10.01.2008 0

A Capital Idea

  • On: 10/21/2008 20:48:44
  • In: School Choice
  • ALG Editor’s Note: ALG News has previously supported proposals for merit pay for teachers, and as the following featured column from the Weekly Standard’s Hannah Sternberg demonstrates, the idea is gaining traction:

    A Capital Idea

    Merit pay for teachers catches on.
    by Hannah Sternberg
    08/12/2008 12:00:00 AM

    IN A PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN dominated by foreign affairs and the economy, both candidates have made a point of endorsing one controversial education proposal: teacher merit pay. Barack Obama even braved the boos of a core Democratic constituency, the National Education Association (NEA), with his exhortation “to reward those who teach in underserved areas, learn new skills that serve their students better, [and] consistently excel in the classroom.”

    Merit pay is an idea that just won’t die. On the school reform agenda for over 30 years, it has been defeated outright or negotiated past recognition in most school districts where it’s been tried–yet, in 2008, the candidates for president apparently believe it has voter appeal. More important, it is still being pushed at the local level, where control of schools actually resides–notably in the president’s backyard, Washington, D.C.

    Washington’s dynamic new schools chancellor Michelle Rhee is currently leading the District’s public schools in contract negotiations with the Washington Teachers’ Union. Rhee was given unprecedented autonomy as Mayor Adrian Fenty’s appointee after Fenty assumed control of the school district in 2007. She’s young, and her only previous experience inside a school system was a three-year stint as a Teach for America elementary instructor in Baltimore. However, she has been engaged since then with the New Teacher Project, a “social capitalist” organization that works with school districts to streamline their hiring procedures in order to attract and retain high-quality teachers.

    As D.C. schools chancellor, Rhee has proposed offering teachers dramatically higher salaries and plentiful bonuses, rocketing their pay to six figures, if they sacrifice tenure and seniority. While negotiations are underway, details are meant to be confidential; however, leaks have been abundant. According to the Washington Post, under a two-tiered system current teachers could choose to remain on the traditional union salary schedule (the “red” tier) or switch to the higher-salaried scale and defend their jobs yearly in an individual evaluation and assessment of their effectiveness in raising student test scores (the “green” tier). All new teachers would be admitted on the green tier.

    It isn’t the first time merit pay has been suggested in Washington. The District has seen six superintendents of schools in the last decade, and more than one has advocated merit pay, with indifferent results. A behemoth central bureaucracy and vicious local politics hobbled superintendents’ power to effect sweeping reforms. The District has long been infamous for combining one of the country’s highest per-pupil spending rates with some of its lowest student performance. In 1998 General Julius Becton, a veteran of three wars and wounded in Korea, resigned after less than two years as D.C. schools superintendent, calling it “the toughest job” he’d ever had.

    Actual corruption was part of the problem, in both the union and the city government. In 2003, the president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, Barbara Bullock, pleaded guilty to stealing $5 million from the organization she had been elected to lead. She had been respected in some quarters for holding a hard line for teachers’ rights–the kind of hard line that dragged out their contract negotiations for half a decade while teachers went without a raise.

    In the wake of that scandal, the American Federation of Teachers assumed control of the Washington union, but in 2005 it handed the reins back to a local president, George Parker. The preamble to the union’s 2006 contract, which Parker helped to negotiate, called for a more trusting and collaborative relationship between the union and the D.C. public schools administration. Both the contract and the union’s website proclaim the organization “The New Washington Teachers’ Union.” Parker recently organized a series of informational meetings for teachers while negotiations are still in progress, allowing union members a 10-minute question and answer session with Rhee herself.

    “Merit pay” has long been associated, by opponents, with fears of favoritism and inequality. Sometimes called “performance pay” or “incentive pay,” it has usually been so watered-down by the end of negotiations that the eventual bonuses or raises are inconsequentially small. Some plans dole out only a trivially higher reward for “exceeding expectations” than the bonus a teacher is entitled to for simply “meeting” them. In many districts, firing incompetent teachers is so difficult, time-consuming, and expensive that principals choose to transfer them to different schools instead. The only merit-based pay reform teachers’ unions have consistently supported is “skills and knowledge” pay–raises based on graduate degrees or National Board Certification, measures not conclusively proven to enhance their students’ performance.

    The American Federation of Teachers is the smaller of the two major national teachers’ unions, but more open to reform. The NEA strenuously opposes nearly any kind of merit pay; they’re the crowd that booed Obama. The union has overwhelmingly supported a Democrat in every presidential election since it began issuing endorsements; however, it endorsed Obama by the weakest vote since 1980: slightly less than 80 percent. In 1996, Bill Clinton won the NEA endorsement with 91 percent.

    The Washington union’s current contract negotiations have been underway since December 2007, before the presidential candidates’ recent spate of education rhetoric, and they could last much longer. Denver took six years to hash out a similar plan, enacted in 2004, which offered teachers raises and bonuses ranging from several hundred dollars up to about $3,000 for meeting various performance and professional qualification criteria. Denver’s contract is due to be renegotiated this year, and tensions are high: “a recent [union] newsletter called on teachers to prepare for a strike if negotiations fall through,” Education Week reported.

    Denver’s plan is new enough that even as negotiations are scheduled to reopen it’s difficult to judge its success and make plans for improvement. Mike Antonucci, an education expert based in California, believes that school districts suffer from a lack of information concerning other merit pay programs across the country and their results. If Barack Obama and John McCain really do favor merit pay, they could draw attention to these unfolding stories, especially the ambitious proposal in the nation’s capital.

    Hannah Sternberg is an intern at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.


    Copyright © 2008-2022 Americans for Limited Government