Monthly Archives: August 2012

Merit Pay is Professional

Today’s NYT features an editorial endorsing merit pay for teachers. Entitled “Carrots and Sticks for School Systems,” the piece references the recent report “Irreplaceables” by TNTP as evidence that schools should do more to retain top teachers and weed out ineffective ones. (My take on the report.) The logic is simple: top teachers are leaving the profession in droves, and so schools should offer higher earning potential to teachers based on effectiveness, not seniority and credentials.

That argument, despite its simple logic, is anathema to supporters of the status quo in education. As Diane Ravitch–engaging in typical demagoguery–puts it, “carrots and sticks are for donkeys, not professionals.” Though I’m sure the line got plenty of laughs and cheers at the AFT convention, that doesn’t make it true. Rewarding and punishing employees based on job performance is absolutely professional, and avoiding such a system only isolates teachers at the expense of our reputation.

What always gets me is how “merit pay” is treated as a novel idea, even though it is just a fancy name for a pillar of free market labor economics: You do your job well, you receive a reward; your performance is unsatisfactory, you receive a consequence. The evidence that it “works” is centuries of economic growth, entrepreneurship, and improving quality of life in this country. Why would teaching be different? If these “carrots and sticks” weren’t effective, we’d see other “professional” industries switching to a strict experience-based pay scale. But, of course, we don’t.

The defensive reaction of teachers to merit pay proposals does further damage to our reputation. Instead of treating merit pay as an attack on teachers that aren’t working hard, we should consider it a simple way to recognize and reward excellence. We teachers know how difficult teaching is; why would we want to deny rewards to those who do it exceptionally well? If we want to be treated like other professionals, we should trade our petty stubbornness for logic and acknowledge that what works in other industries is worth a try for us.

Improving Schools by Empowering Principals

Any teacher will tell you that having a good principal matters. Principals help build a positive school culture, support teachers, and bring the school community together. I am fortunate to teach under a great principal, and his efforts are largely responsible for why my school is a great place to teach and learn.

Yet our education system doesn’t give principals the trust and respect they deserve. In other industries, managers are generally given power over hiring and firing of employees, and then (rightly) held responsible for organizational success. But, due to teacher tenure laws, principals are held responsible for school success without the power. Empowering principals with real managerial authority could encourage innovation, attract more talent into the school system, and ultimately improve student achievement.

Principals have thankless jobs. They juggle complaints and concerns from parents and teachers, receive orders from higher district administrators, and then have to observe their teachers and ensure that the school is meeting instructional standards. Plus seven teachers just called in sick and need coverages. And whoops, then the copy machine breaks. All of this while developing a positive, high-achieving school culture and learning environment.

Yet despite that responsibility, principals lack perhaps the most important power of a manager: hiring and firing their employees. It is unreasonable and unfair to hold principals accountable for the performance of employees that they did not select. That expectation no doubt deters talented people–as well as talented teachers–from entering administration. Furthermore, this lack of power blocks the innovation and dynamic leadership that our schools so desperately need. How can we expect a Steve Jobs-type principal to flourish without an ability to make changes and take risks?

It’s no secret that management matters. That’s why corporate boards spend millions to to find a new CEO, why “search committees” are used for important vacancies instead of Craigslist postings. Yet by limiting principal power, we are blocking the potential for transformative management in our schools. As currently designed, our system forces principals to act as little more than custodians to the bureaucratic slog already in place. Given the crisis in our system, that is simply not enough. Let’s give our principals a fair chance to help our schools be more