03/22/2011 03:00 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Common Sense and Jeb Bush's 'Seismic Path' to Teacher Merit Pay

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush writes in a recent op-ed about the new teacher evaluation system just enacted by the Florida legislature. The law will link teacher jobs to student standardized test scores. He praises the move as "forging a seismic path for modernizing the teaching profession nationwide."

Wow. Sure, Jeb's kinda right. The new law is likely to do catastrophic damage to communities, families, the economy, employment, and other basic infrastructures of life. It's certain to have a toxic effect. But using the earthquake/tsunami metaphor to make a point about pay-for-performance -- however true -- may not be the best choice when people's sensibilities are raw from recent tragedy.

That's not the only tone-deaf aspect of Jeb's comments. Here's another -- he calls test-based teacher performance pay "common sense."

I like to use that phrase to describe reforms that make sense to parents. The difference is that for me and the parents I work with, "common sense" can't contradict knowledge. It can't just be based on a gut feeling, and certainly not a politically-tuned sound bite. For example, folks like Chicago Mayor Richard Daley still assert that it's "common sense" to flunk children with low test scores, but we oppose it because we know that flunking generally doesn't work, and hurts children.

Here's what Jeb says about payment-for-test-scores:

Currently, annual teacher evaluations are subjective and very few teachers receive negative reviews. For the first time, an objective measure of teacher effectiveness -- based on standardized tests that measure student learning -- will be part of annual evaluations. Fifty percent of teacher evaluations will be based on what matters most -- students' knowledge and skills. Essentially, do students know more at the end of the school year than they knew at the beginning? This common-sense evaluation system provides a healthy balance of student data and valuable peer feedback.

Sounds pretty sensible unless you know, for example, that state tests are not designed to be used to evaluate teachers. Standardized tests like those used for NCLB accountability are only supposed to be used for whole-school and whole-district accountability. The results are invalid for other uses such as high-stakes student promotion and teacher evaluation decisions (more about the Chicago Public Schools' misuse of state tests here).

To his credit, Jeb does make reference to some research which, he says, "confirms students with great teachers learn more -- up to four times as much -- than students with ineffective teachers." I'd guess that he is talking about research characterized by measurement and research expert Gerald Bracey as "a circular argument which defines effective teachers as those who raise test scores, then uses test score gains to determine who's an effective teacher."

In fact, independent researchers have found that evaluating and paying teachers for test scores is either damaging or irrelevant to improved learning (see FairTest fact sheet here).

Here's more from a new Parents Across America fact sheet, "Tying Teacher Salaries to Test Scores Doesn't Work":

Research shows that the carrot of higher pay does not lead to better results. In an authoritative study conducted at Vanderbilt University, for example, teachers who were offered bonuses for improving student test results produced no more improvement than the control group.

Similar studies of teacher merit pay have shown null results in New York City and Chicago. Because of the lack of positive results, a number of pay for performance programs have been abandoned, including programs in New York City and California.

Methods that use test scores to evaluate teachers, including the currently popular "value added" calculations, have also proved highly unreliable. The National Academy of Sciences and experts assembled by the Economic Policy Institute have warned of the potentially damaging consequences of implementing test-based evaluation systems or merit pay based on test scores.

Few of us will forget the sight of another Bush brother flying high over the seismic path left by Hurricane Katrina. So, Jeb, we suggest that you avoid disaster metaphors, and, even better, stop praising those Florida lawmakers for a "heckuva job." Now that would show common sense.