Despite Critics, DISD Takes a Giant Leap with Merit Pay
Daniel Fishel

Here's me in a Dallas school board meeting waiting to see if the board will pass a merit pay system for teachers — the single most important element to date in what is now a 3-year-old program of massive school reform. It would be a monumental change, more significant than the sideshow debate we're going through about making Dallas a so-called "home rule" district.

But in the meantime, while I wait six hours for the vote, how do I pass my time? By reading a long, utterly depressing piece in The New Yorker about the bombed-out mess that is school reform in Newark, New Jersey. Just what I needed, another article about a stalled school reform effort.

I'm reading about how everything is hopeless and we should just shoot ourselves (so far I'm sold), and up pops an email on the tablet from my neighbor who a few months back gave up stalking me from his car shouting insults while I walked my dogs. He seems to be back on the warpath tonight, accusing me in multiple caffeinated emails of being a pro-school-reform ninny idiot sell-out zombie. I hope this doesn't mean I'm disinvited again from the weekend barbecues.

The school reform story in Dallas might as well be amnesty for child molesters in terms of sheer explosive power. The people most opposed and most stirred up about it are all here tonight in matching T-shirts, trooping up to the microphone during the interminable public speaking portion of the meeting.

Hobie Hukill, a high school librarian, opens with a garbled quote I can't understand from Robert Reich's Aftershock, then goes on to talk about "the powerful pernicious influence of the wealthy on decision makers, not by simple bribery but by dominating their worldview."

OK. I'm down with that.

"And when enough wealth is devoted to a particular cause," he says, "it tends to be supported, even if it's unpopular or just flat wrong. We have seen this with climate change denial and opposition to gun control. Tonight we see another such example playing out before us, in this case the mistaken notion that teacher quality, particularly individual teacher quality, can be reliably and validly measured."

Tonight's plan will pay top teachers twice the salary paid to teachers at the bottom of the merit tree, $90,000 versus $45,000, and will also obviously try to off-load the really bad teachers, the bottom 12 percent who actively harm the achievement levels of their students. Yesterday while I was out walking the dogs looking over my shoulder to avoid the stalking neighbor, this other neighbor sneaked up in front of me. We chatted amicably. This neighbor told me about dating a person who is a teacher at one of the city's top private schools. The new love interest is pulling down 150 G's, quite a bit more than many teachers at that school. Apparently the school really doesn't want to lose this particular teacher.

According to Hukill, that private school paying a single teacher $150,000 a year can have no idea if the teacher is worth a crap, because teachers can't be measured except presumably for height and weight. Interesting. I guess we must have a bunch of loser private schools in this town who stupidly overpay their teachers.

Wade Crowder comes to the microphone and says he has been teaching journalism and English for 26 years, has a doctorate in humanities and a daughter at Juilliard.

"I believe strongly that the [merit pay] proposal is a mistake and will cause real harm for our students, teachers and district," he says. "[Merit pay] is arbitrary [and] violates the 14th Amendment due process clause because it relies on a fundamentally flawed assumption that the human endeavor of teaching can be weighed, evaluated and quantified like a pound of USDA inspected beef. Pay for performance was developed by a system used to study genetic trends in cattle production."

A small tittering follows this last remark.

"That's not a joke," Crowder says.

Oh come on. Sure it is. Really? At this point in the meeting, I am beginning to feel doubt creep back over me again. Who really wants merit pay, anyway? Board member Bernadette Nuttall again tonight expresses her heartfelt antipathy for any scheme that will create an elite among teachers. Her mantra, the slogan she wishes the district would adopt instead, is "My success is your success."

She disparages the merit pay plan as "a top-down management style" and tells the crowded room, "I believe that a great plan encompasses collective responsibility models. Once again, your success is my success."

I'm not even sure what that means, but I think I may have believed in it at one point in life. I do think I always mentally carved out a small exception for newspaper staffs.

You know what? Between this meeting and The New Yorker article, I'm about done in. Enough board members have spoken negatively that I don't see it passing anyway. Everybody and his uncle have a reason, some of them loony, some of them persuasive, why big urban public school districts can't be fixed. Ever. At all. Maybe I'll go home.

But then June Malone, a 14-year Dallas teacher, comes to the microphone. "I'm so nervous," she says. Clears her throat. Then, "Teaching is no longer a career for somebody who can't decide what they want to do in their life. Teaching is a profession, a professional career the same as being a pilot, a doctor or an executive, and we should be treated as such.

