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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.

By Marc Fisher |  October 22, 2007; 7:10 AM ET
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I'm tired of hearing about DC and its education and schools stuff. Booooring!

Posted by: Stick | October 22, 2007 9:45 AM

Mr. Fisher,

You raise a powerful point regarding the potential danger in linking merit pay to standardized testing. Providing incentives for highly effective teaching makes sense, but only if we're using truly authentic measures to evaluate what "highly effective teaching" looks like.

One alternative being used by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards involves a comprehensive portfolio assessment that looks at all facets of a teacher's work, not just how her students perform on tests.

As DC considers the possibility of merit pay for its teachers, this is an ideal time to begin serious discussions about what quality teaching and learning look like - before and beyond the test.

What's happening in an effective teacher's classroom every day, not just one day a year?

And how are we supporting ALL of our teachers so they each become more effective and EVERY child in the district has access to a quality education?

Posted by: Jenna Fournel, Center for Inspired Teaching | October 22, 2007 10:13 AM

At current standards -- Red Badge of Courage is book for Ph. D studies not 9th grade or even 12th grade English. It is too hard.

We are all punks and in 5, 10, 15, 20 years when we are brain dead from being numbed up and dumbed up we will see -- yeah, we made mistakes that their consequences are irreversible.

1/3 of all Ph. D candidates are forieg born even with restrictions on immigration.

Why is that?

Because we are/is punks. We being society.

Posted by: DreamCity 4 Life | October 22, 2007 11:06 AM

Marc, you missed another huge danger with this plan. It's the same thing sinking GM and Ford -- pensions where there will be more retirees than workers. Look, if someone is 55 and worked 25 years as a teacher, they probably have 30 years left as a retiree. That's ridiculous. It's as if we think the economy could be supported by a small proportion of the population actually working. This is absurd and will bankrupt the city.

Posted by: Ryan | October 22, 2007 12:52 PM

My wife is currently a teacher. She worked in DCPS and likened those days to being a social worker moreso than anything educational. She started at one SE school where all the boys except 1 and a number of girls in the class were targeted for special ed because of behavior. Class was off the hook, and I wiped many tears. These were 3 or 4th graders. She was "excessed" to another school that was almost a night and day difference. Even still the 2-3 kids targeted for special ed demanded all her time. One being ADHD, and the other 2 just fighting any and every body everyday but read at non grade level, and should have been retained at lower grades. Now explain to me how my wife would have the chance to be competitive to warrant performance bonuses?

Now at her new school, she has about 5 spanish speaking kids of which 2 speak little to know english at all. Exlain to me how she can compare to the teacher in certain parts of Bethesda, Germantown or Potomac.

This school BS is an eternal blame game. I am not one that blames everything on the parents but at least in elementary parents have to be held accountable for the kids performance and behavior in school. By HS, the kids should be held accountable. HS kids no the difference between winning and losing and know quite well what will make them successful or a loser. You do not turn you back to them, but you make them accountable.

Posted by: RobGreg | October 22, 2007 1:44 PM

How many grammatical errors are present in the above posts? I hate to be pedantic about these things, but really, some of these posters have been writing in crazy sentences (or should I say non-sentences) multiple times in response to these columns.

Posted by: DCer | October 22, 2007 2:10 PM

In your post, you suggest that teachers as a group are against performance pay. However, unions particularly large, involuntary ones like the WTU, don't always speak for their members. I am a certified teacher in DCPS, and find it worth clarifying that not only do I believe that performance-based pay should be implemented in order to retain and attract talented teachers, but that many, many of my colleagues do as well.

We are tired of making tens of thousands of dollars less than the teacher across the hall who shows movies every day, while we are striving in our classrooms to raise student achievement. Accountability is an expectation in other professions - why not in teaching?

Posted by: DC Teacher | October 22, 2007 2:48 PM

One of my post is above yours. If you want to play grammar police versus offering an opinion shut up. find a blog on bad grammar be-otch! now look that up in your Webster's New Dictionary.

Posted by: F-U DCer | October 22, 2007 3:58 PM

After the third time I've seen the same poster claim some kind of secret knowledge of education that they are unable to articulate, I find the irony in that is perfectly legitimate expression. Some people make themselves their own parodies, but please, don't fault us for laughing. That would be unfair.

