Thursday, February 10, 2005

No Wonder Teachers Union Hates Merit Pay

In response to my Sunday column about the teachers union and education establishment fearing competition from charter schools, one teacher called me and -- before he started screaming obscenities at me -- made the same argument all these union people make: there is no way to measure teacher performance. It's unfair to judge teachers based on test scores, they argue. Therefore, they say, there is no fair way to institute a merit pay plan. As a result, we -- the hard-pressed taxpayers who lack a powerful union to lobby for our interests -- should all accept that the lousiest teachers earn the same amount as the good ones.

This is an absurd argument. In every line of work outside government, people are evaluated on their skills in whatever it is they do. My editor does not judge me based on some objective measurement of, say, the newspaper circulation, but on her evaluation of my work performance. In other words, our bosses judge us and render a verdict. That's the real world outside the protected government civil-service/tenure system. We are "at will" hires, which means that, generally (barring certain protections in the law), our bosses can determine our fate based on any reason at all. That keeps us on our toes. In government, you cannot get fired short of some grievous activity ... and even that is questionable, as the firefighter scandal in Sacramento is proving. Why can't principals decide which teachers are good and which ones are losers? Why can't they give higher increases to the good ones and fire the bad ones? Gee, such a radical idea. No wonder the teacher was screaming.



Gone are the days when teachers' salaries rose automatically with years of experience, or academic credits. In this idyllic Mississippi River town, teachers get an annual raise only if they set and fulfill performance goals. The idea of performance pay — a notion once reviled by most teachers — is getting a warmer reception here. Teachers are trying hard to prove they're worth the money, from more frequent student testing, to e-mailing parents, to trying out different styles for their students. "Just rewarding people for having put in a lot of years, that's one of the things the public gets upset about — and justly so," said Kris Sandy, a high school English teacher. "In terms of having some more reasonable examples of what we do every year to improve our curriculum and be better teachers, that's perfectly reasonable."

The pilot project in the La Crescent-Hokah district and a handful of others in Minnesota comes as several other states examine the way teachers are paid. "Ten years ago, if you were for performance pay, you were a nut. Now we can have a discussion about it with the unions in a very constructive, positive way," said Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who wants to see merit pay on a much wider scale. "It's not meant to be a punishment. I think we're all big enough to realize the system we have now is outdated."

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called for his state to demand teacher pay on merit and tie teachers' continued employment to their classroom performance. In Denver, residents will vote in November on a property tax increase allotting $25 million for a performance-pay model.

Teachers in Chattanooga, Tenn., can earn four-figure bonuses for boosting student achievement; in Douglas County, Colo., which established a merit model a decade ago, performance factors into raises for everyone from teachers to janitors. "We're seeing more action and not just rhetoric," said Michael Allen, who tracks teacher trends for the Education Commission of the States.

The idea hasn't worked everywhere. Cincinnati teachers were moving toward such a pay plan before pulling back in 2002, citing flaws in the proposed evaluation system. In Colorado, the Steamboat Springs school board reversed course after finding the program too expensive to implement. Teachers unions, most notably the National Education Association, are leery about losing the pay security of the traditional system of experience and academic credits. They worry performance pay can be too subjective, and that test scores — a measurement tool often linked with merit pay — aren't a fair way to judge student progress.

The Minnesota PTA, a parents group, favors blending the traditional system with bonuses for superior teaching performance. "They're trying to do this business concept where we look at a couple factors and make it nice, cut-and-dried, simple and easy. Education is not simple and easy," said Phillip Enke, the group's president. Pawlenty, Minnesota's governor, has proposed setting aside $60 million for districts that adopt some form of the merit pay system. His proposal would eliminate the old system and have teachers reviewed by administrators and peers; student achievement would be considered in awarding raises.

In the La Crescent-Hokah model, pay can never go down. However, teachers can go without an increase indefinitely if they don't make progress toward their goals. Superintendent David Krenz estimated 90 percent to 95 percent of the district's teachers succeeded last year, adding $750 to their base salary. Raises varied under the old system. For example, teachers saw a $220 bump between their first and second years. A 25-year veteran with a master's degree could count on $430 by coming back the next year. Darrel Collins, a social studies teacher in his 30th year, said he's noticed a difference in how his colleagues approach their jobs. Collins said the program has worked because peers are involved in the evaluations and teachers get some leeway on what constitutes progress. "It's not a game where you are trying to make yourself look good. We're not giving teachers the raise on whether or not they actually achieved (a stated goal)," said Collins, the head of the local teachers union.

Four years into the pilot project, it's not clear if it's made a difference for students. Reading and math test scores for third-graders have climbed steadily, but exam scores for fifth-graders have fluctuated.



For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

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