A recent New York Times editorial (Accountability in Public Schools, August 29, 2009) reports on the “$4.3 billion pot of money known as the Race to the Top Fund.” This fund is meant to encourage states to embrace high standards in K-12 public education.
There are a variety of provisions in the proposal, but as the Times says: “The most important provision — the one that should be non-negotiable — requires states to show how student achievement will be taken into account when judging teacher performance. … But the country will never get where it needs to be if we take the approach — as union leaders have sometimes done — that student test scores should be out of bounds when it comes to judging teacher effectiveness. That is an indefensible position.”
The idea of merit pay or differential pay for public schools teachers based on their performance is not likely to happen soon in Kansas. Not if the recommendations recently prepared by the Teaching in Kansas Commission are followed.
In particular, the document Teaching in Kansas Commission: Final report, starting on page 33, makes it clear that teacher merit pay in Kansas is not desired unless it is so watered-down as to be meaningless. The document is also useful as it gives us an insight into the mindset of the public school establishment in Kansas.
Rejecting standardized tests as a way to measure teacher effectiveness, the document proposes “compacting” the salary schedule. This is because, according to the document, “by the completion of the first ten years, the individual is an independent, skilled educator.” So they deserve a “top-level professional salary” then. A cynic might say this is just a way to pay teachers more without requiring them to teach for 20 years (a common figure) to reach the top salary schedule. Some might wonder why “independent” and “professional” workers need a union to represent them.
Another recommendation is to add additional dimensions to the ways teachers can advance in salary. Currently the two dimensions are years of experience, and education credentials earned. Some of the added dimensions mentioned include acquiring specialized skills, professional development and mentoring, taking leadership roles, and engaging in community outreach.
Each of these items becomes a new layer in the salary schedule, providing additional ways teachers can advance in salary. Whether these items increase teachers’ effectiveness in the classroom is a different matter. The traditional factors in determining salary — experience and earned credentials — are rapidly being recognized as not useful in measuring teacher effectiveness.
The document makes the case — as did the former head of the Wichita teachers union — that merit pay couldn’t happen until all teachers had their pay increased. Then, as this report states: “One cannot expect buy-in if some employees have his/her salary reduced as a result of a change to a new system or addition of new elements to an existing system.” There’s no willingness to accept that some teachers are being paid too much at present.
Furthermore, because of the alleged “negative impact of competition between teachers” compensation systems linked to achievement should be implemented only for a group of teachers, such as an entire grade level or department. Even then, the achievement goals should be attainable; the report praising a Colorado school system where 90% of the departments that pursued an incentive were successful in achieving it.
I could go on, and this report does at considerable length in making its case against merit pay.
In Kansas, we’re left to wonder: when our education establishment rejects reforms that even the liberal editorial page of the New York Times embraces, what hope have schoolchildren in Kansas?