Dallas' Teachers Unions Are Ready for Combat over Merit Pay

Is it possible to tell a good teacher from a bad one?

The real issue the teachers unions have with Dallas school Superintendent Mike Miles is not Mike Miles. It's merit pay. They don't like it.

Angela Davis, Region 4D president of the Texas State Teachers Association (NEA) in Dallas, told me: "TSTA strongly opposes merit pay for teachers."

Rena Honea, head of the other big union, Alliance-AFT, wouldn't even talk to me about merit pay.

Daniel Fishel

When I wrote an article for our news blog two weeks ago saying the unions were using attacks on Miles as a shield for their real agenda, defeat of merit pay, a typical response from a reader was this: "Alleged 'merit pay' has absolutely no track record of improving outcomes anywhere it's been implemented."

The national anti-merit-pay camp has more arrows in its quiver. Nationally known education historian and author Diane Ravitch paints the school reform issue as a close cousin of tax policy and fiscal regulation, all about who's on which side.

"It is breathtaking to see how closely aligned are the agendas of conservative governors and the Obama administration when it comes to education," Ravitch writes. "... but corporate reformers think they know best."

But what is it? What would merit pay for teachers be in Dallas? For one thing, it would be based only partially on student test scores. Various versions of a merit pay system under discussion here — already presented to the Dallas school board in briefings over the last several months — would use student achievement scores for less than half of the equation for measuring merit.

When "No Child Left Behind" was new in Washington under President George W. Bush, people were going out scooping up raw student test scores without any allowance for where those students had started out the school year. A teacher who inherited a roomful of future rocket scientists looked golden — all high scores for her kids — while a teacher with a roomful of kids who started the year seriously below grade level or otherwise challenged looked bad with all low scores. Obviously that wasn't fair.

In the briefings to the Dallas board, Miles and his staff have explained new measures designed to take into account where each kid starts the year in order to see how far the teacher is able to move him. Teachers would be measured against other teachers with the same kind of kids they have.

The other thing the Miles team seems to acknowledge in its briefings to the board is that achievement tests are not a be-all and end-all. They cite repeated findings in mainstream research to show that other measurements are at least as important. Especially useful are frequent classroom observations by principals and other supervisors or teaching coaches.

A lot of this grows out of research by Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Richard Elmore and others. They have found too much emphasis has been placed in the past on who teachers are — their character and personality traits — and not enough on what they do. The biggest bang for the buck in terms of student achievement, they have found, comes not from continually trying to find and recruit the perfect teacher but taking the teachers you've got and teaching them to teach.

The most effective place to teach teaching, researchers have found, is in the classroom with frequent observations and later coaching sessions away from students' eyes and ears. Those visits also provide principals with a window on which teachers are getting it and which ones simply won't or cannot adapt their methods. So another major element of the merit metric for teachers is what the district calls "performance," meaning how well a teacher learns and uses the lessons provided by a coach or supervisor.

If that seems to you like a pretty subjective call, the Miles team agrees, and therefore these observation-based performance scores for teachers are shared out and weighted among different kinds of evaluators. One would be a teacher's principal, of course, but others would be drop-ins who had no personal familiarity with a teacher before visiting the classroom.

The third element in the merit algorithm under consideration at DISD is the one that really caught me by surprise. It turns out that one pretty good way of identifying good teachers is by asking the kids. Who knew? Student surveys, written and carried out the right way, have been identified in research as quite valuable indicators of teacher quality.

Obviously you don't ask them, "Does she give you enough recess?" You have to sneak up on them a little better than that. But there are ways to get the kids to tell you what goes on.

All of these factors — student achievement on tests, performance evaluated by multiple diverse observers and student surveys — will be considered together and counterbalanced according to some weighting formula not yet determined. But that issue, the weighting, is where the most important element comes into the picture — the teachers themselves.

The Miles team has explained to the board in its briefings that it is going back to teams of teachers again and again to ask them what they think is fair or accurate. Far from being shut out of the process or being treated as punitive victims of it, teachers are being used as a key resource to help the team figure out the proper weighting of measurements. And in the end, who would know better?

It's the end product of this process that is the sticking point. For as long as anyone can remember, teacher pay in Dallas has been based on years of service and advanced degrees. Once a merit formula has been devised and adopted by the school board, the old seniority system will go out the window.

