Reward Excellence in the Classroom

November 1, 2011

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney said this week he could support merit pay in classrooms if schools, not individual teachers, were rewarded.

That isn’t exactly what anyone would call a “profile in courage.” Most would call it a capitulation to the New Jersey Education Association.

Sweeney, D-Gloucester, told The Associated Press that a merit pay bill that rewards schools for exceeding educational expectations could be debated before the Legislature recesses for the winter holidays. That’s well and good. There’s nothing wrong with recognizing high-performing schools. But excellent individual performance should be recognized as well.

In April, Gov. Chris Christie introduced a series of education reform bills, including one calling for implementation of a statewide annual evaluation system by the 2012-13 school year using the rating categories of highly effective, effective, partially effective, or ineffective. In September, the state announced that 11 pilot school districts were selected to help design a new evaluation system.

But merit pay won’t happen without the blessing of Sweeney, who controls which bills get posted for discussion and votes in the Senate. His main objection to it, he says, is that “politics” might get in the way of fair rewards.

If a fair, objective system can be put into place to recognize and reward excellence — something the 11 pilot districts are being asked to develop — that’s a risk most voters and parents in the state would be willing to take.

Nearly everyone in the private sector is evaluated on his or her job performance annually. Why should teachers be treated any differently?

What seems perfectly reasonable to most people is cause for paranoia and fear on the part of the NJEA. Spokesman Steve Wollmer said the teachers union remains opposed to the concept of merit pay, but finds rewarding schools less problematic than compensating individual teachers for achievement.

“We agreed if you were really duty-bound to reward a school, do it for the school; don’t pit teacher against teacher,” he said.

Merit pay doesn’t pit teacher against teacher. If done correctly, it pits teachers against themselves, giving them additional incentive to improve — and, more importantly, improve the performance of the children they are being paid to educate. Sweeney should realize that and stop siding with an intractable union leadership on the issue.

Voters evaluate Sweeney’s performance in elections. Teachers should face the same sort of scrutiny. Sweeney should get behind any effort aimed at developing a fair merit-based pay structure.