Perdue proposes teacher pay changes based on student performance

Gov. Sonny Perdue proposed Tuesday to pay teachers based not on their number of years on the job or level of education but, rather, on how well they teach.

The proposal, if passed, would turn on its head Georgia's long-held teacher compensation system, one that rewards educators for staying the course in their profession with nary a glance at test scores: They earn more with seniority and qualify for additional pay depending on whether they acquire advanced degrees. It's a model used nationally, although the Obama administration has openly encouraged states to consider alternatives such as a performance-based pay option, which Georgia is pursuing as part of its application for the administration's new Race to the Top education fund.

In an e-mail sent Tuesday morning to educators statewide, Perdue said the proposal "truly rewards excellence in education." He cited recent surveys done by the state, in which more than 80 percent of the more than 20,000 teachers who responded supported a common, statewide teacher evaluation model that in part measured how well teachers helped students academically. There are more than 120,000 public school teachers in Georgia.

"You spoke, and we listened," Perdue said. His proposal, which he officially unveiled at the annual Eggs and Issues breakfast at the Georgia World Congress Center, would base compensation on a teacher’s overall effectiveness, with "50 percent of that being the academic progress of an individual teacher’s students." According to Perdue, the new pay structure would be adopted during 2013. Current educators would be allowed to either opt in or stay in the current system. All new teachers hired after Jan. 1, 2014, would be automatically enrolled in the new system.

But Perdue's push for this change, while significant, still faces considerable scrutiny.

The state's two major teacher advocacy groups both cautioned that several hurdles remain. Georgia is stuck in an economic slump; state revenues are down by historic proportions. Previous efforts toward similar programs by both the state and Perdue have had mixed results, in part because of budget constraints. And reports nationally suggest it is too soon to tell how well performance-based pay, in its current form, works in schools.

In a book on the issue last year, Harvard Graduate School of Education researchers Susan Moore Johnson and John P. Papay said that while some performance-based pay plans showed promise, they also demonstrated flaws. In some cases, teachers were so unclear on what student achievement counted that they viewed bonuses like winning the lottery -- they were lucky if they got one. Schools also struggled to find ways to promote collaboration among teachers, instead of encouraging competition. Among the systems Johnson and Papay studied were Houston, Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Minneapolis.

"We need more information," said Jeff Hubbard, president of the 40,000-member Georgia Association of Educators, who made an analogy between the state's common encouragement of students to be "lifelong learners" and teachers' efforts to get better at their job in part by going back to school themselves. "Don't cut off you nose to spite your face," Hubbard said. "When I got my master's degree, I became a much more effective educator."

The timing of Perdue's unveiling corresponds with Georgia's efforts to win competitive grants from the Race to the Top fund, which is worth up to $4 billion to states that embrace educational reform. Georgia is eligible for up to $400 million of that money and is up against a Jan. 19 deadline for first-round applicants. According to the rules, states must show how past efforts have raised student performance. They must have a plan to accelerate student gains with reforms that could be duplicated across the country. And they must outline how they would use the money.

Perdue said the state has commitments from 22 local school systems to be the first to implement its reform efforts. The Governor's Office of Student Achievement, which is coordinating the federal application, did not make a list of those systems publicly available Tuesday.

Perdue offered no details how he would pay for the proposal. The Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state's largest teachers group with 78,000 members, is already suing the state over a reduction in pay supplements to more than 2,000 nationally certified Georgia teachers.

One of those teachers is Ken Russell, who said Tuesday he hoped Perdue would reach out to classroom teachers as he refined the proposal and added more details. "I do like the idea, but the devil's in the details," said Russell, who teaches U.S. History at Sonoraville High School in Gordon County. "I'm personally not afraid of putting my data out there for everyone to look at, but the problem is that there are so many variables as to what counts as student performance."