Merit based salaries for teachers?

A storm of controversy is brewing in Oklahoma over talks of basing teachers' salaries on how well their students perform.  State lawmakers are in the process of holding interim studies on the subject at the Oklahoma Capitol.

It's no secret that Oklahoma ranks 47th in the nation for teacher pay, but the idea of teachers making more money if their students perform well is unsettling for some educators, because they don't know how to fairly gauge accomplishments in the classroom.

Lawmakers could try to make the change during next year's legislative session, so this debate may just be getting started.  Merit - or performance - based pay is not a new concept for many industries, especially sales.  But in the classroom?

"Yes there probably is merit to merit pay, if it's done in the right way," says Barry Beauchamp from Lawton Public Schools.  He believes the biggest obstacle for educators and lawmakers to overcome will be logistics.  What is the right way?  "To base merit pay on just test scores is not fair to the students or teachers," says Beauchamp.  "There are several factors that come in.  It's not just that you can look at every teacher and say they should achieve exactly the same thing, because they don't work with the same exact students, with the exact same issues, and they're not teaching the exact same subjects," he said.

With so many variables in the equation, Oklahoma is hoping to learn from other stats and communities across the nation that have experimented with merit based pay.  Lawmakers recently heard about a plan from Minnesota that allows local school districts, teachers and administrators make their own decisions on how merit pay should work.

"They know best what makes their students tick, and they know best how to inspire teachers to help them.  If you want someone to buy into something, then you need to let him have a part in the planning of that," says Representative Ann Coody.  She says another key to the Minnesota plan is that it encourages collaboration.  "I don't believe competition in the teaching field is as effective as collaboration, because of the very backgrounds that our children come from," she said.

Whatever lawmakers and educators decide, Beauchamp says it needs to be widely accepted.  "I simply think that unless you get everybody's input, everybody's concern, you're going to make a decision that skewed in a direction that is not as accurate as it should be," he said.

Representative Coody says Minnesota's plan is pretty new so it's hard to tell how effective it will be.  She also says that schools in Tulsa and Bartlesville have already started to implement forms of merit pay.  Oklahoma is already paying more money to teachers who have advanced degrees, national certification and for collaborative efforts to raise academic performance index scores.  While that's good, other states will still offer better pay.