Thursday, October 23, 2008


The credit crunch gripping the world’s financial markets reminds us once again that the world is more interconnected and interdependent than ever before.

The financial crisis also underscores the fact that the competition for capital has gone global. Investment will follow the worthiest inventions and innovations around the world.

The realization that America is not guaranteed the prosperity of the past should drive the discussion of important policies that will shape our future. At the top of the list is education.

The challenge is clear. Knowledge is the most sought-after commodity in the new global economy. Math, science, technology and engineering will fuel the future, and preparing students to succeed in these fields will ultimately determine our great nation’s destiny.

While America has made significant strides in reversing decades of decline in our schools, the toughest issues remain before us. Perhaps the most politically charged reform yet to be tackled is how we pay teachers.

Study after study shows the quality of teaching is paramount to student achievement. Next to parents, teachers are the most important factors in determining a student’s academic success. Yet, instead of rewarding our best teachers and removing the poor ones, we cling to an antiquated, bureaucratic compensation model that is flawed at its core.

Most teachers are paid based on their level of education and tenure. However, history proves that rewarding teachers for the number of years in the system rather than the effectiveness in the classroom actually diminishes the quality of education. Many successful teachers leave the system because their paychecks don’t reflect their hard work. Poor teachers, on the other hand, often remain in the classroom, ensconced in a system under the protection of a union that cares more about workers’ rights than student achievement.

As a result, and despite spending more per student than our competitors, our students and schools have fallen behind their peers across the globe - and will continue to fall unless we reverse course.

Thankfully, there are bright spots of reform that inspire hope for real, meaningful change. Support for overhauling teacher pay is growing on both sides of the political aisle. In the laboratories that are our state legislatures, cities and school districts, reform-minded leaders are implementing innovative - and in many instances - controversial policies to put students, and not bureaucracy, first. The characteristics of reform are simple.

(1) We need to use money as an incentive to attract and retain the best and brightest to the teaching profession as well as to the greatest challenges in providing a quality education. Educators should earn more for teaching in schools that are low-performing or in subjects that have a shortage of qualified educators. It’s a simple supply-and-demand practice that is overwhelmingly supported by teachers. Placing a premium on these positions will attract teachers in the areas we need them most - in subjects like math and science, in areas such as special education, and in urban schools where poverty is persistent and pervasive.

(2) We need to measure the effectiveness of teachers in the classroom. If we don’t measure, we don’t really care about the outcome. An annual standardized test is the most objective way to determine whether a student is learning a year’s worth of knowledge in a year’s time. If a classroom of students demonstrates progress from one year to the next on a standardized test, the teacher deserves credit.

Starting this year, elementary and middle schools teachers in New York City will be measured based on the progress and performance of their students on standardized tests. In District of Columbia schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee is courageously challenging the establishment by evaluating teacher performance against measurable outcomes, chiefly student test scores. Calling it a “moral imperative” to provide a quality education to every student, Chancellor Rhee is rightly putting student learning above all else.

(3) We should use the results to pay teachers for the success of their students. Great teachers motivate students to learn and achieve. Across most of our country, teachers are inexplicably compensated without regard to how well - or poorly - their students read, perform math or learn science and history. According to a 2007 study by economics professor Michael Podgursky, less than 6 percent of traditional public schools use pay incentives to reward outstanding teachers. Imagine a major league baseball team paying a three-time Cy Young award-winning pitcher the same salary as a fifth-string reliever. The manager would ultimately lose the better player to a team willing to pay more.

America is at a tipping point on education. All schools - in all 50 states - must get better for our country’s future. We need a 21st century education system for a 21st century world. Overhauling our flawed system of teacher compensation could be the catalyst to making this vision a reality.

Jeb Bush is the former governor of Florida.

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