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NEA: Don't Squelch the Debate!

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I thought America was all about encouraging vigorous debate on important issues, but I guess not everyone agrees.

At the ABC News presidential debate in Iowa on Sunday morning, we finally began to see what a real debate on education might look like, the kind of debate we've been calling for here at ED in '08. George Stephanopoulos and David Yepsen asked the Democrats where they stand on performance pay for teachers. It was by far the most serious and substantive education question to date, and it provoked nearly nine minutes of good discussion about how to improve schools.

Just as important, it highlighted some real differences among the candidates on an important issue. That's a big, positive step forward in a primary season during which serious education debate has been virtually non-existent. Americans need to start seeing how candidates differ on critical but politically difficult issues. How else can they make informed decisions about how to vote?

But instead of celebrating the dawn of a true education debate, some groups want to end it. For example, the National Education Association released a press statement that seems to imply all the candidates answered the question the exact same way -- they were against it.

Now that's just mystifying to me. Anyone who watched Sunday's debate should have seen a difference of opinion among the candidates. Yes, two candidates came out firmly against it. But when Stephanopoulos said "no one on the stage is for merit pay for teachers," one candidate jumped in to say that he definitely is for it. A second then asked for more time to clarify that he is for performance pay under certain circumstances. And a third offered his own version of performance pay -- providing competitive salaries to compete with fields like engineering for top college students.

That's exactly the kind of education debate we should be having -- and the kind Americans deserve! Implying there was no disagreement on the stage at Drake University is like saying all the candidates agree completely on health care because they all have a plan to do something about it. Detailed debate is essential to democracy, and it hurts the political process to obscure substantive differences among candidates for the highest office in the land.

Maybe the NEA just wasn't watching closely. Maybe they simply missed the point. Or maybe they're just splitting hairs. Let's take a look at the exact words in the release: "Democrats running for president reject any mandatory pay-for-performance schemes as part of the reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The candidates also reject any plan to tie teacher pay to student test scores. The candidates stated their opposition to merit pay during a nationally televised debate in Des Moines, Iowa."

Perhaps the NEA is really just saying candidates are united in their opposition to performance pay if it is based on student test scores. But that still wouldn't track with what I saw on Sunday.

For example, one candidate who stated his support for performance pay said teachers "can't be judged simply on standardized tests that don't take into account whether children are prepared before they get to school or not [...]." To me, the word "simply" means he's against using test scores as the only way to evaluate teacher performance. And the words "don't take into account whether children are prepared" mean he's open to performance pay based on "value-added" gains in student test scores -- a method that takes into account how much students know when they enter a teacher's classroom.

That candidate was very careful on Sunday to say he is only for performance pay plans that get buy-in from teachers. But that is happening in many places across the country. Denver's teacher union led the effort to win support for a new performance-based compensation system for teachers there -- one that includes gains in student test scores as one measure. And just last week the New York Times published a story with the headline, "Teachers Say Yes to Pay Tied to Scores." Just because the national NEA opposes something doesn't mean that teachers in general -- or even their local affiliates -- do too.

I also take exception to the NEA's claim that there's absolutely no research showing that performance-based compensation can improve student achievement. In a December report published by the left-leaning Center for American Progress, the Urban Institute economist Dan Goldhaber summed up, "research on the small amount of experimentation with alternatives to the single-salary schedule [...] generally suggests that teacher pay reform can be an effective way to achieve policy objectives."

Again, maybe the NEA is just being very precise in its language when it says "no scientific evidence," since the word "scientific" is sometimes used to describe experimental studies using control groups. But there's very little evidence of that kind on any issue in education. There's certainly no such experimental evidence to support the NEA's familiar nostrums like uniform pay raises or a minimum wage for teachers.

Let me be clear: We might need to raise teacher salaries to attract the most talented Americans into teaching. But I believe that should be done as part of a comprehensive rethinking of how we compensate teachers -- including their performance and whether they are willing to effectively work in high-need schools or shortage areas like math and science.

With American schools needing to hire 2 million new teachers over the next decade, we should all be discussing how to attract America's best and brightest to teach our students -- presidential candidates included. Let's not squelch that important debate just as it's getting started.