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Merit pay for teachers a 'trick shot' argues BC Liberal contender Add to ...

Former BC education minister George Abbott says he does not support an idea from a rival for the leadership of the BC Liberals to give teachers merit pay, suggesting a broader-based effort to improve education.

Kevin Falcon says public school teachers should be paid according to their teaching skills, not their length of service or level of professional training. He promised to push for such a merit-pay system if he becomes premier on Feb. 26th.

But Mr. Abbott, who stepped down as education minister late last year to launch his leadership bid, said the idea would add up to grabbing a single element from U.S. efforts in education policy that has not been a successful experiment.

"Far better that we try to address the education system holistically," Mr. Abbott told a news conference held to outline an 18-point platform for the leadership race when asked about Mr. Falcon's proposal..

He said the focus should be on the period of time spanning kindergarten to grade four when children can best improve their learning outcomes, and that policies focused on better outcomes should involve such measures as personalized learning and mentoring of teachers.

Mr. Abbott said he was opposed to throwing "one experimental or trick shot piece out there that is drawn from the American experience and may not be applicable to our experience," into education policy in this province.

But he went easy on Mr. Falcon, who left his post as health minister to seek the leadership. "I don't want to just disparage the idea. I am sure he is trying to reach out in the most constructive way possible," he said.

"But one can't take one element from the American experience and think that it is going to translate into a better education system in British Columbia without first working through that idea and two dozen others that might build a better education system for British Columbia."

Mike de Jong, also seeking the Liberal leadership, said he could not comment without getting more details on the plan from Mr. Falcon's ideas.

Another leadership rival Christy Clark, a former minister of education, said there is merit in the idea of rewarding good teachers - but it's probably not worth the conflict that it would create within the education sector.

"The idea of merit pay for teachers is appealing to a lot of people on a common sense level. But anyone who has been around politics will know it is almost the most controversial move government can make," she said.

"One would have to think about how much confrontation the government wants to engender in order to make the change. That confrontation is likely going to mean classrooms behind picket lines for a long time. That needs to be part of the discussion - how many days are you willing to have the teachers go out on strike?"

Mr. Falcon's proposal has drawn fire from the union representing B.C. teachers.

"I want to see good teachers rewarded," Mr. Falcon said in an interview, vowing that education reform would be at the top of his agenda. "When you look at education … it is not how great your physical facilities are, it's not how fantastic the technology in the classroom is. It is actually the teacher at the front of the classroom that is the best determinant of student outcomes."

The concept is not new - U.S. President Barack Obama is just one proponent of rewarding teachers for improving student outcomes. U.S. teachers unions have been slow to warm to the idea.

Susan Lambert, president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation, said Monday she is appalled by Mr. Falcon's proposal. "It's a destructive idea that doesn't bode well for public education," she said.

Ms. Lambert said the B.C. Liberal government that Mr. Falcon has been a part of since 2001 has undermined the province's education system with inadequate funding. "The way you foster excellence in teaching is providing sufficient resources to the system so there are tenable learning conditions," she said.

Mr. Falcon, a conservative-leaning member of the B.C. Liberal coalition, has never shied away from controversial proposals. As minister of transportation, he pushed the agenda on private-public partnerships. As health minister, he moved forward with pay-for-performance for B.C. doctors.

He expects the teachers union to balk at such a change. "But that's how the real world operates," he said. "Teachers' growth in income shouldn't just be determined by how long they have been in a classroom, but by how well they are doing their job."

Annie Kidder, president of Ontario's People for Education advocacy group, called merit pay "a really problematic idea" that measures performance based on students' standardized test results. "I have a problem with the underlying idea of the notion that if you just pay teachers more, you do better work," Ms. Kidder said.

While Mr. Obama has offered up billions of dollars for education reform that includes merit pay for teachers who improve student scores, the results of such experiments have been mixed. Some pilot projects have shown students do better when their teachers are offered incentives. But a recent study by Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., showed the promise of merit pay alone does not increase test scores.

That's because merit pay is too one-dimensional a solution to have an effect on student performance, said Susan Moore Johnson, a professor at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education and a merit pay researcher.

"It's an odd thing, because individual merit pay comes up with political campaigns. It seems so simple and gets a lot of play," Prof. Johnson said. But when teachers don't succeed, "it's for a lot of complex reasons - the most important being that they probably don't know how to do any better than they're doing."

Mr. Falcon's policy proposal comes as the leadership contest ramps up this week. Contenders have just one month left to sign up supporters who will be eligible to vote in the B.C. Liberal leadership contest.

With a report from Justine Hunter in Victoria and Josh Wingrove in Edmonton

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