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Why D.C. Teachers Will Eventually Accept Merit Pay (Hint: Survival)

Right now, it looks like D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee's plan to strip the city's teachers of their seniority and tenure rights in exchange for huge pay increases has run into a wall of opposition from union members who value security over a meatier paycheck.

The hurricane of change that Rhee represents is scary enough to many teachers that they are ready to say No to raises that could send their salaries over the $100,000 mark.

But there is a reason the teachers' own union president, George Parker, has been working with Rhee on finding a palatable way to accept the chancellor's bid to sack lousy teachers: Parker recognizes that unless the regular public schools start competing effectively against the city's 56 charter schools, his members will find themselves losing their jobs anyway, as the public schools continue to shrink at a rapid pace.

In an interview with Teacher Quality Bulletin, a publication of the National Council on Teacher Quality, Parker, president of the Washington Teachers Union, spells out the problem his membership faces:

The union has now had to take on a dual role. Previously our main concern was bread and butter issues--to make sure teachers have good benefits and working conditions. We didn't have to be that concerned about keeping children in [D.C. schools]. But now around 21,000 of our students are in charters and around 45,000 in public schools. We lost 6,000 students last year. The charter schools have created a competition where the very survival of the union and the job security of our teachers is not dependent on the language in our contract. It is dependent on our ability to recruit and maintain students because we are funded pretty much by the number of students we have enrolled in the public system.

It puts the union in a different light. It's not just the contract that protects jobs but also student enrollment.... The more students we have, the more teachers we can employ, and the more security we can develop in terms of jobs.

But of course, as much as Parker may see an advantage in cutting a deal with Rhee, other union officials and many members do not. Union activists such as Nathan Saunders and Jerome Brocks, who joined me on Raw Fisher Radio recently, see the merit pay plan as a direct assault on the jobs of many of their colleagues. "I'm not giving up my seniority no matter how much money they throw at me," Brocks said. "Teachers are doing a terrific job."

And Parker himself has enough doubts that he has resisted bringing the Rhee plan to a vote of his membership.

But there are a good many younger teachers who support the idea of incentive bonuses for high-performing teachers, and union chief Parker has been struggling to find a way to embrace that idea while still claiming to oppose merit pay. He says he rejects tying teachers' base salaries to performance measures, but "I do believe [in] incentive bonuses for teachers willing to spend more time and do more and [who] are willing and are able to accomplish more. They should be rewarded." That's potentially a position Rhee can work with.

Parker sounds like a man who sees that he has driven one set of policies about as far as they can go, and it's now time to try something new: "All of us realize that something has to change in DCPS," he says in that interview. "We have been at the bottom of the totem pole for a pretty long time. We have to do something different to be successful."

But in all likelihood, that something different will await Rhee's mysterious "Plan B," her response to a possible teachers' vote against her merit pay plan. The Post's Bill Turque has the first details of "Plan B" in today's paper, and it looks like an end run around the teachers' current protections--a move that will surely enrage many union members. But in Parker, the chancellor at least finally has a union chief who sees the connection between parents who are voting with their feet and teachers who must adapt or lose their jobs.

By Marc Fisher |  September 8, 2008; 8:09 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Merit pay for teachers (or any public sector employees for that matter) always sounds like a good idea yet historically, it seldom works. Just ask FCPS. If arguably the best school system in the area could not make merit pay work then can anybody really expect that the DCPS will?

Speaking of salaries, everyone should check out the list of positions and salaries for the DC Office of Finance. I have never every seen so many so called “staff positions” with starting salaries in the 70 to 80 K range. Could the DCOF really need all of those positions?

Posted by: ntrlsol | September 8, 2008 11:30 AM

"I'm not giving up my seniority no matter how much money they throw at me," Brocks said. "Teachers are doing a terrific job."

Actually, according to neighbors, NCLB, the police and the parents, this statement is categorically untrue. I think the only person who could say this with a straight face is a teacher. I couldn't imagine a less-true statement about the teachers. I could believe they're doing a "minimally-adequate job that is less successful than Montgomery County teachers" or they're doing an "acceptable job with need for improvement." Anyone who says the teachers are doing a "terrific" job misunderstands the definition of the word "terrific." It would mean that DC students are surpassing montgomery county and fairfax county students. They aren't. Statement is proven false.

Posted by: DCer | September 8, 2008 12:59 PM

I agree with Rhee's plan. Teachers need to stand up and stop teaching if your only thing is to get a job. These are government workers, so they should not have a union to begin with. Im ANTI-TEACHERS UNION AND PROUD OF THAT! Its just that teachers a bunch of spoil brats. They need to be be working on improving the 88% of 8th graders that cannot read at level. That is a DAMN SHAME! I live in New Orleans and is graduating in the coming year and is moving to DC to teach there because of Rhee has opened my eyes to how a bad school district can be run to be better. DC better hold onto her, she is worth it from my view.

