By Alex Estroff
Sonaraville High School English teacher Kelli De Guire felt like she was being held prisoner behind her desk while her tenth grade class took the Student Learning Objective test this past winter. Filled with anger, she could only watch as her students, whether they cared about the test or not, determined how big her next paycheck would be.
SLOs are standardized tests that are apart of the state’s Teacher Keys Effectiveness System, through which Georgia teachers are evaluated. Test scores account for exactly half of a teacher’s total score, which then determines whether or not they receive higher pay based on their merit.
De Guire was not angry because she felt like her students would do poorly on the test, but rather that she simply had no power over how seriously the students took it. If a student decided to employ the “Christmas tree” method of filling in answers, they were free to do so, and De Guire could merely sit quietly at the front of the class.
De Guire’s experience is not a unique one for a Georgia educator. In fact most teachers in the state bemoan the practice of tying test scores into their salaries. But the issue at hand is not whether teachers feel they are being treated fairly or not, but rather whether or not the students are benefitting as much as possible.
This issue has been generating buzz around Georgia because of Governor Deal’s intention to implement a more merit-based pay system in public schools. While Deal was unsuccessful in pushing reform in the legislative session that ended last month, it is evident that efforts will continue. Drastic changes are on the approaching horizon, and everyone is trying to influence them.
Given the complex and contentious nature of this topic, it should come as no surprise that there is no clear answer to the question of which method of teacher pay produces the best results. What is clear, though, is that the consequences of this debate have significant personal effects on educators and students alike, as evidenced by De Guire’s account.
De Guire is a board member of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state’s largest teacher association. PAGE is a proponent of merit pay, so long as that merit is not judged according to test scores.
Craig Harper, the director of communications for PAGE, contends that there are simply too many factors out of a teacher’s control that can influence a student’s test scores. “We believe in accountability for our teachers,” Harper said. “But a test cannot possibly account for all that happens in a school environment.”
Harper explained that a teacher can be very effective in the classroom but test scores can be weighed down by a student’s personal problems such as being bullied, having parents going through a divorce, or even, “having your girlfriend break up with you the class before.”
PAGE suggests that another problem inherent in the testing component of merit-based pay is its use of the student growth percentile, which compares a student’s test scores only to his or her own previous scores, not to those of others students.
They argue that this method could severely disadvantage both students with special needs and students at the top of the class because their potential for growth is rather small. If a student requires special education, he or she is unlikely to see the same academic growth as other students. Similarly, if a student is already excelling, there may not be much room to grow further. Harper believes that this blunted growth is then inappropriately attributed to the teacher.
According to PAGE, evaluations conducted by school administrators serve as the best means of judging a teacher’s effectiveness. When a teacher is assessed in person based on skills such as knowledge of the curriculum and level of engagement with the students, the teacher can actually, as Harper says, “be responsible for what he or she’s being evaluated on.”
However, the Georgia Association of Educators argues that the subjectivity of evaluations carries too great of a risk for teacher pay to be dependent on it. While GAE opposes test-based merit pay essentially for the same reasons that PAGE does, it believes that there is no place in Georgia schools for merit pay of any sort, including the in-person evaluation system.
“What one administrator might see as ‘proficient’, another might see as ‘needs development,” says the GAE director for twenty counties, including Clarke, Sally Swift.
Swift also cites teachers’ lack of opportunity for redress as another flaw in the evaluation system.
Swift recalled that last year a teacher received a “proficient” rating in all ten categories except one in which she received a two out of a possible four points. Even though this teacher has no avenue through which she may challenge this score, if she receives another rating of two within the next five years, she will be at risk of losing her teaching certification.
GAE’s preferred pay system is the salary-based schedule. In this system, all teachers receive a base pay and then higher pay is rewarded for seniority and gaining additional degrees. A variation of this system is currently in place statewide, but Governor Deal’s proposed reforms would take it away.
Swift contends that this system incentivizes teachers to receive higher education which, in turn, will improve student performance in the classroom.
“If the Georgia Legislature wants to do away with a salary-based schedule, teachers will be paid the same no matter their degree” Swift says, “which ultimately hurts the kids.”
She cited research on the matter that supports her claim that there is, in fact, a correlation between higher degrees for the teachers and the success of their students. For this reason, Swift and GAE assert that the state should reward their teachers for investing in a better education for themselves. If no such reward exists and teacher pay is based solely upon, what she believes to be arbitrary, standards of merit, in the end, the students will pay the price.
Entirely contradictory to this school of thought is the position held by Michael O’Sullivan, the Georgia state director for StudentsFirst. This organization differs from PAGE and GAE in that, while those two groups advocate exclusively on behalf of Georgia teachers, it does not represent any one set of players within the broad scope of education.
O’Sullivan and StudentsFirst contend that the only way for Georgia’s education system to thrive is to reward excellence in teaching, regardless of by whom it is being done. StudentsFirst shares Governor Deal’s belief that in order to determine which teachers are performing best, they need to be assessed according to observational evaluations as well as test scores.
While decidedly unpopular among teachers, StudentsFirst maintains that the student growth percentile component of testing is an effective means of judging a teacher’s performance.
In response to the argument that personal issues out of a teacher’s control can bog down test scores, O’Sullivan says, “It’s important to isolate outside factors as much as you can. And it is possible to do so.” He also referred to a recent Harvard study that supports this claim.
O’Sullivan dismisses GAE’s notion that salaries should be dependent on simply being at a school for a long time, calling this system “survive and get paid.”
He also is hesitant to adhere to GAE’s position that teachers with higher degrees ought to be paid more. His organization believes that all teachers should be assessed on a level playing field, rewarding the effective teachers, no matter how many years they spent in college.
O’Sullivan’s main criticism of the current teacher pay system is that it encourages good teachers who do not hold as high degrees as some of their colleagues to leave the school.
The current structure allocates greater state funds to districts with more teachers with high degrees. It is no surprise then that the districts wish to hire more teachers with Master’s degrees, given that it will result in additional funds. This then may cause an effective teacher without such a degree to find a job elsewhere, even if it was a top teacher.
The fact of the matter is that the right answer to this question is not readily available. Nor will the state legislature serendipitously stumble upon the right answer in the next legislative session.
Three of the most predominant education organizations in Georgia offered three entirely distinct solutions to the matter of teacher pay. This is also not to mention the wealth of additional issues that are directly tied to teacher pay, such as charter schools and common core.
What should be acknowledged throughout the course of this debate, though, is that its consequences will have a dramatic toll on the way our schools function. Whatever reforms are passed next legislative session, it will be De Guire and her tenth grade English class that feel their effects the most.