"For instance, when the teacher in the classroom next to yours doesn't go that extra mile, doesn't throw their whole heart and soul into being a professional teacher every day but is still compensated exactly as I am, that sends a bad message about what the district values.

"Treating teachers as professionals, rewarding them for their hard work, the impact that they make, will make a difference," she says. "That will help draw more effective professionals while keeping the ones that we already have. It will lead to improved student achievement. Please vote yes."


David McDaniel, a teacher at Pinkston High School, tells the board: "I want to start by saying I am 100 percent in favor of this proposal. [It] grants a new level of respect to educators by holding us accountable like other professions but also by rewarding us as professionals. ... Dallas is poised to lead the state into a new era of education by demonstrating that we can have higher standards for our educators and that we will meet those standards."

Then Elenore O'Donnell comes up to speak. The instant I hear her, something in the voice, something in the body language snaps me to attention. She is young. She is smart. She is deep-to-the-bone angry.

She says she's a third-year special-ed teacher in East Dallas. "I was brought into education in a moment of anger," she says.

"I was outraged at the level of education our low-income students were receiving. I came to Dallas with Teach for America hoping that this would eventually calm that anger. Yet every day for the past three years has only fed that anger."

I'm on the edge of my seat.

"During my alternative certification training one of my mentor teachers told me that [one of] my kids came from a 'dynasty of failure,' and all I could think was that we as a community had created that dynasty of failure, and no one teacher or one school alone can right this system that we have created.

"Tonight you have the ability to make a real change for the children of Dallas. You have the ability to take the first step necessary toward bringing down our dynasty of failure."

OK, I'm in. I'm all the way back in. I am a pro-school-reform ninny zombie whatever. Because that's what it will take — young, smart, deeply committed people who are furious with the system they find before them, furious with my generation for creating it and allowing it to persist, furious with me personally if they like. Whatever it takes.

The culture of young, smart, committed people who are furious with what they find on the ground is the only culture that can change what is on the ground. Forget the billionaires. The story about Newark says Mark Zuckerberg has thrown away $100 million on school reform ideas that haven't worked. But Newark sounds like it was giant showboat pile-on from the beginning.

You know this already: The board voted up the merit pay plan after all. It's an absolutely enormous step, the latest in a series of victories that Superintendent Mike Miles has achieved in three years. This isn't a pile-on or a showboat deal. Dallas school reform has been strategic, relentless and undefeated for three years.

The one thing that teacher and Nutall and Miles and my neighbor who cooks the great ribs must not squander, the thing on which all of it depends, is the anger. The anger is right.

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Allegedly our elected officials have sold out to corporation billionaires. Home Rule is essentially not restructuring public education but dismantling it. Elected officials and school administrators cannot deny their complicity of their efforts in driving the school district into the ground.

Nothing short of a federal investigation into payola money and politics of the situation can stop it. Allegedly elected officials and school administrators used scheming corruption help home rule corporate efforts.

Dallas voters, Students, parents and citizens have been duped by the very people that should be protecting their interests.


I can NOT believe you've really fallen for this pile of nonsense. Seriously.


Jenny Marshall:

"I have a student who has missed 60 days of school and several others who have missed between 30-50+ days. If they decide to show up for the end of year social studies test their scores will determine if I am an effective teacher or not. Whoever thought that evaluating teachers based on student's test scores was a good idea just doesn't get it. That doesn't even include the students who could give a rat's ass about school or the ones who grew 30% but still might not pass."


Wow, reading this article is deeply gratifying to me. Thank you, Jim Schutze, for having  the courage to tell it like it is! Teaching may not be as easily quantifiable as some other professions, but it IS a profession and as such should be held to the highest standards. Who, really, is more important than a teacher in the lives of our young citizens? This is a great step forward, and I'm really proud that my hometown has taken it!


Watching the meeting on DISD's site, you seem to have left out a few teachers, right?

Why not mention what they all said, or do you want to limit reporting to only what you see as supportive of your belief?

The TFA teacher--- and the one who teaches in IRVING, and the one who "teaches in West Dallas, but not in DISD" (WTF?) al support it. Hmmmm. Mostly new ones support it.

You see, you miss a big, huge honking fact:

They know little about life, they are so young, and they really don't know much about DISD.

Under this plan, THEY will get a raise. And quickly, too, as Miles' minions accelerate their pay and ratings to make sure the bell curve looks good, whether they can teach or not. Trust me, we have ALREADY seen the worst of TFA get acceptable evaluations last year and this year.