If the new system is anything like recent iterations of merit pay elsewhere around the country, it will create two brand-new categories of teacher at the two extreme ends of the spectrum. At the high end will be some kind of "highly effective" or advanced teacher category with a serious bump in pay, as much as $15,000 more a year above a $50,000 to $55,000 average. But at the other end, the low end, will be a kind of probationary status for low-performing teachers.

Getting put in that category will be a message to amp it up or find another job within about a year. The Ravitch line is that this is all arrogant corporate cruelty. She says merit pay only makes all teachers more insecure, and merit pay systems have failed across the country.

She's not wrong. Some past attempts at merit pay have crashed and burned without any visible accomplishment. But she's not right. There is very recent research to show that merit pay can work.

In particular, a major paper published just weeks ago by the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, found very positive results for the merit pay system put in place in Washington, D.C., schools by Michelle Rhee, the D.C superintendent from 2007 to 2010. Rhee, a popular whipping-person for the anti-reform movement, was driven from her post by critics, but, interestingly, the school board that dumped her held on to her merit pay system.

Authors of the study, Thomas Dee, a professor at Stanford University, and James Wyckoff, a professor at the University of Virginia, looked at the D.C. system to see what effect it had on teachers at the high and low ends of the performance scale. They found that teachers at the bottom, the ones who knew they were in danger of being canned, were 50 percent more likely to resign on their own than they would have been without the merit system. So Rhee's system was doing a good job of shedding the lowest-performing teachers.

However, the authors found that teachers who were just at or barely above the lowest category line demonstrated a marked tendency to get their acts together, do a better job and improve performance. The authors state clearly that "threat of dismissal" was the operative incentive that got this group fired up and moving.

At the other end, the authors also looked at teachers who were just below the line where the really juicy financial rewards began. They found a strong statistically measurable tendency for these teachers to get up and get going, as well, only they were reaching for top pay rather than dodging a bullet.

Even among the very best teachers, they found, money was not unimportant. "We also find evidence that financial incentive further improved the performance of high-performing teachers," they wrote. So even the top teachers reached higher when somebody put some money on the table.

Some time early next year when Miles finally puts a merit system on the table, no matter what specific form it takes, merit pay will inspire a ferocious battle. At least Davis of TSTA was candid about her position: against.

"Education is a collaborative and cumulative process that extends well beyond test scores," she said. "Instead of singling out a few teachers for higher pay, we need to raise pay for all Texas teachers, who are paid, on average, more than $8,000 below the national average."

Honea of Alliance-AFT, who has been outspokenly critical of the personal character of the superintendent, will not even talk about merit pay. Meanwhile at the national level people like Ravitch insist it's all about arrogant corporate conservatives coming in to take over urban public school systems. I keep waiting for someone to tell me why arrogant corporate conservatives want to take over urban public school systems.

When they say it's all about test scores, it's not all about test scores. When they say merit pay for teachers is a proven failure and teacher merit cannot be measured, they're wrong. Anyway, if they were right, wouldn't we need to find out what planet teachers come from?

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Merit-based pay might be an idea worth trying - but NOT in Dallas ISD!  There is NO support from parents, students are more worried about baby-mama issues than being concerned with learning, administrators are already not supportive of classroom discipline.


A few facts for the ones who believe the ilk like Rhee.

Merit pay has shown NOT to work. if it worked, wouldn't teachers WANT more pay? Shows how it is a scam to make it look like they run schools like businesses, but really, they want to rig it so nobody gets the big money. They have no control over their class sizes, supply chains, work load or tests, but hey, they can make big bucks? Kiss me first before you do that again.

Think carnies on the State Fair Midway.

If you look at the way Pay for Performance is rigged, anything less than PERFECT ---read that---- anything less than 100% observable, all the time--- will automatically knock the teachers out of contention.

Want to bet they will find a day, any day, out of 180, when the teacher is not at 100%, and ALL kids are not on task? Yeah, read me another story.

The CEI's have been proven to be unreliable, and the tests they are based on, the ACPs, are not greatly written, nor are they even close to covering a semester's work. They are usually skewed in one area, and leave gaping holes. Somehow, they will get ALL seniors to take the SAT or ACT,. Who is paying for that? Taxpayers. Talk about a waste of money.