Posted by: DCer | October 22, 2007 4:55 PM

Unions are one of the worst things to every happen to the poor kids who have to attend dc horribly PS system. Merit Pay is a great step towards making the kids the focus point, not pleasing the Union. However anyone can teach to a test, so other measures are needed as well.

Posted by: Jon | October 22, 2007 7:04 PM

Kudos, Marc. We need to pay the excellent teachers much, much more and implement a fair yet viable process for terminating underperformers. I'm tired of hearing people say there is no way to judge the incompetent teachers and those who have "retired in place." That's nonsense. (And, yes, it should be based on more than just test scores.) We have incredible teachers at our DCPS school making $35,000 per year, and awful, awful teachers who simply assign work (I don't consider that teaching) who make $85,000 per year. All based on seniority. And, dare I say it? The pensions need to go. Teachers need to get 401ks like the rest of the country (and teachers in charter schools) and then the accounts can be portable, and teachers need not hang on to a job they don't want anymore simply for the pension. Who wants to do the same thing for 30 years?

Posted by: DCPS parent | October 22, 2007 8:10 PM

It is remarkable that few pontificators (including, seemingly, Klein and Bloomberg) appear willing to examine the research regarding extrinsic incentives in the social sector. The results are quite clear: peformance-based incentivization in the social sector tends to de-motivate in the long-term.

There are real problems to be solved. Students, however, do not make for good widgets and teachers should not be treated like assembly-line workers.

Posted by: DC bill | October 22, 2007 9:26 PM

"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."
Oh yeah.
Just imagine the oversight.
Didn't the DC teachers "union" (are they are union? can they strike?
The teachers in MD are not unionized. They can't strike) just have a problem where the leaders of it were embezzling money?

This will be fair. Not!

Posted by: Ted | October 22, 2007 9:58 PM

I just don't get the emphasis on innovation. Innovation is for excellent institutions looking to become outstanding. Mediocre institutions looking to become just average should be looking to the tried and true.

Posted by: DC taxpayer | October 23, 2007 12:16 AM

As an 56 year old American of African descent,(I dislike the term African American, I'm an American first and foremost,)I find it disheartening that no one seems really willing to say that which is so obvious to me. Chancellor Rhee's challenge is not one of "fixing a broken school system," but, one of, to put it bluntly, trying to seperate, and guide a dysfunctional school system from a broken culture. The current Black culture is simply abysmal, and the teacher's are mostly drawn from that rank. I watched the Newshour and saw a principal straight out of "girls in the hood," meets, "girls gone wild." I was appalled at her lack of proffesionalism, at her inability to see herself as a proffesional, dealing with a wayward child, as opposed to an inner city woman "dissed" and challenged by an troubled, angry and reactive youth, that's she there to counsel and show by example, what maturity is supposed to look like. She came off like an uneducated, fed-up to here, inner city "gangsta gal" that was just about ready to go off the deep end. It was very unseemly, and almost embarrassing to watch. Now, this is supposed to be an example?? And this is the principal, for God's sake. There was a really fat woman teacher, as many of us are, no disrespect intended,but, she was perched on a stool like acrobat walking a tightrope. She could have sat in a chair, with some decorum, and mindful of her apperance, but, she didn't and subliminally, the message was, I'm fat, don't care what I look like, or how I appear, deal with it, now learn this... while no doubt, the whole room was wondering which way she was going to fall, and if "all the kings horses, and all the kings men" could pick her up. You have an entrenched mentality among the teachers, and the union, who feel that society blames them for the kids not being ready to learn, due to environmental,and family dysfunctional factors,and feel unduly and unfairly targeted, but, resist like the dickens any hint of change, because it might force them to perform. If the kids magically transformed into the "Brady Bunch," still the level of expertise,professionalism, and wholesome demeanor and attitude, would for the most part be lacking, and it can be aptly hidden when confronted with "BeBe's Kids."
The problem is perversely circular, feeding on itself and growing. If you take a part of a thing, it gets smaller, but, the one thing that grows the more you take from it, is a hole. I fear that we are allowing a culture cesspool, to become a "black hole," if you will, one that inexorably, sucks the life out of good teachers, good students, and though I hope and pray it doesn't happen, even good and well meaning chancellors.
God bless you chancellor Rhee.
May the wind be at your back, for there will certainly be a lot of hot air blowing in your face.
Full steam ahead.
There are a great many of us Black Americans behind you.

Posted by: Lee | November 20, 2007 6:31 PM

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