Tag Archives: widgets

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.

Thinking about Tenure: The Nichols Case

In the Sunday WaPo, Emma Brown discusses the case of Fairfax, VA sixth grade teacher Violet Nichols, who was recently recommended for termination by Terry Czarniak, her principal. Czarniak provided several pieces of evidence of Nichols’ incompetence and unprofessionalism, including leaving insufficient work for students when she was out of school, not taking feedback well, wasting class time, and leaving emails unanswered.  Nichols, a 21-year teaching veteran, claims that she was unfairly singled out, pointing to her lengthy record as a strong teacher and valued member of her school community. She suggests that she was targeted because of the color of her skin or her leadership role in the local teachers’ union.

I’m not going to comment on the specifics of this case, simply because I have never met any of the parties involved, been to the school or school district, or seen any official documentation. Maybe Nichols’ practice and professional comportment have deteriorated; maybe Czarniak has a vendetta against unions. Ultimately, it obscures the more important point: tenure battles tarnish the reputation of the teaching profession.

The reality is that in any industry, hiring and firing is not entirely based on rubrics and foolproof data. When we interview for jobs, we are told of the importance of silly conventions that are irrelevant to our qualifications or future job perfomance.  Arrive early. Wear a well-pressed suit. Don’t forget a breath mint.  And while data can certainly be used to measure perfomance–particularly in fields like sales–anyone who works in an office knows that intangibles can be just as important in determining whether you remain employed. Are you a positive influence in the office? Are you ambitious and eager to improve? Even if they aren’t quantifiable, those factors matter.

So how does the system work? Ultimately, we assume that bosses have the best interests of the business in mind and so want the best team. They collect all of the information they can about an employee and make a decision about whether they are a good fit. Do bosses make mistakes and fire the wrong person sometimes? Sure. But it’s safe to assume that a boss who makes arbitrary decisions and gets rid of his strongest employees will not remain a boss for very long. The risk remains, but in general the right people end up in the right jobs.

Tenure changes the equation. Principals generally do not have the authority to make decisions about personnel, and if they decide to move to revoke tenure, they are usually in for a lengthy, expensive legal battle. While it is unfortunate that Ms. Nichols may lose her job, I think we need to ask ourselves a simple question: why should teachers be treated differently from other members of the workforce? Judging from Czarniak’s complaints, it seems that Nichols’ actions would have led to her termination in most other jobs. As I’ve previously discussed, if teachers demand unique privileges, we also have to accept a negative reputation and lack of respect. Regardless of the specifics of Nichols’ case, this battle only serves to hurt public views of our profession.

Hypocrisy and Teacher “Professionalism”

After making headlines earlier this week by taking on consumers of trough-sized sodas, on Tuesday New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg switched to a more formidable opponent: the United Federation of Teachers, the union representing teachers in NYC public schools. (I’d imagine the former group will calm down once their sugar rush subsides.) Under a newly proposed law, superintendents in the state would have the power to override decisions made by arbitrators in cases of teachers accused of sexual abuse. The right to a decision by a third-party arbitrator in those cases is unique to teachers among public employees in the city. According to Bloomberg, that is a problem:

“There is simply no reason that teachers accused of sexual misconduct should have greater job security than other city employees,” said Mr. Bloomberg, who was joined by several state superintendents’ groups at a news conference at Gracie Mansion. “The fact that they currently do is wrong; it is dangerous; it is indefensible.”

This type of law is anathema to teachers’ unions because teachers can be easy targets of spurious accusations from  students, administrators, and other teachers. A third-party arbitrator with the final say, they claim, ensures that innocent teachers are not penalized.

I completely understand the union concern about teachers being easy targets. Indeed, on  more than one occasion I have received an angry phone call from a parent claiming that I said something unprofessional to their child when I had not. I am fortunate to have a supportive, trusting administration to help me through those tough conversations, but a sense of helplessness lingers; ultimately, it could come down to my word against 25 others. For that reason, teachers ought to be treated as professionals and given the benefit of the doubt.

But superintendents deserve that same trust and respect. Shouldn’t we assume that they would not be capricious or arbitrary in a situation as serious as a sexual abuse case? Removing a teacher in the middle of the year is devastating for students, teachers, and the entire school community; any competent superintendent understands this. We should trust their professional judgment as much as we want principals to trust our own.

In short, the UFT’s opposition to Bloomberg’s law is hypocrisy. If we teachers want to be treated as professionals, we should give our superiors the same courtesy; discretion to make decisions in the district’s best interests is part of that. It is unreasonable to demand autonomy and trust of the administration in our classrooms while superintendents have very little of their own. We can either be micromanaged, interchangeable “widgets” with nearly guaranteed job security, or autonomous professionals that face the risk of termination with cause. Even my students understand that reasonable people have to take the good with the bad.