Superintendent Miles wants you to think there are all these factors that go into the proposed Teacher Excellence Initiative that create a balance, well-rounded plan to reward teachers. Yet, there are other factors that negate this and instead simply create a way for DISD to control the salaries regardless of teacher perfomance.

Miles is already influencing the evaluations (performance component) by telling principals that teachers should not be receiving anything higher than 2s (on a 0-3 scale) on their spot observations at the beginning of the year. I guess the idea is teachers should be improving throughout the year. This doesn't make sense, though. I could see a fluctuation from observation to observation, but to say that there is no way we should be making anything higher than a 2 in the beginning is ludicrous. You should give the score for what you see, not what you THINK you should see. 

Superintendent Miles has also publicly said at the TEI presentations that there must be a "congruence" between performance(evaluations/observations) and achievement (test scores). He stated that if the district sees a teacher with low improvement in scores, then that principal MUST ensure that teacher has a low evaluation, or else....they will be DOCKED. Not sure what he means by docked, if he means pay or just a written reprimand. (Presentation was from Latino Cultural Center, don't know if there is an online video of it somewhere).

So, already we have the evaluations tainted by bias. In fact, this MET study they cite highly recommends that a third party (non-district) conduct observations along with the district exactly for this reason. But I doubt they will, because I am thinking the costs might be too high?

In order for this "differentiation" to work, this system must put people at the bottom of the pay scale. If you look at the pay steps in the link below, there must be teachers placed on the bottom 3 levels. Even if every teacher in the district were to improve scores and receive a great evaluation, it won't matter. This system only works if there is a quota set for each step. If DISD were to try and place too many teachers in the upper levels, there wouldn't be enough money. 


What this essentially means is DISD will never have an effective teacher in front of every student. NEVER. Because by this design, we have to place teachers on the lower end in order to pay the people at the other end. Even if those teachers are effective by any other standard. 

We are not being asked to be effective. We are being asked to be more effective than each other. Our goal is no longer to make great students but great test takers. Because at the end of the day, we will not be judged by our work, but by a test score attached to a student.


The bottom line is unions in general do not tolerate the rewarding of high performing workers. It makes the low performers, who are usually not hired based on merit entirely look bad. And most importantly it defies the ideology of the left wing Marxist collective. Without protectionist policies they could not survive in private industry. This is the major reason the public education system in America is a total failure. Fifty years of intervention by Democrats and their beloved federal government into the education system has produced nothing but politically illiterate voters over past five decades. As history has proven no matter how many of the best of best superintendents in the nation Dallas hires they will never get it right because teachers and their curriculum are governed almost entirely by a Fed bureaucracy. For that simple reason the majority of students who leave our public institutions will continue to be substandard and unable to compete in a global economy.  


I'm not a fan of seniority-based pay, either, but as a person whose wife is a teacher, I am not convinced that merit pay will work.

In her district, they had a merit pay experiment for a few years. It was a shared incentive, though. If the kids of a certain grade level in a particular school met the metrics the district had set, then all the teachers from that grade level at that school got a merit bonus.

Except my wife. She didn't get the bonus because she is a special education teacher in a specialized classroom. Even though her kids all met the goals set forth in their ARDs, the district couldn't decide how to measure student progress for non-verbal kids with the mental capacity of 6 month-olds. And the principal has no idea how to teach those kids, let alone measure how well those teachers are doing with those kids, beyond the ARD goals which the teacher usually carries the most influence as to where those are set. And while you could ask the kids, good luck getting an answer. Even the head of the special education department for the district didn't necessarily understand those kids and how to teach them.

(Even just in general, I would be interested in seeing how asking the students works in practice. The teacher I disliked the most in high school was also the one whose instruction helped me do better on the SATs than I otherwise would have and helped me CLEP out of Freshman Comp. If you'd have asked me while I was in class, I wouldn't have rated her very highly. And my grades in her class were lower than they had been in previous English classes, apparently because she expected more from her students than others had. I'm trying to think of questions I could have been asked back then that would have generated a useful answer).

So if we put merit pay in place, is it going to be another instance in which special education teachers are too complicated to measure, so we'll just give them the low-end of the pay scale and tell them it's their tough luck for teaching those kids (or fire them every couple of years because they can't meet a rising test score standard and the principal can't give an effective evaluation)? Even the state has struggled with how to test and evaluate these students.

