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Rewarding good teachers

07/01/03 12:00AM By Libby Sternberg
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(Host) Commentator Libby Sternberg thinks that more could - and should - be done to reward exceptional teachers.

(Sternberg) At my kids' school, there is an English teacher who is so funny, imaginative, and yet exacting that I wish I could enroll in his class. While reflecting on his talents, however, I received an anguished note from a friend about a teacher in her kids' school whose approach to the curriculum focused more on the teacher - and her belief system - then on the subject matter to be taught.

Many parents have been in both places - grateful to the exceptional teachers, and angry at the bad ones.

But often when we think of the high costs of education, we focus on the teachers whose salaries we resent paying, and not on the teachers who should be paid more in order not to lose them. But therein lies a huge problem. Teachers are not paid according to their merit.

Surprisingly, large majorities of teachers - ranging from 57-70% - support the idea of paying teachers more if they are outstanding, work in tough neighborhoods, teach difficult students, or received special accreditation. This is according to the nonpartisan organization Public Agenda, which regularly surveys the public on various topics, and recently released survey results of American teachers. New teachers in particular support some version of merit pay - a whopping 78% of them.

Nonetheless, the survey also found that the majority of teachers worry that merit pay might foster jealousy among colleagues and lead to principals playing favorites.

Despite the risks of merit pay systems, I know of few people in the business world who would trade the opportunity to receive a raise for work well done for the one-size-fits-all approach to pay in many teachers' contracts. In other words, opportunity trumps fear in the marketplace, and I'm confident it would work the same way if merit pay were instituted for theachers - regardless of the inevitable risks in any merit pay system

Teachers unions however, are not supportive of merit pay. But teachers' attitudes toward the union in general are mixed. Forty-six percent said the union was "essential." But two-thirds aren't that involved or engaged with the local union. And only 19% of teachers surveyed believed national union policies on social and political issues "almost always" reflect their personal values and preferences.

For merit pay systems to take hold in schools, the two-thirds of teachers who don't feel engaged with their union would have to become more involved, and push for this reform. For the sake of superlative teachers everywhere, I hope that that happens.

This is Libby Sternberg in Rutland.

Libby Sternberg is a free-lance writer, former chair of the Rutland County Republican Party, and is active in education issues.
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