Thanks Michelle Rhee, Can't wait to work for you

Posted by: Mike in NOLA | September 8, 2008 3:23 PM

As a children's church teacher I have noticed that there is a drastic difference in reading and writing levels between Montgomery County Students and DC students. A second grader from MCPS is at a more advanced level than a sevnth grade Dc student. RHEE's changes might be drastic, but they are necessary. This city needs to shine. Fairfax and Mongtomery left in the dust a very long time ago.

Posted by: Fred | September 8, 2008 3:25 PM

If Mike in NOLA is the kind of teacher Ms. Rhee is attracting, then DCPS is in deeper trouble than it is now. He used such poor grammar that, hopefully, he may not be able to pass PRAXIS I.

Posted by: mpmdc | September 8, 2008 6:12 PM

I too wonder about Mike in NOLA. New Orleans is in the same boat as DC regarding achievement. His post seems to exemplify that. Let us hope he has enough common sense to keep many of his comments to himself. Poor grammar with an accent. Too much

Posted by: DC Teaching Fellow | September 8, 2008 7:38 PM

Mr. Parker should examine why so many students have left DCPS. Perhaps attracting and retaining better teachers could help with the retention of students, and the incentive contract would help. I fully support the new contract. As a non-teaching, DC resident I am tired of hearing about the incompetent coterie of teachers and administrators who are willing to drag down the system to retain their status quo. There are outstanding educators in the system who should be rewarded for performance, and there are complacent albatrosses that should be cut free.

Posted by: Scott | September 8, 2008 9:29 PM

People who are afraid, fear change. Just look at the repubs. They're terrified of Obama because they know their gravy train days are over. Same with the teachers. They know that under the new plan, they must do what the rest of US workers have always done: work hard, be accountable, or pay the consequences. Why do they feel they are entitled to ultimate job security when the rest of America does not?

Posted by: SG | September 8, 2008 10:16 PM

no sensible person could oppose an effective merit-based plan for teachers. (full disclosure, I knew Michelle Rhee in school and at TFA, I am the child of a teacher and an administrator and I taught for four years in LA and DC)

the problem is, there is no work product to determine success. Lawyers get bonuses when they bill more hours. Doctors get bonuses for seeing more patients. basketball players get bonuses for scoring points or getting rebounds. Event planners for putting on successful events. you can go on and on. but what's the concrete work product of a fourth grade teacher (which I was) students' test taking ability? attendance? surveys? homework done? improvement? how do you judge any of that?

until a decent teacher assessment system is determined, why would anyone take the risk of giving up security for merit-pay? and if student performance on NCLB is all that is relelvant, why would you ever take a job in a bad school?

Posted by: northzax | September 9, 2008 10:30 AM

"I'm not giving up my seniority no matter how much money they throw at me," Brocks said. "Teachers are doing a terrific job."

And CNN has a video on-line today that states 88% of 8th graders in DC can't read.

Yeah, DC teachers are doing a terrific job all right.

Posted by: DC Voter | September 9, 2008 10:48 AM

Teachers are already held accountable, every single day in the classroom. Endless lesson and assessment preparation, behavior management planning, and communication with peers, students, and parents keep teachers frantically busy throughout the days, evenings, and weekends.

On top of all that stress and responsibility, Rhee wants the teachers to feel threatened about their salaries and job security. It seems so unfair that DC educators are at her mercy when she only has THREE years of classroom teaching experience. Clearly, she found classroom teaching challenging and stressful as well, and chose to give up teaching for public policy and administration.

Posted by: Heather H. | September 9, 2008 10:59 AM

As I progress through my Elementary Education classes, I'm excited about any opportunity to teach that doesn't involve belonging to a union. I worked in a manufacturing environment for 20 years and thankfully never was forced to join a union in order to keep my job. I'll be done in 2009 and hope Rhee and her policies are still in place, it would certainly make teaching in DC schools more inviting for me.

Posted by: Future Teacher | September 9, 2008 2:58 PM

From a 10-year + DCPS parent: teacher quality varies tremendously in the District. Some of the highest paid teachers were the WORST in my kids' school. The didn't want to be there -- were simply holding out for a pension. They did not teach. Period. They should be fired, as they would be in any other profession.

And Parker is absolutely correct. The teachers union should be worried about having any jobs at all to unionize. I just pulled my 3 kids out and put them in private school, due largely to the poor overall quality of the DCPS teachers.

Posted by: trace1 | September 10, 2008 8:57 AM

Wow, DC is coming around. I'm a Florida guy myself and our schools aren't anything to brag about either. I'm glad to see DCPS deciding to make real world changes. Very few REAL people can under-perform continuously, keep their jobs, and then demand a raise every few years. Only union employees think of this as real life employment. This mentality is similar to that of the stereotypical WELFARE recipient. If you don't have to perform at a level, in your industry, to be truly competitive, why should you survive? Anyway, isn't the actual goal to educate the children of our country, or is it to provide jobs with benefits? BTW, what political parties' policies have done this to our schools? Times are a changin.

Posted by: Jesse Locke | September 14, 2008 2:20 PM

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