What gets people so angry at the idea of incorporating a degree of professional accountability into teaching and administrating? My column Friday at NJ Spotlight on teacher merit pay has generated a fair amount of hate mail. So what incites the outrage? I mean beyond the obvious, like those who see accountability measures as an assault on job security, or those who have a knee-jerk reaction to all things NCLB (No Child Left Behind), or spokespeople for NJEA, who are paid to say that stuff.
Let’s try to find some common ground. Here are three things we can agree on.
1) The most important element in a child’s education experience is the classroom teacher. Nothing matters more – not facilities or technology or programming or funding. A great teacher is irreplaceable.
2) Once a great teacher receives tenure he or she is not differentiated from a bad teacher (unless there’s some criminal activity, which seems like a pretty low bar). Nationally, more than 99% of teachers are rated “satisfactory.” Either it’s really easy to teach or there's no difference in student performance between those placed with a good teacher and those placed with a bad teacher. a bad teacher. Since those things aren't true, differentiation matters.
3) Salary guides in NJ (and most other places) ignore typical market forces like supply and demand. Example: a chemistry teacher is hard to find, but elementary school teachers are a dime a dozen (no offense). Salary guides are immune to this discrepancy. Another example: in general, teachers (and who can blame them?) would rather teach in a high-performing, wealthy, safe school district than a low-performing, poor, dangerous one. Yet there’s no incentive for teaching in a Plainfield (DFG of B or socio-economic rating of I on a scale of A-J) instead of Park Ridge (DFG of I).
Recap: We need great teachers, but our current evaluative mechanisms don’t let us identify the best ones or fire the worst. The rigidity of our compensation plans preclude the ability of districts to pay teachers based on performance or limited supply or willingness to teach in more challenging school districts. This lack of differentiation may be linked to the fact that the majority of public school teachers leave the field within five years and turnover is highest in poor districts.
Okay; enough with the common ground. How about this: maybe we should consider state-wide salary guides that pay more for teachers in hard-to-staff areas (math, science, special ed) and more for effective teachers who are willing to teach in poor districts? (Imagine how many tax dollars we'd save by consolidating 591 separate negotiation dramas, one per school district, into one ball-buster?) Or if that's too excessive, how about state-wide bonuses for our best teachers or those who teach our most challenging kids?
Mad yet? How about if we take the money directed at special needs districts -- that Abbott money now being litigated in State Supreme Court -- and funnel some large percentage of it to salaries for our top professionals? Great teachers deserve to be compensated accordingly. Let's use the money where it matters.
The point is that we cheat our kids, especially our neediest children, by failing to recognize quality (or lack thereof) among our teaching staff. Are we ready to change?