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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Thursday, March 12, 2009

How do we pay teachers?

by folkbum

The Journal Sentinel has not just ended its community education bloggers program, but has, at least as far as I can tell, let all the content disappear, too. But since Barack Obama announced yesterday his education agenda, including merit pay for teachers, I wanted to re-run something I wrote for them some time ago. Good thing someone invented the Google cache, eh? Here it is in full, with most of the links fixed, even.

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How do we pay teachers?
By Jay Bullock
Tuesday, Oct 23 2007, 05:10 AM

The tentative agreement between MPS and its union -- the biggest collection of teachers in the area -- means that now is as good a time as any to talk about how we pay teachers. I'm gearing up to vote on the thing, and there's a lot in there that I like: For example, there's the return of a mentoring program killed for budget reasons six or seven years ago now. Many schools have informal mentoring systems set up for new teachers, but that can be hit-or-miss, so bringing back the systemwide mentors is a good idea. I like the additional push for using the union's TEAM program, which, if used effectively (that means you, principals!), could be a national model for dealing with ineffective teachers. There is some good, solid revision to discipline and safety measures, some of which will be abetted by the assistance of the Milwaukee Police Department and the DA's office.

But when you get to the pay, there's just a percentage increase. Nothing interesting, innovative or delightfully surprising involved there at all.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not opposed to getting paid more. I am, however, famously on record as saying that I am not asking for more more money for myself. Just a few weeks ago, in fact, I commented at a local conservative's blog that I would be willing to take a salary cut in exchange for smaller class sizes. (Class size is not a subject of bargaining, though.)

The blog post in question above followed shortly after the recent news that a whole lot of teachers, many of them young, out in Waukesha were hitting the top of the pay scale. Waukesha and MPS take two very different approaches to paying their teachers, both at heart supported by the research. There are a few factors researchers can positively correlate to student achievement, two of them being teachers' experience and teachers' educations. The achievement increases plateau before the pay scales typically do, but MPS rewards experience (or, given our turnover, perhaps we should say perseverance) and Waukesha rewards education.

In general, conservative blog reaction to the Waukesha story was typically spiteful, even though the district's pay scale changes came at the insistence of conservatives tired of paying teachers for mere longevity. One moderate blogger, though, quite rightly diagnosed that problem: Conservatives just want to be unhappy about teacher pay, even if they pay scale is the one they wanted.

Just because we do pay for longevity and learnin', we do not have to keep doing it that way -- or at least not solely that way. The trouble, though, is in figuring out a way to pay teachers that is both fair and that fairly rewards teachers who do the kinds of things that encourage student achievement. State Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster has proposed paying teachers in high-need subjects or in hard-to-staff schools more, for example; that would create an incentive for the best teachers to seek those jobs first. That plan never made it into any iteration of the most recent state budget, though. The new MPS contract does not contain higher pay for such situations, but does include some provisions that will make it easier to get good teachers into exactly those roles.

But perhaps the Third Rail -- or, depending on your perspective, the Holy Grail -- of teacher pay would be some kind of merit-based system. The difficulty in designing any system is designing one that is both manageable and fair. I often tell the story of my first year teaching, when I still didn't have my stuff together. I was awful, and I carry around a lot of regret for how that year went. (This is not an uncommon feeling among teachers.) However, because of where I taught then -- an exurban Milwaukee district -- and the students I taught, undoubtedly the test scores of those students were as good or better than the test scores of my students any year that I've taught in Milwaukee. Did I merit better pay then? I've also had principals whom I would not trust to fairly evaluate me -- during my tenure as a union rep, I butted heads with them for reasons wholly unrelated to my classroom performance. My first three years in MPS, my evaluations were based entirely on about 20 minutes of classroom observation -- total, not per year. So, again, I'm not sure that's the best way to judge my merit, either.

But there is something intriguing out there that bears watching, and that's Denver's "ProComp," or Professional Compensation System for Teachers. That system actually combines all of the above elements into one pay system -- experience, professional development, test scores, administrative evaluations and consideration for teachers in high-needs or hard-to-staff schools. It is just one year old, but initial reports seem positive:
If merit pay for public school teachers ever takes off in the U.S., the first successful launchpad will be Denver. After one start-up year under an incentive plan, the city's schools are marking early success – thanks in large part to the teachers union.

One triumph for this accountability tool is that hundreds of additional teachers have applied to work at the city's worst schools, drawn by new higher pay. And even though teachers already on the payroll didn't have to participate in the "ProComp" bonus pay program, nearly half have signed up. (Those hired since 2006 are automatically enrolled.)

The biggest test is yet to come: whether teacher rewards will lead to better student grades and higher test scores. The pilot program suggests they might.
The Denver plan was developed collaboratively between the union there and the administration (and supported by voters, since it means millions more in spending for teacher pay). And that is likely why it will succeed if it succeeds -- it has the buy-in of the people affected by it. I can't suggest that MPS or the state of Wisconsin copy wholesale what Denver has done; it is a Denver plan developed there for there. But I think that the collaborative process they followed and the care taken to reward teachers for many different kinds of merit are two things Wisconsin policymakers and educators should consider.

It's time to look at the way we pay teachers, and if we can work together to change the system, everyone will benefit, especially the students.

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Back to the present, again: As I noted back in that original post, the difficulty in any merit-pay system is in finding ways to satisfy the unique situations of every school district. My fear is that a new emphasis on merit pay nationally will push states to implement one-size-fits-all systems that will not make teachers or administrators happy and, worse, will do nothing to spur achievement.

The Denver system, now another year-plus older, still seems to be doing well, especially after a contract settlement in 2008.

At any rate, the coming debate will be long, difficult, and important.

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