Education Monday: Incentivizing Teachers
Even if D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee win the right to clean house in the school system's feather bed of a downtown headquarters, the biggest battle of all will still lie ahead: Merit pay.
No two other words strike such fear and loathing in the hearts of teachers' unions and, to a lesser extent, teachers themselves. Yet no other concept has such strong support among the new generation of administrators, school board members and reformers who seek to reshape the nation's public schools following the fashionable model of corporate governance.
But now the New York City teachers' union has agreed to a plan that points the way to a similar agreement in Washington. The trick is to adopt a merit pay plan without using those dreaded words. Call it incentive pay, or just a bonus. A simple change of words, along with a big, expensive bribe in the form of a sweetened pension package for the boomers and older folks who tend to dominate big-city teacher corps, did the trick in New York.
With the $160 million deal to let teachers retire at age 55 with full benefits if they've put in 25 years in the classroom, the union agreed to a form of merit pay in which bonuses of about $3,000 per teacher--the money will come from private sources--will be paid to teachers in schools that achieve big boosts in student test scores.
There are several problems with this compromise plan. First, the money won't go to individual teachers singled out for their excellent performance; that was a bridge too far for the union, so instead the money will go to the school, where a committee of teachers and administrators will then decide whether to dish out the cash evenly to all teachers or to reward some portion of the faculty selected by some means to be determined at each school. Second, the whole system is based on test scores at a time when New York's standardized tests, like those in many other states, are producing higher scores, but those scores are being achieved on tests that are being watered down to hide the fact that kids aren't exactly being held to higher standards these days.
The District's reformers have a big advantage in that they are dealing with a scandal-ridden union that is greatly diminished in power and credibility. Still, the Washington Teachers Union is gearing up to fight Rhee's drive to rid the central office of hundreds of do-nothing employees, even though those workers are not union-covered.
Much heavy lifting lies ahead for Fenty and Rhee, but the news from New York is encouraging: If new leadership of the school system there can force a historically powerful union to start letting teachers be evaluated not strictly by seniority but by the actual work they do, then it should be even easier to make that obvious link in the District, where the teachers union stands for little but the disgraceful pillaging that its officers conducted for years.
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