Fixation on merit pay in Ohio crowds out more vital conversations

Potentially drastic changes to teacher personnel policy in Ohio have been at the heart of heated debates for the last five or six months, precipitated by provisions in controversial SB 5, Ohio's collective bargaining law, as well as about-to-be-passed state biennial budget HB 153. Either set of provisions would change the way teachers are evaluated, rewarded, retained, dismissed, developed, and placed (though Fordham strongly prefers the language in HB 153).?

Among the myriad ways these policies would change the face of teaching and learning, however, ?merit pay? seems to be the maelstrom?toward which the majority of coverage and attention has been pulled. (For a quick experiment, google ?merit pay and Ohio? and ?teacher evaluations and Ohio? and see how many more recent hits the former returns.)

The House's teacher provisions (fingers crossed that that it will get re-inserted during conference committee) would get rid of seniority-based layoffs, develop a rigorous and sophisticated rating system for teachers, undo forced placement of ineffective teachers, use student test scores in evaluations, and effectively get rid of tenure (among other things). And yet the media seems to have a fixation on ?merit pay,? dwindling the entire teacher policy debate down to this one issue, or conflating ?merit pay? with other ? arguably more critical ? teacher policy reforms.

Even worse is that those who oppose merit pay can drum up legitimate points against it ? the research showing that merit pay improves student achievement is weak; Ohio doesn't have a rigorous enough system by which to evaluate and reward teachers (yet) ? and in doing so effectively convince Ohioans that the teacher provisions on the table are worth tossing out altogether.

Such is the conversation in Ohio. Regardless of what happens with SB 5 (which is up for referendum in November) or the budget, or how comfortable (or not) lawmakers, teachers, and the public are with ?merit pay,? this doesn't diminish in the least Ohio's need to overhaul teacher evaluations and policies associated with them. First and foremost, we need to rate teachers in a meaningful way (and frequently). Once that data begins to pile up, and teachers know and trust the system by which they're evaluated (see our videos of DC teachers describing that), and can see how it legitimately assesses the qualities of effective teachers ? only then should Ohio introduce the ?m? word.

We've done it all backwards ? beginning with Kasich's somewhat random performance pay plan that would have given teachers $50 per student who made more than a year's worth of learning (this, happening in a vacuum of data about teacher effectiveness or a thorough evaluation system that would help build that data), being fueled by misunderstandings about what's actually in each bill per teacher evaluations (the majority of Ohioans still don't know the different between what's in SB 5 and HB 153), and then culminating by calls to toss it all by the wayside.

Instead, Ohio needs to consider teacher evaluations as the fundamental foundation to any other teacher policy change, and the media needs to focus on this ingredient far more (forcing people to really understand what's at stake instead of identifying as pro- or anti-merit pay and then calling it a day). If lawmakers accomplish nothing else to improve teacher quality in this legislative session, they must set in motion the creation of more meaningful rating systems (and statewide; among RttT participants is not good enough). Merit pay, tenure reform, etc ? those can all come later; they're like toppings on the pizza. But first we need the crust.

- Jamie Davies O'Leary

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