WHO JUDGES TEACHERS?….Kevin asked below who would evaluate teachers in a system that rewarded effective teachers with merit pay. One solution that many school districts have turned to is hiring outside evaluators to provide more objective assessments of their teachers. Who are these evaluators? Well, with a growing number of districts looking to cut costs by offering buy-outs to their teachers (you can hire two or even three teachers for the price of one experienced one, after all), a lot of teachers are retiring earlier than they expected and looking for something to do with their free time. That means there is a pool of teachers and administrators with twenty or thirty years of experience who are free to work through companies that contract with districts, evaluating as many or as few teachers as they want.

The question of whether merit pay is a good idea is a bit more difficult. As the daughter of two public school teachers, in principle I like the idea of rewarding particularly good teachers. But that’s not necessarily what would happen here. Unless you hire someone to come in and observe every teacher in the building, that’s awfully hard to do. During the last few years my dad spent teaching in an inner city high school, some genius decided to make teachers accountable by requiring them to write out justifications for each failing grade students received. My dad’s report went something like, “Student X failed because he was arrested in October and hasn’t been in class since, Student Y was shot in November and has turned in only half of his homework assignments from the hospital, Student Z had a baby in December and has missed two-thirds of the classes since…” Do you punish a teacher for that? At the other end of the scale, my mom teaches gifted and talented students who consistently score among the school and district averages on assessment tests. Does that make her a better teacher than her colleagues (she does happen to be an innovative and engaging educator, but you see my point…)? I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m open to new ways to encourage creative and effective teachers that don’t involve cloning my parents.

UPDATE:I’ve already received some obnoxious responses from people who say, “those who can’t teach evaluate.” Again, I’m torn as to whether it would be a good idea to use evaluators to determine which teachers should receive merit pay. But the reason I pointed out that evaluators are now increasingly retired teachers with plenty of experience is precisely because the old lazy knock on educational consultants doesn’t quite hold anymore. My dad is one of these evaluators who, after more than thirty-five years as a teacher and then administrator, is more uniquely qualified to assess good and bad teaching than your average bureaucrat.

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Amy Sullivan is a Chicago-based journalist who has written about religion, politics, and culture as a senior editor for Time, National Journal, and Yahoo. She was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 2004 to 2006.