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Editorials represent the institutional view of the newspaper. They are written and edited by the editorial staff, which operates separately from the news department. Editorial writers are not involved in newsroom operations.

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Editorial: Weaver's merit pay experiment for SC teachers merits a try

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S.C. Education Superintendent Ellen Weaver wants to experiment with a plan to pay teachers extra to teach at the highest-need schools, and extra still to improve student learning. Laura Bilson/Staff

The worrisome thing about having Ellen Weaver as South Carolina’s education superintendent is that we no longer have a voice of caution against the Legislature’s worst instincts when it comes to throwing our tax dollars at unaccountable private schools — for instance, calling out the Senate for transforming what supporters have sold for decades as a plan to help poor kids into one that would be available for kids whose parents make as much as $120,000 a year, as it did on Tuesday.

The encouraging thing is that she's someone who is willing to embrace the commonsense ideas that many in the the education establishment have opposed so vigorously that most leaders don’t even bother mentioning them, much less making them a priority. Her first big example also came Tuesday, when she asked lawmakers to provide $25 million for a pilot program to pay teachers based on how important their work is and how well they do it, instead of entirely on their education credentials and years on the job.

As The Post and Courier’s Seanna Adcox reports, Ms. Weaver asked a House budget subcommittee to provide $25 million — $200,000 each for up to 125 schools that volunteer — for a pilot program to pay “bonus compensation” for teachers who agree to work in high-need schools, along with “incentives for moving the needle for students.”

“Teacher quality is the most important in-school factor for student success,” she testified, “yet strategically compensating the very best educators to teach in the highest-need schools is not something that is often done.”

Critics charge that merit pay systems in government are inherently unfair, but merit pay is common in the private sector, where those programs that are well-thought-out can be highly effective. Well-thought-out, of course, is the operative term, but we don’t buy the idea that there’s anything that makes the private sector inherently superior to the government sector. Besides, we believe it's inherently unfair to pay everyone the same regardless of how well they do their job, and Ms. Weaver's idea has the potential to address a huge need.

One of South Carolina’s biggest problems is that so many poor kids start school behind and never catch up. Early childhood education programs can help get kids ready to start school, and we need to continue to increase our investment in them, but they’re not 100% effective, and not all parents take advantage of them. So we still have kids who start school behind, and we still have to find a way to catch them up.

Anybody who has studied education policy realizes that these students need the best teachers and often extra learning time, yet in district after district they tend to get stuck with the least experienced and least talented teachers. That’s largely because teachers are human beings: Even the ones who feel called to help the neediest students don’t want to go to work every day in the worst schools, which is where the neediest students are congregated. Since the best teachers have more options for picking where they work, we have to find a way to make teaching in those “highest-need schools” more attractive.

Money isn’t a cure-all, but it’s the easiest, quickest and most obvious enticement to try, and Ms. Weaver’s idea of running a pilot program to test out this idea is sound — although we have our doubts that a single year will be long enough to demonstrate that it works, or doesn't work.

It’ll be important to get the details right, such as how we define highest-need schools and student success. And legislators need to fill in those details as they have with other superintendents’ spending proposals, rather than leaving that to Ms. Weaver. But this is a promising idea South Carolina needs to try.

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