Teacher incentives: Governor might be onto something

September 7, 2011 

Most of the recent discussion about public education, especially in Georgia, has been bleak and bitter, to put it mildly. There has been a lot of talk about how to punish cheating educators, and there’s always a lot of talk -- some of it realistic and practical, some of it shallow and unfair -- about purging bad ones.

Easy to forget in this crisis of public confidence is the fact that there are good teachers in every school and great, or potentially great, teachers in most of them. Maybe instead of focusing so heavily on education’s failures, we should be looking at ways to seek out, leverage and capitalize on its successes.

Gov. Nathan Deal certainly didn’t originate the concept of matching ability with need, in public schools or anywhere else. Nor did he invent incentive or merit pay. But in a Sunday interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the governor did offer a promising take on those things: Maybe the best teachers -- specifically, reading teachers -- should be paid extra for working with Georgia’s youngest readers.

Deal must have been doing his homework on how Roy Barnes, the last Democratic governor and Deal’s 2010 opponent, bungled the education issue. Barnes, a sincerely education-minded governor, managed to doom his own good idea with a selling job so spectacularly inept it still boggles the mind: The most prominent feature of his education program was the public alienation of educators.

In that context, Deal’s idea is good politics -- but it’s also good policy. Most educators consider it a given that reading, unarguably the foundation of all education, is critical for children from kindergarten through third grade. The odds of future success get really long, and the odds of dropping out get shorter and shorter, for students who aren’t reading at grade level by third grade.

It’s also encouraging to hear the governor articulate a pay-now-or-pay-later reality too often doomed in politics: “If we don’t start on the front end,” Deal told the AJC, “we’re going to spend a whole lot more money trying to remediate students who don’t have those third-grade skills -- remediating them all through the rest of the process and having graduation coaches as we try to drag them across the finish line in order to get a diploma.”

In an instant-referendum, quick-fix political culture, that’s never an easy sell. It’s even harder when money is short, and harder still when the benefits likely won’t show up for at least a few years.

None of which makes Deal any less right. Tight budgets or not, investing in proven educational success is a no-brainer. If we don’t do it, we’d better hope for boom economic times, and soon, so we can afford the costs of ignorance. It’s never come cheap.

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