But IF they stay, and most won't, their new teacher smell will wear off, Miles will depart, as all top dogs do, and there they will be, 7 years in, still making the same pay. We see it, and they don't. Neither do you.

DISD's own slideshow said that only 2% of the teachers will make the $90K. TWO PERCENT. That means, about 200, or LESS than one PER campus. Really?

The rigged system assures that few will make above $59K, because not only will your building leader have to sign off that you walk on water, they will send a team of THREE evaluators to verify it. Yes, nothing says, "Don't disturb a classroom" like having THREE strangers with ipads, watching a teacher teach for 45 minutes.

Yes, indeed.

They already have it rigged that virtually nobody gets above a 2 on their spot observations, with 3 being the highest. From friends who sit in the principal meetings with Miles, NONE of this is on paper or in an email, but it is CLEAR: Hold the golden ring out, but don't let them catch it.

Harrison D 2 is repeating itself in DISD. Excellent teachers are leaving DISD... scores are dropping....

Yeah, Miles is a fricking genius.

And you, are, indeed, a zombie.


It seems that these folks are on the right track. No teacher should be immune from testing of their skills to prove their ability to teach our children now, not what they could do 10 years ago, but today. and all teachers who do prove their ability to meet the required goals should be allowed to teach, and those who prove that they have skills above the normal to properly educate our children should be rewarded for their above norm performance, its only right. I do not believe and have seen so called educated people who could not pass on their knowledge to anyone or anything. Teaching is a skill that must be learned and loved not for it glory buts its results and success in the students and their lives. Too long have children been passed because they sit through the year and fill a seat. Here in Virginia they actually give an attendance certificate for those who are just there [done to prevent emotional stress so they say] also the big trick is to call a child learning disabled and move them along with ever them learning a thing. Sad but true. Teachers should be role models for the children and the first line of defence against a child failing and quitting an becoming a burden of society and the nation. Performance pay, is a start on the way to do it, if you pay the best and fire those who do not make the grade regardless of their length of service, race creed or age. The poor and bad teachers have to go for the child's sake.

If you can get this started and the rest should follow, congratulations on having the guts to try and make a real difference.


Teacher effectiveness may be hard to measure but somehow we all know who is good and who is phoning it in.  The private school can pay that teacher 150K because the parents and students and staff know he is too good to lose.  That may be the big difference: private schools parents have great power, because they can refuse to re-enroll.  Public school parents have no alternatives and consequently no power.


I like the idea of merit pay, but I'm concerned about the details, especially when there's a slotting system with artificially-limited number of slots available at any given pay level.

I've also not heard the details on how it will work with teachers who don't have traditional classrooms, such as special education teachers. It sounds like some teachers in specialized classrooms would be barred from some pay levels (many specialized classrooms are only at some campuses, many of them not the lowest performing ones, making it impossible for such teachers to reach the highest pay level. And non-verbal students with the mental capacity of a one year-old are hardly going to be able to give detailed evaluations).

But those specifics are the sort of thing that can be dealt with as the program evolves.


I agree.  You're damned if you do, and damned if you don't.  Either way you go, the system will be played. 

Why?  Because the moral fiber and the ability to understand the basics of logic are degraded in today's culture.  Everything becomes a rah-rah football game, and the core principles lose priority.

One other thought, things will be better, the more localized the control.  Where you have very involved parents, the schools are better.  Big gov schemes are not a good substitute for parents with time and desire to see their children's minds blossom.  Good luck, America.


You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink.


Right wing corporate fascist school reform and school reformism and school reformists ALL  CONSTITUTE amnesty for child molesters -- because it is all ABOUT molesting children and young adults. 

Merit pay is an abuse of teachers.  Why merit pay for teachers but NOT FOR, SAY, BANKERS or  CORPORATE CEOs, eh?  When BANKERS and CORPORATE CEOS get merit pay, THEN perhaps we can discuss merit pay for teachers.  NOT BEFORE.


Moreover, big school districts should be broken up, NOT further centralized [fascisized] and authentic local neighborhood democracies should govern schools. 

Centralization and bureaucratization are the Wehrmacht strategeries for  dehumanizing human beings -- robbing them of thinking, critical thinking, and self-awareness --  which the schools -- including charters, private and religious schools -- are truly exemplary at accomplishing, whatever the nation or empire.


