As readers of this blog realize, I oppose “merit pay” for teachers on a number of grounds, several of which were exemplified in the decision of Whitmore Lake Public Schools decision to end what they called “merit pay”— a laughable bonus of $100 for each teacher who was rated effective and $500 for teachers rated very effective. Based on an article by Lauren Slagter in Michigan Live, Whoitmore Public School Superintendent Tom DeKeyser announced to the Board that he was suspending the merit pay plan because “…while people are happy to receive it – has become negative” adding that “We’ll find another way to reward our highly effective teachers through collective bargaining.”
The article went on to note another problem DeKeyser encountered with his version of “merit pay”: it was linked to test scores and when the State changed their tests it became “…difficult to draw conclusions about teaching quality from students’ scores.”
Patti Kobeck, president of the Whitmore Lake Education Association, offered her insights on merit pay:
“By taking the merit pay away and rewarding teachers in other ways, I think it will change the atmosphere. We’re here for the kids. Without merit pay, teachers can stop worrying about what another teacher is getting and worry about what they’re giving the kids.”
In general, merit pay isn’t an effective way to motivate teachers to perform their jobs better. Small gestures of appreciation can be more meaningful, she said, because of the lack of respect for their profession many teachers feel.
After reading the closing paragraph of this article it is abundantly clear that an increase in base pay would go a long way to improving morale in Whitmore Lake:
Whitmore Lake teachers currently are under a one-year contract that granted them 1-percent raises, following a 4.9-percent pay cut they took under a 2014 to 2016 contract. The current contract expires June 30, 2017.
Hopefully other small districts will learn from Whitmore Lake’s misguided effort to offer bonuses based on test scores and restore the compensation levels before offering bonuses.
David Brooks Celebrates Human Nature’s Natural Compassion, Overlooking Conservatism’s Natural Darwinism
David Brooks, an orthodox old-school conservative, seems incapable of connecting his humanity with his political thinking. In today’s column, “The Power of Altruism”, he offers several examples of research that demonstrates the fundamental compassion that humans possess and then laments that selfishness is viewed as the primary motivation for human behavior. He writes:
When we build academic disciplines and social institutions upon suppositions of selfishness we’re missing the motivations that drive people much of the time.
Worse, if you expect people to be selfish, you can actually crush their tendency to be good…
To be a good citizen, to be a good worker, you often have to make an altruistic commitment to some group or ideal, which will see you through those times when your job of citizenship is hard and frustrating. Whether you are a teacher serving students or a soldier serving your country or a clerk who likes your office mates, the moral motivation is much more powerful than the financial motivations. Arrangements that arouse the financial lens alone are just messing everything up.
Given the research cited in this column and this compelling paragraph, how can conservatives like Mr. Brooks possibly believe merit pay for teachers is a good idea? CAn’t they see that by encouraging teachers to earn more money by virtue of increasing test scores they are making an altruistic profession into a utilitarian one. They are, in Mr. Brooks’ words, “manipulating an institution that arouses the moral lens” and converting into one that is based solely on bloodless test scores. As a result, neoliberal and conservative “reformers” are creating a school culture that is “less cooperative, less trusting, less effective and less lovely.”
As a result of the “reform” movement we are taking children who are naturally caring and converting them into young social Darwinists who want to build their resumes so they can get into good colleges and earn lots of money. When will we collectively realize the damage we are doing to children as a result of this ‘reform” and cultivate the caring nature of children instead of feeding their competitive fire? Given the recent passage of ESSA and the desire to measure the effectiveness of post-secondary education based on earnings I don’t expect to see a change any time soon unless opinion writers like Mr. Brooks come to their senses and begin advocating a more humanitarian approach to education.
Fairborn, OH, Loses a Committed and Dedicated Teacher. Somewhere in Ohio An Affluent District Would Welcome Him
Valerie Strauss’ turned over her Washington Post Answer Sheet blog to Scott Ervin, a Fairborn OH third grade teacher who outlined his reasons for quitting as a third grade teacher after 15 years. From his description of his work ethic and dedication to working with the most challenging students in a school that serves children raised in poverty I am confident that there is an affluent school district within driving distance that will be happy to hire him… and in that district Mr. Ervin won’t have to put up with Ohio’s laws that pertain to “failing schools”. As I wrote in an essay published in Education Week several years ago, this is the form of “merit pay” that is already in place in public education.
