Editorial: Lucia Mar should vote for incentives

The Lucia Mar Unified School District is just one step away from qualifying for $7.2 million in federal aid for a teacher incentive program. It would be a shame to blow it now — yet that could happen if teachers vote to opt out of the program.

That would be a mistake.

We hope that Lucia Mar teachers will give the program a chance — and not because we believe they are doing a less-than-adequate job.

Quite the contrary; there’s plenty of evidence of strong teaching throughout the Lucia Mar district.

Consider the most recent Academic Performance Index (API) scores: All but four of the district’s 16 schools showed some year-over-year improvement. And 13 of the 16 either met the target score of 800 or came within five points of it.

But at a time when government at every level is cutting back, this is a rare opportunity to pilot a groundbreaking program aimed at boosting student performance by recognizing — and rewarding —effective teaching techniques.

Specifically, the South County district plans to use the funds for mentor teacher and merit pay programs at six campuses — Mesa Middle School and Dana, Dorothea Lange, Fairgrove, Nipomo and Oceano elementary schools.

But before it can proceed, it needs the support of at least 75 percent of teachers at those schools. That could be a challenge; teacher merit pay in particular has historically been a contentious issue with educators.

We, too, would be skeptical of a merit program based on arbitrary criteria, or one that relies too heavily on standardized test scores.

We also would be leery of a system that doesn’t provide adequate support to teachers who don’t do well on evaluations.

But the program proposed by the Lucia Mar District avoids those pitfalls.

Through the mentorship program, classroom teachers will get the support they need to build on strengths and improve on weaknesses.

When it comes time to evaluate them, teachers will be observed four times a year and judged on multiple criteria. Standardized test scores will be considered as well, but the focus will be on year-over-year gains that students make — not on whether they are able to meet a particular benchmark that some may never reach.

Frankly, we don’t see a downside for teachers.

They aren’t in jeopardy of losing any pay, and they could potentially earn significant bonuses of up to $5,000.

They also will be providing valuable insight into whether or not merit pay is an effective way to boost student performance.

We strongly urge Lucia Mar teachers to vote in favor of the teacher incentive program.