And last year, the district's policy was to fail all these students for the STAAR tests.

So they get rid of seniority raises for my wife and then they just fire the teacher of that classroom every couple of years because test scores will never rise and the students will never put in a good word and the principal won't know what's going on. I can't imagine why she'd be against that.


Michelle Rhee is referred in this column today who was the chancellor at DC when the following occurred:


Jim points out that marginal teachers improved and that teachers below the higher pay levels also bumped up their game.  However, no statistics or specific examples are disclosed.  How many schools? What's the overall trend?

Also, what has been the trend since Michelle Rhee left DC?  

This column raises more questions than it tries to answer.


If we test the chirrens, test the teachers too. And give them "improvement plans." Let the Board handle this. They love to micromanage, and it would keep their busy little minds occupied.


The NEA does not want to be judged by the quality of their work, of course that can be said for any union. If the were judged on merit, the majority would be out of work!


The state day care company is really in need of an overhaul.


Merit - the quality of being particularly good at receiving praise, some call it brown nosing.


Merit pay should be illegal when we have laws for minimum wage, overtime and vacation/sick leave. Merit pay fosters corruption within and favors not how efficient one is but how politically correct with the current administration an employee is. 


continued...Unions in Texas have very little power, but I bet  that Angela Davis said more than one sentence, eh Jimbo?

Come on, what was her COMPLETE statement to you?

Why not print it all? As usual, a hack job on an important issue.

2,000 teachers saw the b.s. train coming down the track and left.... The DISD superintendent, Mike Miles, was so embarrassed by this flood of exiting excellent teachers, he had to send a letter to EVERY North Texas ISD, warning them that if they hired one of the teachers who resigned late, he would work to pull their licenses. Prepare to see more come and wave buh-bye..

It is all a part of Miles' stated plan that most teachers will only teach for 5-7 years, thereby, eliminating the need for a pay schedule.

By having "final exams" for kindergarten and PE, he has shown that this district is in need of being imploded. And you still stupidly believe him.


@hix.miblue.john Merit pay fosters excellence. Why shouldn't the best and brightest be paid more than the worst and dimmest? I hate working an hourly wage job because it encourages sloth. I HATE being paid less for my work than other people simply because they refuse to work as hard or as efficiently as I do. No one ever got out of the middle class on an hourly wage, and most won't be able to get into it on one now. The top paid people in this country are paid some form of merit pay. Most are paid some form of commission (pay for actually doing work) with a guaranteed minimum if they fail to make enough sales for some reason. The only people who get into the upper middle class on an hourly wage are public sector union members who are being paid with taxes taking at gun point from people working in the private sector. Does ANYONE really believe that a garbage truck driver should earn $250k a year, or how about 28 yr old lifeguards being paid $100k+ for sitting on a chair on a beach in southern California? BOTH are examples of your tax dollars being paid to public sector union employees.  The trash truck driver was in Milwaukee and the lifeguards are in Long Beach. The more senior lifeguards are making in excess of $200k. WITH FULL BENEFITS!


@bvckvs @EastDallasTeacher The part about Principals should not be giving more than 2s at the beginning of the year has been mentioned by only 1 Asst. Principal friend of mine and also by 4 teacher friends. Call it a conspiracy theory all you want.

But Mike Miles has publically said that test scores must be "congruent" with evaluations. And he did say that if test scores do not match (low scores, high evaluation), that Principals will be docked (did not elaborate on what "docked" meant. Now that is a fact because I was there. The point is it's all manipulation not meant to reward "effective" teachers, but to control what being an effective means.

And as for being anonymous, would it matter if I gave my name? You would still say it's a conspiracy theory.

But there is a very valid reason why so many people are anonymous when it comes to speaking about Mike Miles publically. This is a man who use DISD resources to have a resignation letter rewritten to trash his superiors (The Board of Trustees). I want you to really think about that. We are supposed to follow a man like that? We are supposed to respect him? We are supposed to feel part of the system and be able to give feedback freely about ideas like this Pay for Performance without recourse? Why would ANYONE trust that we WOULDN'T retaliate against any person who spoke against something he tried to push. That is why we speak from the shadows, but when it comes time for it, we will come out of the woodwork and his scams and lies will come to light.