I base my assertion that Mr. Ervin could land a job in an affluent district on my experience as the former Superintendent of an affluent district in NH surrounded by several districts that had “failing schools” full of dedicated teachers, some of whom would jump into our applicant pools whenever we had an opening. Why? Because they knew that teachers in our district did not have to worry about test results because our students scored at the high end of the bell curve and their year-to-year performances never put the school in jeopardy of failing. Mr. Ervin’s experience brought to mind a teacher we recruited from a nearby district to work with students who were not eligible for special education services but did require one-on-one attention because of their inability to “fit” in the classrooms. Through behavioral interventions we were able to provide these students with the support they needed to do the kind of independent work teachers assigned and parents expected. Such a position was affordable in our district in two respects. First, we had the resources to pay for the position (though it was questioned whenever we needed to consider budget cuts) and second, we did not have to devote any resources to “test preparation”.
I consulted in financially strapped areas of the state after I retired in 2011 and worked in many under-resourced school districts in the pre-NCLB era. In less affluent districts after NCLB the focus was on avoiding designation as a School In Need of Improvement (a “SINI” status) or, as happened over time, working to get out of a SINI designation. The SINI focus meant that every class was dedicated to preparing for the NECAP, the standardized test used to determine whether a school was “failing” or “succeeding”. Many of the administrators and teachers I worked with thought the use of tests to measure their schools was preposterous but they all accepted it as a “given” and worked tirelessly to get enough of their students over the NECAP “cut score” so that their school could get out of the SINI status…. but the practical reality was that even when the school was out of the SINI status it was still obsessed with maintaining that status by, you guessed it, doing well on the next round of NECAPS. I found this vicious cycle astonishing and completely wrongheaded since I had spent seven years in a district that effectively paid no attention to NECAP scores. I also saw that the focus on NECAP scores took time away from the focus on what was most important: the cultivation of the love of learning and the ability of students to work independently on projects that interested them. The obsession with testing was taking the joy out of school for students as well as teachers.
I hope Mr. Ervin continues to teach and has applied to districts in his region that are not “failing” and that a Superintendent in Ohio reads Mr. Ervin’s post, looks through their applicant pool, and invites Mr. Ervin in for an interview. He may be good enough to merit a job in that district… THAT’s the kind of “merit pay” we have in America today.
A few years ago John Stewart ran a segment on the lifestyle of “greedy teachers” that made the rounds among my colleagues in NH. The segment featured Samantha Bee as an intrepid interviewer pursuing a story to show American how their tax dollars are being siphoned to pay for the opulent lifestyle of teachers, and it followed teachers home in their compact cars to walk-up apartments in the city and small suburban homes payed for in part by their spouses earnings. The segment came out around the time Scott Walker was gutting teachers’ contracts in WI asserting that taxpayers were being fleeced by unions who demanded outlandish wages and benefits.
In the intervening years, economists and “blue ribbon commissions” on the teaching profession have periodically issued reports lamenting the diminishment of respect for teachers and the need to upgrade their compensation in order to attract and retain teachers. Mokoto Rich reports on the latest such report in today’s NYTimes. This one issued by the National Council on Teacher Quality, flags the reality that most teachers today have to work for years before they earn “middle class compensation”, emphasizing that it often takes decades for teachers to progress through the step and track system to earn the top dollar.
Rich then rehashes the tired debate between the “reformers” who advocate higher compensation for teachers who achieve high VAM scores for several consecutive years and the unions who want to see more money thrown on the current step and track system OR have the steps compressed so that higher salaries can be achieved earlier.
As readers of this blog realize there IS another way to reward teachers based on their performance as determined by an array of measures… While the mechanism described in this earlier blog post has only been implemented in few districts it is an effort to apply research on teacher’s motivations and learning curves to compensation.
One last word on Rich’s report: she, the NCTQ, and many “experts” assume that turnover is a function of the changing values of today’s workforce:
With young people changing careers more often than previous generations, schools need to consider how to reward teachers earlier, said Segun Eubanks, director of teacher quality at the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union.
