On Google’s Knol site, Heritage senior policy analyst Dan Lips and Joydeep Roy, Lawrence Mishel and Sean Corcoran from the Econimc Policy Institute and New York University are debating whether there is a place for performance-based teacher compensation in our public school system. Roy, Lawrence and Mishel argue that it’s difficult to measure a teacher’s role in the outcomes, standardized tests represent only a small fraction of what students know, and that few agree on what the output of education should be. Lips replies:

First, policymakers should provide incentives for teachers that succeed in accomplishing specific objectives. One promising strategy is to provide bonuses to teachers who succeed in helping students to pass Advanced Placement exams. A program to do this in Florida has led to dramatic increases in minority students passing AP exams. A similar pilot project in Dallas has also succeeded in increasing AP passing rates.

Second, policymakers should provide school-wide bonuses to high performing schools to encourage improvement throughout the school. States can encourage progress by providing financial awards to schools that make progress on certain outcome measures (like graduation rates and standardized tests). Under such a reward system, the school community as a whole benefits from improved academic achievement. Teachers could be given a say in how the bonus is distributed.

Third, school leaders and principals should be given more authority, including the power to provide bonuses to the most effective teachers. Ultimately, a principal will be in the best position to determine which teachers are most effective. Reforms that give principals the power to determine how teachers are compensated should be welcomed as a promising strategy to move toward merit pay (without a sole focus on standardized test scores).

The bottom line is that we need to move away from the uniform approach to teacher pay that prevails in American education. These performance-based pay strategies—including the use of standardized tests—offer a promising alternative.

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