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Opinion: NJ's 'Fatally Flawed' Merit Pay Program

Our problem in New Jersey is not the lack of a merit system. Our problem is how we’ve chosen to measure merit.

In Tuesday’s State of the State speech, Governor Chris Christie declared education reform his highest priority.

"The time for a national conversation on tenure is long past due," Christie asserted. "I propose that we reward the best teachers, based on merit at the individual teacher level.… I am committed to improving the measurement and evaluation of teachers."

Been there, done that, Guv.

New Jersey has had a merit pay system for teachers for years. True, leaders of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) deny it exists. President Barbara Keshishian said recently that any merit pay proposal is "fatally flawed." That's just semantics. Our problem in NJ is not the lack of a merit system. The problem is how we’ve chosen to measure merit.

Let's look at other professions. Musicians secure seats in prestigious orchestras through a combination of art and expertise. Contractors are awarded bonuses for finishing a job in a timely and proficient fashion. Cardiologists with a record of successful heart procedures are often offered plum jobs in top-notch clinics, with higher compensation to boot.

Irrelevant Metrics

But in public education we measure professional success and merit pay through metrics irrelevant to student achievement.

Let’s get more specific. Choose any NJ public school district and get the contract (public information, by the way) between the local union and the school board.

A pencil poke on a map got me Cherry Hill. Look for the salary guide in the back of the contract to see how the local district awards merit pay. Cherry Hill's 2008-2009 salary guide shows that a first-year teacher assigned a full teaching load got $53,992. By the seventeenth year of service, the same teacher gets $101,443. Cherry Hill awards merit pay for time served, almost doubling the salary of a long-term teacher over a new instructor.

The second metric used for merit pay is college credit and degrees earned beyond a B.A. In Cherry Hill, that first-year teacher with a B.A. gets $53,992, but if he or she has an M.A. plus an additional 30 credits the starting salary is $63,339. This district, like all districts in NJ, awards merit pay for additional college work. (Many districts, in fact, cover tuition costs for that additional coursework.) Combine the two chosen metrics -- seniority and college credentials --and merit pay soars. A teacher with an M.A. plus 30 credits who has been working for 17 years earns $110,790.

Professional Reading

There’s a plethora of recent studies on the irrelevance of seniority and advanced degrees to student outcomes. For your reading pleasure, here’s one from the National Center on Teaching Quality, one from Harvard, and another from school economist guru Eric A. Hanushek, who writes that while some teachers are "dramatically more effective in the classroom (a good teacher will get a gain of 1.5 grade-level equivalents" for an individual student "while a bad teacher will get 0.5 year for a single academic year") neither advanced degrees nor years in service "has been shown to be consistently related to student performance."

Statewide, 42 percent of our teachers have M.A.’s. The merit pay associated with locally negotiated salary guides bumps up annual education costs by $225,600,000. Imagine if we had that money available to reward teachers for skills that actually affect student performance?

As we begin what Christie promises to be a year of education reform, let’s reexamine the rigidity and irrelevance of our metrics for merit pay. Our current narcissistic system disregards schoolchildren and discourages our finest professionals. While there’s no perfect evaluative instrument for measuring teacher effectiveness, we can certainly identify the bottom 10 percent and top 10 percent of practitioners. The former should be gently ushered out of the classroom. The latter should be rewarded for their virtuosity and skill through a new merit pay system that serves not only NJ’s schoolteachers but also NJ’s schoolchildren.

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