“We know that unlike the profession that many of us entered 30 years ago, the idea that we’re going to recruit a work force today with the design to keep them for 30 years isn’t realistic in this labor market,” Mr. Eubanks said.
The linchpin in this analysis is the phrase “in this labor market“, which assumes that the way things are today will not change. I believe that we DO need to change the compensation plans for teachers and we DO need to hold teachers in higher esteem given their hard work and dedication. If we could make the compensation higher and more rational, public education would provide a labor market that would attract and retain individuals who desire a job that is secure, rewarding, and beneficial. If we accept “this labor market”, we are accepting jobs that are short term, driven by the desire to make money quickly, and limited to increasing student performance on tests instead of increasing each student’s ability to thrive in a democracy.
“Toward Better Teachers”, Frank Bruni’s column in today’s NYTimes is so full of bad thinking I couldn’t decide where to start… so I started in the middle with this comment that captures the essence of some of the particularly bad ideas espoused by former NYC Commissioner Joel Klein and his fellow “reformers”:
Bruni writes that NYC “…wasn’t (and still isn’t) managing to lure enough of the best and brightest college graduates into classrooms.” The basis for this assertion, according to Joel Klein, is simple: SAT scores! “In the 1990s, college graduates who became elementary-school teachers in America averaged below 1,000 points, out of a total of 1,600, on the math and verbal Scholastic Aptitude Tests… the citywide average for all NYC teachers was about 970.” This raises some questions: Is there ANY study that demonstrates a correlation between good teaching at the elementary level and SAT scores? Is Klein suggesting that NYC use SAT scores to screen teachers? Is Klein suggesting the current “irrational” seniority pay scales be replaced with ones that reward teachers who obtained high SAT scores as a factor?
The notion that SAT scores can be used to identify “the best and brightest” teachers, like so many of the “reform” ideas, uses test results as a means of judging complicated work like teaching. By reducing teacher evaluation to a statistical artifact it becomes possible to rank “performance” with precision… but it is a precision that has nothing to do with the actual art of teaching. Data driven quants like Klein don’t understand the human factors that make teachers successful and motivated. Complicated analytics and differentiated pay might motivate hedge fund investors but they won’t motivate teachers because the best teachers only care about kid.
I’ll use the balance of this post to dissemble each example of bad thinking:
- “…poor parents, like rich ones, deserve options for their kids“. NO… poor parents deserve neighborhood schools that are as well funded and rich in support services and curricular offerings as those offered in affluent suburbs
- “Because of union contracts and tenure protections in place when (Klein) began the job, he claimed it was “virtually impossible to remove a teacher charged with incompetence,”. NO… as written in several previous posts , there is no tenure in public schools… and unless it was bargained away it teachers in NYS are required to serve probation before receiving a continuing contract that protects them from being fired for arbitrary and capricious reasons. Oh… and if it WAS bargained away it could be bargained back in again if the Mayor or Klein put it on tble… but neither Klein nor Mayor Bloomberg seemed inclined to seek solutions through collective bargaining.
- The bogus reasoning that the SAT can serve as a proxy for hiring the “best and brightest” (see above)
- “…teachers must acquire mastery of the actual subject matter they’re dealing with. Too frequently they don’t.” This “reform meme” was repeated without being challenged by Bruni (or any other NYTimes writer for that matter.) Here’s the fundamental question that needs to be asked of folks like Klein: “What constitutes “mastery of the subject matter” for an elementary teacher? For a music teacher? for a special ed teacher? If certification = mastery then I would be surprised to learn that teachers in NYC “frequently don’t “acquire mastery”. If certification DOESN’T equal mastery, it’s NOT the teachers’ problem, it’s the college and university’s problem and the NYSED’s problem. Oh.. and those Teach For America folks, do THEY have mastery?
- Pay reform I: Klein advocates having “…teachers paid more for working in schools with “high-needs” students and for tackling subjects that require additional expertise.” The example Klein uses to make his point is paying science teachers more than PE teachers… which overlooks the reality that the teachers who would benefit most from getting a premium of working with “high needs kids” who require additional expertise would be special ed teachers.
- Pay Reform II: “…“some kind of pay for performance, rewarding success.” Readers of this blog know that a performance pay is an agreeable fantasy. Enough said.
