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Investing in Teachers


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In my Jan. 10, State of the State presentation, I described my proposal to give our best teachers better pay based on the achievement of their students. My plan provides bonuses for the best, while continuing support to all teachers' regular salaries, to provide rewards for inspiring success in our students. Before judging the merits, I hope readers might consider some history that led to my proposal.

I graduated from high school in 1971. Over the 40 years since 1971, South Dakota's student enrollment has dropped by nearly 50,000 students (-28.5 percent) while we added over 850 teachers (+10 percent) and more than 3,500 other staff (+65 percent).

Some of this increased staffing was driven by factors beyond the control of our school districts. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), Title IX, and increased graduation requirements have all led to necessary increases in staffing.

Beyond staff increases, we have also increased the financial resources of our schools. In 1971, we spent less than $1,000 per student (around $4,000 inflation-adjusted). Today, we spend just over $9,000. Adjusted for inflation, we are now spending 2.3 times as much per student as we were in 1971.

These are not, in themselves, bad things. I do not judge a level of staffing or funding on its own. It is fair to put more resources into a given effort in order to obtain better outcomes. But this begs some questions: Have we obtained better outcomes? Have we seen significant gains in student achievement as a result of more money and staffing? Unfortunately, we have not.

We have good schools. South Dakota scores above the national average on nearly every assessment. But even though our scores are good, they are not improving. Our ACT scores in the past 40 years have been essentially flat, deviating only slightly between 21 and 22. Our National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores have been flat as well.

Meanwhile, other states are passing by us. In 2003, only four states' fourth-grade reading scores were better than South Dakota's. Today, 20 states are better than us. In 2003, only eight states' math scores were better South Dakota's. Today 18 states are better. We see the same trends in eighth-grade comparisons.

We must change our focus. We must target our resources and provide incentives for student achievement. Research shows that effective teachers are the most important in-school factor in student achievement -- more than class size, more than facility quality, and more than technology. Research also shows that performance pay for teachers can work as an effective incentive, so long as the system is well-designed.

My plan for education provides bonuses to our best teachers based on their demonstrated ability to inspire student achievement growth. These bonuses will be on top of their regular pay schedule. This will represent, by far, the largest investment in teachers in South Dakota's history.

I am not fixated on a specific merit pay mechanism. The proposal I brought before the legislature is a plan, not necessarily the plan. So long as we are targeting our resources toward teachers who most inspire growth in student achievement, I am open to alternative approaches. Still, change is in order. The current system is not improving student achievement. We must do more for our students.

We will not rush into hasty decisions on the structure of our performance pay system. My legislative proposal creates a task force of teachers, parents, and school administrators to help design objective teacher evaluation instruments. We will use evidence-based practices. We will train administrators so that all evaluations are fair, valid and professionally done.

My education reforms will not turn the world upside down. Current salary differentials, based on seniority and academic degrees are not prohibited, and may continue (although they do not highly correlate to academic achievement differentials). Average teachers will remain on the same pay schedule; excellent teachers will receive bonuses based on the achievement growth they inspire in our children.

South Dakota must use its resources wisely. We cannot continue to define success in education with dollars spent or staff hired. Success in education should be measured by student achievement.

My plan moves student achievement back to the center of our conversation about education. By providing incentives to teachers, we can improve achievement for our students. Please join me in Investing in Teachers for the benefit of our children.

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