Heated Debate Over Teacher PayMay Signal New Era in Education
Patrick Bassett, president of the National Association of Independent Schools, has a clever suggestion for school leaders: If you want to implement an administrative change that will cause a battle among teachers, he says, form a task force to study merit pay. They will be so annoyed and preoccupied that virtually all other issues will fade away in importance.
Although merit pay is anathema to most teachers in this country who tend to favor pay based on tenure, Bassett predicted a compensation revolution will eventually take hold in some form — and he made that prediction before President Barack Obama praised “rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay” in a March 10 education policy address.
Some member schools of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) are already experimenting with flexible pay models, Bassett told The Washington Diplomat, and the U.S. Department of Education started funding merit-pay pilot programs in public school districts three years ago.
The concept of course is laudable: Generate incentives for teachers to reward good performance, much like employees elsewhere earn bonuses. But the issue is rife with complexity and controversy.
Most public school salaries are firmly anchored in years of service and most public school teachers — and their muscular unions — are equally attached to the concept of tenure, a tradition that has ruled for decades. But it’s not self-serving inertia, union representatives insist. They argue that tough automatic rules for grading, advancing and firing teachers protect educators from arbitrary dismissals and local politics — just as college-tenure systems protect professors who are controversial but productive.
But rigid rules can also protect atrocious teaching, critics counter, which in turn harms students. Low starting pay can also keep enterprising young professionals from entering the teaching field to begin with.
To see the conflict in action, you need look no further than the ongoing drama in the nation’s capital that has pitted the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU) and Michelle Rhee, D.C.’s feisty chancellor of the city’s public schools. Their differences over education reform have sparked nationwide interest in the issue of teacher performance.
Drama in the District Rhee was hired by D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty in 2007 to shake things up in the District’s notoriously underperforming schools. She has since closed and consolidated schools, fired hundreds of teachers, principals and administrators — and proposed a two-track teacher evaluation system that includes a merit pay option. Currently stalled in negotiation, her proposal would give teachers who abandon tenure the chance to earn a six-figure salary if they succeed, along with the chance to be quickly ushered out if they don’t.
Rhee’s no-nonsense revolution has earned her nationwide media attention. “Her tough approach and willingness to take on ‘untouchable’ issues in education have earned her a reputation as a nonideological crusader who might be carving out a new model for school reform,” the Christian Science Monitor recently wrote. “At the core of her strategy is a conceptually simple but politically complex maxim: improve learning in the classroom by improving the people who hold the chalk. To do that, she advocates recruiting and retaining good teachers by paying them higher salaries — but cleaning out those who don’t perform.”
That praise has been echoed here at home: “Her ideas are mostly common sense, but they pass for revolutionary in this arena,” said a recent Washington Post editorial. “Most notable is her bid to loosen the stranglehold that seniority has on decisions about where teachers are assigned, how they are paid and whether they can be dismissed. She wants to tie teacher compensation to student performance, with the most effective teachers earning salaries that would be among the nation’s highest.”
D.C. Public Schools spokeswoman Jennifer Calloway says Rhee simply wants to have more flexibility to shape “the staff configuration” at a school, with less importance placed on seniority, and more emphasis on teacher effectiveness and subject-area needs.
But George Parker, president of the WTU, argues that the concept of “tenure” has been misunderstood in the debate. “It is simply a due process right: While you’re on probation you can be fired without cause, but once you have tenure it has to be for a good reason,” Parker told The Washington Diplomat. In practice that means a school should provide clear and documented assessments, he explained, noting that a teacher at risk of being fired should have an impartial panel evaluation.
NAIS’s Bassett though criticized this logic, noting that “everybody in America has due process rights,” not just senior employees.
Like most teachers in the United States, District educators get paid for years of service plus their academic degrees. “The challenge is how to include a pay-for-performance component over and above that base,” Parker said, adding that his union supports current team performance awards. So when a school shows a 20 percent improvement in reading and math, “everybody in the building gets additional money: the principal, the teachers, the custodians. It motivates everyone,” Parker argues, “but it doesn’t cover individual performance.”
Parker also pointed out the pitfalls with another critical aspect of the equation — the teacher evaluation itself, which he says shouldn’t be based entirely on standardized test scores, or solely on observations by principals either. “National testing in public schools is done in grades three through eight and grade 10, and in reading and math only,” he said. “What about excellence in other grades and in other subjects such as social studies?”
The WTU’s contract proposal rejects Rhee’s two-track model but does include merit-pay features, calling for more “collaborative” evaluations, better instructor mentoring and other forms of teacher support.
“The teachers union has countered with a proposal that includes some laudable support programs for teachers,” the Washington Post said, “but would do little to weed out ineffective ones. Another problem with the union proposal is that it seeks generous pay hikes — a 24 percent increase over the next five years, with additional bonuses — at a time when the city is broke.”
