encouragement to work hard, the extra attention to help them grasp a concept, a kind word when life got tough, extra responsibilities that built confidence and leadership experience, and making time for the arts and non “core” subjects.

We’ve committed a disservice to all students and educators over the past 20 years by focusing on performance on standardized tests and reducing opportunities for building great student relationships. Initially, standardized tests were reserved for core content every few years, and teachers could maintain enough flexibility to nurture and support students. Now teacher evaluations are tied to all content. No subject can be studied without the student taking an assessment that stamps her effort with a score while also passing judgment on her teacher.

According to recommendations from the ERC, educator pay will be based on student test scores through merit pay systems that all Georgia school districts must adopt or design. School districts will be expected to manage complex compensation models using multiple criteria for every teacher. While district office staff can develop the capacity to manage these systems, they will often require additional resources in consultants, staff and information systems to adopt and sustain the changes.

Clearly, Gov. Deal believes that educators — individually and collectively — are withholding their best effort and therefore need financial incentives to prod them toward improvement. His comments last week that he intends to push for merit pay based on an evaluation system founded on student achievement is a misguided policy response. A cursory review of research conducted over the past 30 years from highly regarded universities, foundations, and consortiums clearly shows that merit pay is fraught with design, implementation and sustainability problems.

A full discussion of the issues with merit pay in education isn’t possible in this column so I’ll mention just four:

•Compensation design for merit pay is complicated even in school districts when teachers, administrators and school board are committed to its success. A good merit pay system is founded on a base salary that is accepted by employees as sufficient, and therefore any additional pay truly is for demonstrable superior performance. A good merit pay system is transparent in that the reasons for increased pay are clearly understood by all employees. Additionally, employees must be able to control the opportunity for increased pay and it must be equally available to all. Student achievement does not meet these criteria because it is a product of many inputs. Teachers are an important input – but only one. It’s too simplistic to believe that a standardized test on one day can adequately prove the value of a single teacher’s contribution to a student’s learning over the course of a year in an environment where many educators interact with that student. Anyone who tells you otherwise likely never spent any time teaching children, whether it’s been in a classroom or Bible school or Scouts.

•Teaching is a collaborative process that requires cooperation, support and teamwork for the benefit of students. Pay-based incentives for student achievement create competition – either subtle or overt – among colleagues. Punishments or rewards for student achievement introduces motivation to seek opportunities anticipated to result in higher student achievement. Such a system discourages teachers from taking on assignments with the hardest-to-teach or the highest performing where there is either the perception or reality that students will provide less opportunity for academic growth. Unfortunately, we’ve seen too clearly in Georgia the result of the temptation to manipulate testing to achieve higher scores.

•The cost-to-benefit ratio to implement the infrastructure to adequately support a statewide merit pay system is too high. Research repeatedly bears out that quantifiable gains are difficult to attribute to merit pay and that the organizational effort required to design, implement and support these compensation models outweighs the benefit. This is especially true when accounting for the resource of time — from the classroom teacher to the district office. The reports from PAGE members about the time involved with the TKES evaluation process and the demands on administrators and student information system personnel confirm the difficulty of implementation of just this one component.

•The overemphasis on standardized test scores and teacher evaluation over the past few years has caused educators to feel more disconnected from students. Opportunities for relationship building and instructional support for students is shortchanged as teachers attend to data collection and analysis and concerns about their effectiveness measure. Students should not be numbers on an answer sheet. Teacher effectiveness should not be defined by test results. Administrators should not be data collectors and paymasters. Instead, they should be focused on learning and growth and they should collaborate with one another to ensure appropriate resources and supports are in place to ensure student academic growth.

Georgia educators have reason to distrust that the governor and the General Assembly will follow through on promises to improve educator compensation or sustain funding for merit pay. The proposed state student-based formula does not fund merit pay. Districts will receive the state average pay for teachers without accounting for the cost of merit pay. The state will require it but will not fund it.

The list of broken promises related to teacher pay is long. It includes supplements for National Board certification, stagnant salary schedules, and sustained deep austerity cuts that have forced local districts to cut work days. And even now the promise that veteran teachers will continue on the current salary schedule based on training and experience doesn’t hold up. All but two Georgia districts will be charter or waiver systems next year and can design their own compensation models regardless of ERC recommendations. Further, teachers who transfer from one district to another will be subject to the new district’s compensation model unless they can successfully negotiate to continue on the traditional model.

Georgia is moving in the wrong direction when considering the direction of the federal government. The newly reauthorized federal education law called Every Student Succeeds Act passed with Republican and Democrat support this week with only two members of Georgia’s delegation voting against it. The bill, signed into law on Thursday by President Obama, retracts many of the federal mandates on testing and abandons any guidance on teacher evaluation.

On behalf of the 90,000 PAGE members and the students they serve, we request that Gov. Deal eliminate or significantly reduce the standardized test percentages used to evaluate teachers and school leaders and reject the proposal that teacher compensation be based on those test scores. Georgia’s current evaluation system bases 50 percent of teacher evaluations and 70 percent of administrator evaluations on student test scores. This is a disservice to teachers, school leaders and, most importantly, students. Georgia will not succeed in moderating the negative impact of high-stakes testing on students by building educator evaluation, certification and compensation on student test scores.

Our students deserve better.

Georgia educators do not fear accountability. They take seriously their responsibility to teach all children. However, accountability for a test score that cannot be an accurate representation of their work and effort with a student is unacceptable.

Educators across Georgia want assurance that our legislators listen to our voice. PAGE members will be asking legislators to make a straightforward commitment as they prepare for the 2016 legislative session.

I promise to roll back over-testing of Georgia students.

I promise to oppose teacher pay that is reliant on student test scores.

Georgia’s 1.7 million students deserve to learn from educators who are committed to their academic progress, their development as critical thinkers and their ability to pursue creative expression rather than focus on standardized test scores and how those scores will affect their evaluations and pay.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.