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Officials have more questions than answers about teacher pay for student performance

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Stacy Vogel
August 22, 2009

Local education officials seem to agree on two things in the debate over teacher pay for performance:


-- Wisconsin shouldn’t let a law prohibiting teacher evaluations based on student test results make it ineligible for millions of dollars in federal education grants.


-- Student testing, particularly the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam, can’t be the only measure used to evaluate teacher performance.


Beyond that, more questions than answers exist at this point.


“We know that (the state) needs to get rid of the hurdle of not using testing for evaluation, but what does it mean beyond that?” asked Dave Parr, president of the Janesville teachers union. “We simply don’t know.”


The federal Race to the Top program will offer $4.35 billion in competitive grants to promote education innovation and reform. But in order to apply, states must have “no statutory or regulatory barriers to linking data about student growth and achievement to teachers for the purposes of teacher and principal evaluation.”


The rule makes Wisconsin, California and New York ineligible. Several Wisconsin lawmakers have announced plans to introduce laws that would allow or even encourage the use of student data in teacher evaluations.


That’s just fine with John Eyster, a retired teacher and former lobbyist for the Janesville School District. Other professionals, including college professors, are judged based on performance, he said.


He acknowledged that socioeconomic factors such as poverty or lack of parental involvement affect student achievement, but good teachers can offset those factors, at least in part, he said.


“I do not buy the idea that (testing) should be the one and only (measure); that isn’t reasonable, but I certainly think that needs to be one of the components,” Eyster said.


But what kind of testing should be used? Several administrators, school board members and teachers, including Eyster, expressed dissatisfaction with the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam, the test used to meet requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.


“The WKCE is a dinosaur,” Parr said. “It’s not fair at all to judge anybody by the results of the WKCE.”


The test is only given to students in grades three through eight and grade 10, and not every subject is tested every year. Results take months to receive.


So what about teachers of other grades, or teachers of subjects such as art or physical education? Edgerton Superintendent Norm Fjelstad wants to know how state officials plan to critique them.


“The only thing they’ve even looked at are basically math and reading, and maybe something like social studies,” he said.


And what do they do about children who change schools in the middle of the year? Whose evaluations do they affect?


Parr and Bill Sodemann, a member of the Janesville School Board, advocate using a system such as the Measures of Academic Progress program instead. Janesville uses the computer-based system to identify student weaknesses. The program tests students early in the year and again later on to see if they’ve made progress.


Milton Superintendent Bernie Nikolay said sometimes progress is more important than test scores.


“Some years you have some really tough kids, and just a small growth is a big achievement,” he said.


He would be in favor of tying teacher pay to student performance but in a subjective way, he said. Individual evaluators should take student progress into account along with factors such as leadership, use of best practices and participation in training activities.


“I like (to be) unique and to try different things for compensation, but not necessarily test scores,” he said. “I don’t think (test scores) would be necessarily an effective tool or a fair tool to teachers.”



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