Reading climbs priority ladder

Gov. Nathan Deal wants to focus on improving early education and may be willing to pay extra to see that happen.

In an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Deal said he is exploring the idea of a pay differential for top-notch teachers willing to work with some of the state’s youngest students.

Deal said he’s still working on the specifics but expects any recommendations he makes to dovetail with the work of a committee looking at whether the state school funding formula is due for an overhaul after 25 years.

Preliminarily, he said, “I think the salary differential will be aimed at teachers who teach reading and are certified and qualified to teach reading.”

Deal, a former congressman and the son of a first-grade teacher, said his education agenda will focus on pre-kindergarten through third grade and on the critical goal of having all students reading at grade level by the third grade.

“If we don’t start on the front end,” he said, “we’re going to spend a whole lot more money trying to remediate students who don’t have those third-grade skills — remediating them all through the rest of the process and having graduation coaches as we try to drag them across the finish line in order to get a diploma.”

Researchers have found that students who are not reading at grade level by third grade are at greater risk of veering off path in high school and dropping out.

Georgia ranked 38th in the nation in 2009 with 63 percent of its fourth-graders reading at or above the basic level, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly referred to as “the nation’s report card.” On the most recent Criterion-Reference Competency Tests, 9.1 percent of the 126,245 third-graders failed the reading portion.

Tim Callahan, a spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said he’s not sure how the idea of a pay differential would play.

“Reading teachers might like it, not sure of others,” Callahan said.

He also said it might be hard to administrate. “In the early grades, every teacher is a reading teacher, regardless of subject area,” Callahan said.

The state only recently started providing incentive pay that was promised to new teachers of math and science. The first of those bonuses weren’t on teachers’ monthly paychecks last year, but rather, due to the state’s fiscal crisis, came as a lump sum in late June and July.

Steve Dolinger, president of the Georgia Partnership with Excellence in Education, said he believes Deal is on the right track.

“Our research is pretty consistent that one of the most important benchmarks in that birth-to-work pipeline is reading on grade level at the third grade,” Dolinger said.

One immediate issue with the pay differential would be the added cost, he said.

“You could perhaps make the return on the investment worthwhile in that you could use it both as a recruiting tool to get more highly qualified teachers in reading and to improve our current workforce if you set the criteria similar to what you did with the math and science,” Dolinger said. “With the tough economy we have now, we want to be careful about putting additional money out there without having some kind of a return on that investment.”

Deal said he expects his proposals to help students in the early grades will have a payoff, though possibly not a quick one.

“It may not show up in terms of graduation rates during my term in office, but it will show up in the graduation rates of the governors who follow me,” he said. “That is sometimes a view that we don’t often take, but it’s a view I take.”

Asked whether he could have a plan to take to the General Assembly in January, the governor said: “We might very well be in a posture to do that.”