Tag Archives: merit pay

Interests of Teachers Or Interests of Kids?

When I first heard about the teacher strike in Chicago, my thoughts turned to the students. Besides the lost instructional time, I know from teaching in Philly how much students in cities need the structure, safety, and positive atmosphere of school. I shudder at the thought of my own students getting locked out of the school building for a week without anywhere else to go.

Yet as I’ve read perspectives on the strike from both sides, I still can’t wrap my head around the CTU talking point that the strike is somehow in the interests of the kids. To put it bluntly: How could you say with a straight face that locking 400,000 kids out of school for a week is in the interests of students? As I see it, the strike is finally knocking down the illogical but widely-held view that teachers’ unions should be trusted with determining what is best for students. Unions should still exist, but let’s dispense with the farcical idea that what is best for them is best for students.

Amidst the present ubiquity of education reform in the news and on pundits’ tongues, it’s easy to forget that education only recently became a real public policy issue. Indeed, prior to No Child Left Behind and its precursors, education was pretty much a local concern, handled by the only people viewed as qualified to do so: teachers and administrators. Teachers’ unions, then, were given the power to define and pursue the interests of students as well as teachers. Pretty sweet deal. (N.B. I wrote in much greater depth about the history of the unions in chapter 2 of my undergraduate thesis.)

But with the emergence of data showing the flaws of public education in this country, unions are having trouble proving that they still represent the interests of students.  Clinging to structural anachronisms while opposing logical reforms like evaluations linked to performance, substantive tenure reform, and expansion of high-quality school choices in cities is hard to square with claims that the unions speak for anyone but teachers.

The strike in Chicago is bringing that disconnect to light even more.  Teachers are banishing nearly half a million kids to the Chicago streets over getting a less than 30% raise in a recession and  because they don’t want to toughen an evaluation system that laughably rates 99.7% of teachers satisfactory. It takes serious cojones for the CTU to say that those demands are in anyone’s interests but their own.

News reports suggest that the sides are getting closer and students will be back in school on Monday–by all accounts, a great development. But the whole ordeal should serve as a reminder that any organization that keeps kids out of school for a week does not represent the best interests of students. We ought to reconsider where objective educational expertise actually resides.

 

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.

Common-Sense Compensation for “Irreplaceables”

On Monday TNTP released its long-awaited report on the crisis of urban teacher retention. The report explains that the most effective teachers in a given district–termed “The Irreplaceables”– produce 5-6 more months of student learning than poor teachers. Yet those top teachers leave their schools at an alarmingly high rate. Therefore, the report argues, schools should alter their policies to ensure that those teachers are retained.

This is far from surprising. Indeed, all students, parents, and school employees know that some teachers are better than others. The problem is that teacher compensation–presently based on seniority and credentials–implies a false reality where all teachers are equally effective. It is no wonder that a profession which fails to reward its top performers has trouble retaining them.

The fact that some teachers are better than others is not a knock on the teaching profession. Indeed, differences in employee quality exist in all industries. But teachers are too important to society to justify the present complacency. Every kid deserves a great teacher and the incredible achievement that can result, and the failure to retain great teachers is making that much more difficult. Tying teacher compensation to effectiveness would improve retention, shine a light on our best, and toss away the false reality of that teachers are nothing more than interchangeable parts in a machine. Do teachers deserve more respect? Absolutely. And a great way to make that happen–as well as help kids–is to quit hiding behind oppressive and illogical contracts and support a system for compensation driven by common sense instead of convenience.

Obama’s Elite STEM Teacher Corps: A Step in the Right Direction

Today President Obama unveiled a proposal to create a national corps of elite teachers in science, technology, engineering, and math. The fifty top teachers in each of those subjects would receive a $20,000 stipend on top of their salaries in exchange for a multiyear commitment to the corps. Over the next four years the program would expand to 10,000 teachers, with the goal that they would share resources and best practices to teachers across the country.

I’m glad to see this, and hope that this model is spread to other content areas. The structure of teacher compensation in this country is based on the assumption that teachers are equal, interchangeable widgets; seniority, not effectiveness, determines salary. Yet all parents, teachers, and students know that some teachers are better than others. Instead of lying to ourselves at the behest of regimented union contracts, we should acknowledge these differences by highlighting and rewarding our best teachers. Besides incentivizing great teaching with higher salaries, this would encourage the countless great teachers in this country to share resources and best practices. Increasing the influence of outstanding teachers can only help our nation’s students.

I understand why Obama chose to start with STEM teachers for this program–improving our performance in those subjects is perhaps more urgent in the fast-moving global economy. But the principle and simple logic of the program applies to all subjects in all grades. In a time of limited resources, it is especially important to best utilize the resources we have. This proposal takes a big step in that direction.