- Teachers “…owe us a discussion about education that fully acknowledges the existence of too many underperformers in their ranks.” I await evidence that there are “too many underperformed” in the teaching ranks… but I am also awaiting evidence that standardized tests yield helpful and meaningful information.
I learned with dismay that my niece’s school district in OH is going on strike. As a former Superintendent, I always avoided taking sides in labor relations, advocating that both sides seek a settlement instead of a “victory”. While I am not familiar with all the details, there some facts that seem especially problematic:
- The board talked to the press about the offer before the teachers did
- The board offered binding arbitration and the teachers refused
- The board wants “merit pay” to be included as at least an “option” for the teachers to consider
- The teachers want to cap class sizes
- The teachers want to retain their current health benefits while the Board wants to offer a lump sum in lieu of benefits— presumably to get the money they need to provide the additional “merit” compensation
There are some political realities to strikes that are also problematic.
- BOTH SIDES LOSE SUPPORT DURING A STRIKE: To paraphrase Al Shanker: “When the board calls the teachers “greedy, lazy, good-for-nothings” and the teachers call the Board members “hard-headed, heartless, know-nothings” the public believes them both.
- AND…. BOTH SIDES NEED TO KEEP THE EYE ON THE PRIZE: Ultimately, both parties presumably want to pass a HIGHER budget if the board is serious about giving teachers performance pay and the teachers want to cap class size. A long strike with angry exchanges will make budget passage a challenge.
- THE MEDIA LOVE CONFLICT: Facts will take a holiday during the strike and the media will ultimately decide “what the strike is about”… and it will not be a nuanced perspective on the issues, it will be a series of sound bites. A cautionary note: if the editors of the newspaper or the owners of TV and radio stations take the board’s side the public’s support for the teachers could diminish quickly…. and, based on my reading of Diane Ravitch’s reports from OH it seems the OH media have taken the side of fiscally conservative Boards and “reform” politicians against “unions”. Social media may be the best hope for the teachers to “make their case” to voters… but only if the reach extends beyond parents.
- MANY MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC HAVE SEEN THEIR PAY AND BENEFITS DIMINISH: As noted in many previous posts, many middle class voters have lost the benefit packages corporations offered in the past and this has turned many voters against teachers who “traded” higher compensation for better benefits.
- ARBITRATION IS PERCEIVED AS A “FAIR WAY” TO SETTLE LABOR DISPUTES: I trust that the Uniserv representative is ready to explain to voters in my niece’s community why the teachers decided to avoid arbitration as a means of reaching an agreement…. because if it doesn’t the public may be inclined to have sympathy for the Board.
As readers of this blog know, I believe merit pay is a losing proposition (see “Merit Pay: An Agreeable Fantasy” previously published in Education Week for details), especially merit pay that is linked in any way to test scores. Furthermore I believe that having manageable class sizes and a wide array of course offerings and support services is essential for ALL school districts, not just the most affluent ones.
I HOPE this turns out well for the parents, students, and community members in my niece’s community… but fear that both sides may be seeking a “victory” where a “settlement” is needed.
David Kirp’s op ed essay, “Teaching is Not a Business“, echoes many posts on this blog. In addition to the pithy aphorism that serves as the title, Kirp’s essay touches on a host of topics that I’ve blogged on in detail, including:
- the need for teachers to be champions for their students
- the failed idea of using standardized tests as the ultimate measure of education, teacher performance, and school performance
- the demonstrable failure of the “turnaround” idea
- the shortcomings and pitfalls of merit pay plans
- the lack of evidence that charter schools are any better than public schools
- the reality that organizational change is superior to the quick fix inherent in “disruption” and the application of traditional business practices
- the reality that organizational change takes time
- the inherent messiness of any enterprise that provides human services
- the failed promise of technology
A look back at blog posts will show that the number of Times articles championing market-based solutions to education, the use of business practices in public education, charters, vouchers, disruptive technology, and “turnaround schools” FAR outnumber the articles like Kirp’s that are based on practical, realistic solutions. I’m glad the Times is giving its readers “the rest of the story”…. but expect to see several counter arguments in letters to the editor characterizing Kirp as a defender of the status quo, a union apologist, and an academic promoting failed ideas. I hope I’m wrong.