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What's a Teacher Worth?

Buried in the blizzard of ballot initiatives faced by Oregon voters next week is an item that could revolutionize the way public schoolteachers are paid. It would tie pay directly to student performance.

This proposal has national implications, since a lot of states are trying to come up with ways of rewarding teachers according to merit.

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It also has an undeniable appeal to common sense. Teachers' products, in essence, are their students' achievements. There's logic in handing out raises accordingly.

But there are also tough problems. How do you judge how well a particular teacher's students are doing? The immediate impulse is to refer to standardized test scores. But test scores have their limitations - especially if a state or district is relying on only one test. Test scores can't, for instance, measure the liveliness or enthusiasm in a classroom.

It would make sense to consider a number of elements - steps individual teachers take toward greater professional development, conscientiousness in dealing with parents, perhaps even ratings by students - along with test scores.

One other point: Let's not forget that things beyond teachers' control have a big impact too - such as students' home environment.

Merit pay for teachers is a useful idea, but it should be applied with care. The point is not to spark competition among teachers, who often need to collaborate, but to underscore the importance of their work.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society