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Minister of Health Kevin Falcon announces his bid for the leadership of the BC Liberals in Surrey, BC on November 30th, 2010. (Simon Hayter for The Globe and Mail/Simon Hayter for The Globe and Mail)
Minister of Health Kevin Falcon announces his bid for the leadership of the BC Liberals in Surrey, BC on November 30th, 2010. (Simon Hayter for The Globe and Mail/Simon Hayter for The Globe and Mail)

Pay B.C. teachers on merit, Kevin Falcon says Add to ...

Public school teachers should be paid according to their teaching skills, not their length of service or level of professional training, says British Columbia Liberal leadership hopeful Kevin Falcon.

Mr. Falcon said he would push for a merit-based pay system if he becomes premier after the party's Feb. 26 leadership vote. But he'll face stiff opposition 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.

On Tuesday, Mike de Jong will release his economic platform which will focus on deficit reduction. Mr. de Jong, who has served as a B.C. Liberal MLA since 1994, is expected to target British Columbia's $1.7-billion deficit as the "elephant in the room" that cannot be ignored.

George Abbott is expected to unveil a populist-themed reform agenda on Tuesday that will shed light on his new slogan, "The people are coming." Moira Stillwell got a head start on the week, appearing on Monday in Revelstoke, in the heart of B.C.'s backcountry community, where she pledged $10-million to create an institute for mountain-based search and rescue.

With a report from Josh Wingrove in Edmonton

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