Rhee is addressing the question of evaluation as well. While talks with the WTU on the salary front have stalemated — a mediator was recently brought in — Rhee has gone ahead with formulating a “value-added” system on how teachers should be judged that would also go beyond standardized test scores, which only apply in about 20 percent of District classrooms anyway, though she has yet to release details of what the specific evaluation criteria would be. Rhee is consulting with the teachers for her plan but is under no obligation to win approval from the WTU, which was stripped of its authority over the issue by Congress in the mid-1990s after it refused to renegotiate the then-existing evaluation system with the District government.
A, B, Cs of Rewards In spite of, and perhaps because of, the fears and infighting that have dominated the discussion in Washington, flexible, multidimensional evaluations and performance pay plans for teachers are emerging in both public and private schools throughout the United States.
Merit pay programs are increasingly common in private schools, for instance, rewarding teachers who take on extra work or leadership roles. Speaking for the country’s largest teachers’ union, Sara Robertson of the National Education Association said, “We do support increased pay for things like … mentoring new teachers and taking professional development courses.”
But Bassett of National Association of Independent Schools says schools — and teachers — need to go further to move away from tenure entrenchment. He advocates a corporate compensation model that comes from General Electric. Sketched as a grid with four squares, it puts high performers with a good attitude in an upper left quadrant, high performers with a bad attitude in the upper right, low performers with a bad attitude in the lower left, and low or average performers with a good attitude in the lower right quadrant.
In a school using this grid, a team of administrators and teachers would conduct the evaluations. Teachers with high performance and good attitude get rewarded. The high performers with a bad attitude get confronted (and placed on probation). Average performers with a good attitude, often newer teachers, get mentored. And low performers with a bad attitude get dismissed because, as Bassett pointed out, “Why would you want them?”
Another model Bassett described adds a quality component to the years-of-service scale. It allows teachers to move up through the ranks over time if they demonstrate specific skills, going, perhaps, from “intern” to “instructor” to “experienced teacher” to “master teacher” levels.
But Walter Ailes, director of finance and operations at Lowell School in Northwest Washington, says that type of system comes with an inherent dilemma. “If you create A-, B- and C-level teachers, you’ve got trouble: Tuition-paying parents will say, ‘I want only A teachers for my child.’”
Additionally, “good schools are based on collaborative efforts, not on star power,” Ailes said, citing a common concern that competitive performance pay could pit teachers against one another and harm the collegial culture typical of top institutions. Finally, Aisles pointed out that independent schools can hire and fire at will, so poor teachers seldom last long anyway. “Very few private schools have a tenure system.”
British Schools’ Hybrid Compensation Model One private institution though is mixing it up. The British Schools of America, which began with the British School of Washington in 1998, has expanded to include schools in Boston, Chicago, Houston, and Charlotte, N.C. (also see “British Beat: More Americans Marching Toward Global Learning Model” in the September 2008 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
“We evaluate our teachers’ performance, not the student’s performance,” said Marina Major, the system’s chief operating officer. Three years ago, after extensive consultations with her educators and administrators, Major set up a clear compensation plan that combines the features of traditional and newer pay systems while offering exceptionally high levels of teacher support.
Every British School teacher is monitored and evaluated each year and subject to annual approval or dismissal. Each also gets a package of benefits that can include housing —some of it furnished — and the freedom to develop innovative strategies that can serve their classes and their communities. They are assessed in part on original research projects of their own choosing, for instance, and they have the opportunity to become, through a rigorous portfolio process, “master teachers.”
Base salaries can include small increments for up to 20 years of service with a limit of ,000 for the experience component total. Like traditional teacher pay plans, “we do give some value to experience and years of service but we’re not going to pay for experience alone,” Major said.
After a two-year initial adjustment period (“We don’t call it probation,” Major noted), teachers go into a “tier two” level whereby they work on individualized performance targets created in collaboration with an evaluation team. A teacher is expected to reach targets over a period of two or three years that may or may not include student test scores.
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After success in Tier Two, they are eligible to move onto “Expert Teacher” status. “This is self driven. They have to produce a portfolio of evidence to show expertise in their chosen area, whether it’s administrative leadership, teaching a particular subject, or something else,” Major explained.
The goal is to produce superb teachers while minimizing in-school conflict and amply rewarding those who reach their own and their school’s defined goals. “I’m from the corporate world,” Major said, “and this model, which is still being developed, allows teachers to clearly understand what’s expected and what the rewards will be.”
The system also offers teachers ongoing support throughout the process, including financial help. When a parent, noting the widespread economic crisis, suggested the system could save money by cutting back on teacher compensation, Major had a simple response. “No,” she said, “We’re not going to do that.”
NAIS President Bassett says money is simply part of today’s education reform equation. “Schools are losing a generation of women teachers who had fewer work options and accepted lower pay and fewer chances for professional development,” he said.
“No more…. Change is inevitable,” he added. “To attract and keep good teachers, schools, like it or not, must realize they have to find new ways to nurture, advance and pay the new generation of teachers and the savvy seniors who are now equally free to take their talents elsewhere.”
About the Author
Carolyn Cosmos is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.