Teacher pay: How much is too much?

As a voter who is asked every few years or so to approve a local school levy — would you agree to pay a high school English teacher, as an example, $130,000 a year?

That issue is at the heart of the debate these days over how to best reform and improve the public school system in Washington, D.C. In that city, high-profile school chancellor, Michelle Rhee, wants the teacher’s union to waive tenure in exchange for merit pay.  This is an issue that is beginning to resonate in Northeast Ohio and throughout the country. And it’s an approach that is gaining strong support among business organizations and others that have watched nearly four decades of educational reform efforts provide little, if any, results. C’mon folks. When it comes to education we’ve been a nation at risk since before 1983.

So — reward excellent teachers. Fire the underachievers. Well, that’s a common business model. The question is whether it will work in education? (The Plain Dealer had an excellent series of articles in November that addressed these and other issues, “Good teachers are a key to student achievement, but bad ones are hard to fire.”

Here’s from a New York Times article:

Michelle Rhee, the hard-charging chancellor of the Washington public schools, thinks teacher tenure may be great for adults, those who go into teaching to get summer vacations and great health insurance, for instance. But it hurts children, she says, by making incompetent instructors harder to fire.

So Ms. Rhee has proposed spectacular raises of as much as $40,000, financed by private foundations, for teachers willing to give up tenure.

Policy makers and educators nationwide are watching to see what happens to Ms. Rhee’s bold proposal. The 4,000-member Washington Teachers’ Union has divided over whether to embrace it, with many union members calling tenure a crucial protection against arbitrary firing.

“If Michelle Rhee were to get what she is demanding,” said Allan R. Odden, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who studies teacher compensation, “it would raise eyebrows everywhere, because that would be a gargantuan change.”

And according to article:

Ms. Rhee has not proposed abolishing tenure outright. Under her proposal, each teacher would choose between two compensation plans, one called green and the other red. Pay for teachers in the green plan would rise spectacularly, nearly doubling by 2010. But they would need to give up tenure for a year, after which they would need a principal’s recommendation or face dismissal.

Teachers who choose the red plan would also get big pay increases but would lose seniority rights that allow them to bump more-junior teachers if their school closes or undergoes an overhaul. If they were not hired by another school, their only options would be early retirement, a buyout or eventual dismissal.

In an interview, Ms. Rhee said she considered tenure outmoded.

“Tenure is the holy grail of teacher unions,” she said, “but has no educational value for kids; it only benefits adults. If we can put veteran teachers who have tenure in a position where they don’t have it, that would help us to radically increase our teacher quality. And maybe other districts would try it, too.”

Now the obligatory personal disclosures. I held a nontenure-track faculty position at Kent State and remain a member of the American Association of University Professors. My wife is a career public high school teacher in Akron, a member of the Akron teacher’s union and has a contract that in effect provides tenure. My son teaches 7th grade history in a charter school in Colorado Springs; no union.

One of the reasons I included that last paragraph is that I plan on using this post as the foundation to look at a number of issues emerging these days involving education — among them teacher hiring, training and retention and how businesses can be enaged more effectively in education.  I’m not a strong believer in unions. I’m also skeptical of the ability of most administrators in education (and a lot of other areas these days) to actually manage anything professionally. But I am a strong and committed believer in the need to improve education in this country — and quickly, even though I recognize that Obama is going to have to deal with the economy and other issues before tackling this one.

In any event teacher unions — and many teachers — are not sold on Rhee’s idea. Trust me. Why? Well for starters, how do you measure the effectiveness of classroom teachers? Test scores as measured by criteria established by the No Child Left Behind Law? Maybe. Should you take into account the performance of teachers who work with the most at-risk students in the most challenging schools? Maybe. And are administrators in public school systems — most with no business or management experience or background — really qualified to evaluate the effectiveness of classroom teachers? Maybe.

And maybe voters will approve the funding via local school levies to provide teacher compensation based on merit. But that doesn’t appear to be on the front burner in Akron or other communities. In the District of Columbia foundations are willing apparently to test the idea of merit pay in exchange for giving up tenure by providing funding to the school system. That’s not going to happen in most other communities. So whenever people start pushing new plans for education reform, one of the questions has to be: “Show me the money.”

For instance, on Monday Akron school board President James Hardy told the Akron Beacon Journal that there will not be any new school levy on the ballot this year even though the school district faces a $37 million deficit in 2011. Fair enough. Difficult to pass a school levy in good economic times. Probably impossible right now.

So widespread and substantial merit increases for teachers? Well, probably not.

The board also wants contract negotiations with its unions out of the way before asking for a levy. All of the district’s labor contracts expire this year.

”We’re lucky in the sense that we do have better relationships with our bargaining units than we ever have had in the past, but it’s going to be tried and tested this year,” Hardy said.

He said talks are under way to roll over existing contracts, with the exception of provisions for health care, which might be treated separately.

”No raises, no nothing,” Hardy said. ”Everything remains flat. Keep the current contract.”

Wow. “No raises, no nothing.” So it goes.

Yet the Akron Beacon Journal opines the following day in an editorial:

James Hardy correctly assessed the priorities of the Akron Public Schools this year. The soon-to-be president of the city board of education explained to John Higgins, a Beacon Journal staff writer, that the district must put its house in order before asking voters to help with a projected deficit of $37 million in 2011. That includes closing school buildings to reflect a smaller student population, plus new labor contracts, ideally with higher pay for teachers posted in the most challenging classrooms.

“Ideally with higher pay for teachers posted in the most challenging classrooms.”

Show me the money.

And back to my original question — which will serve as the foundation for subsequent posts — would you pay a public school teacher $130,000 a year — in Akron, Washington, or elsewhere?

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2 responses to “Teacher pay: How much is too much?

  1. “Well for starters, how do you measure the effectiveness of classroom teachers?”

    There’s the rub. A good teacher is like pornography: I know it when I see it. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself)

    Interesting concept. Unfortunately, it will crater in the DC system. Entrenched political and bureaucratic interests.

    And I’m far from convinced that teacher compensation is a burning issue in Ohio public education. State funding of public education is. There is the crisis.

  2. Doug,

    Thanks for your comment. And you’re correct. Measuring the effectiveness of classroom teachers is the rub. But you won’t/can’t have a merit pay system without it.

    “Education reform” is a complex issue. And it’s interesting, at least to me, to see the emphasis after all these years that is now being placed on teacher quality and performance, tenure, unions, merit pay, etc.

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