Great piece.  This idea that somehow the profession of teaching is above or beyond performance assessment and measurement, and that teacher's can't/won't respond to incentive structures is bunk.  I don't know whether the specific measurement and incentive structures being employed here will work as intended, but we have to start somewhere.  It's long overdue.  I'm glad we live in a state and have district leadership that isn't tied to maintaining the status quo or making the case that we simply need to throw more money at the problem.  

GOOD teachers will support this, as they will see it as a path to advancement.  And if they are good and they don't see it that way, then there arguments should be for changing how performance is measured and how the process is implemented to truly advance teachers based on performance, rather than blather I hear from opponents that essentially argue for nothing more than the status quo.  


The problems are still that VAM scores are unreliable and the writers of such tests say they should NOT be used to rate teachers; that teachers in low-performing schools will be penalized right off the bat; that this merit pay plan ignores all the sociological problems holding back learning; that this plan will pit teachers against other teachers, totally destroying collaboration, AND that it is NOT working in any school district that has adopted it, including Harrison 2.

As the only district in DFW to have such a plan, DISD will be hampered when competing with other districts because the steps necessary to advance to $90,000 take 10 years and require 4 of those years be spent in a Tier One school. DISD is already paying less than other districts in the area, and DISD has more rigidity than other districts courtesy of Mike Miles. There is little to attract top quality teachers to Dallas, and this "merit pay scheme" will so nothing to attract them, especially when they hear how "top-down" the district is.

Top quality teachers desire flexibility to teach according to what works for them; Mike Miles' DISD won't allow that, having wedded itself too rigidly to DOLs and MRS.

Miles' programs didn't work in Harrison, and they are not working in DISD. Check the 2014 STARR scores to see how scores went down in many important areas when teachers were required to use Miles' strategies. However, One thing merit pay will vastly improve

teacher turnover, one strategy Miles is great at. We have lost vast numbers of experienced

teachers to other districts, and that will accelerate with "merit pay."



Pay for performance, teachers you can only guarantee you a pay raise if you get a second job. There was a similar quote from one of our Texas governors. Hopefully you can find one that will transmit you into a better career with a more honorable and trustworthy employer.



Bottom line, there's never been a pay scheme that includes all Teachers that the district or the state has proposed, there was not reneged on, ever. The schemes always require some sort of mythical time to achieve mythical goals and completing the goals are achieved in more than just a handful qualified, the district or state will always reneged on the promise. This whole thing reeks of the now debunked Career Ladder.

The critical flaw in all these plans is that the criteria cannot be fairly evaluated or administered without prejudice or financial greed. There's never attempt to qualify employees based on their past performance it's always some new and future great scheme. Usually 10 years or longer it’s all just a bunch of bunk and glorified lip service.

Grandpa said it's just a carrot on a greased pole which never can be reached



Spoken like a good little Administrator? You're transparent for an administrator, so obvious in your whining, did your incredible boss really get his Texas certification as administrator in three weeks online? Even in Texas that's a stretch of the imagination that he could have completed all those courses in that time. There's a saying in Texas (“You know why a Texan sends her daughter to Harvard, to teach her to say incredible instead of Bulls**t”). LOL


@bullard.randyj (looking for unlike/thumbs down button...) Nice use of the approved catchphrases used to sell more shoddy policy..."Status Quo." Are you sure you don't want to say it one more time?

The state just came up with a new system which ties teacher evaluations to test results anyway, but Dallas HAD to waste money on its own "custom" edition, since this is where all the real experts convene. Pfft. 

Have you forgotten that Superintendent Miles entire cabinet,, except for one person, has quit on him within 2 years, and that his former Chief of Staff just got sentenced to years in federal prison for corruption in another district?


@bullard.randyj  Don't worry about the course, full steam ahead?

This bogus plan is costing us some of our best teachers. More will leave for ISD's which do not play games.

If you tie test scores to pay, you will have rampant cheating, or at least, massive amounts of "teaching to the test." When you make one aspect more important than anything else, you won't get what you think you want.

How many of YOUR teachers were paid based on your test scores? None? Did you learn anyway? How did that happen?

This is not about the kids, but about money to be made by test makers and others.


@mindingthestore At least now we will have the chance to actually see whether something like this could work here in practice, rather than in theory. Also, I don't buy the "this will pit teachers against other teachers" argument one bit. I've collaborated with many a co-worker in merit-based pay workplaces. Good people will help other people.


@Flabbergasted @bullard.randyj

Right.... the people promoting this are all in bed with the "test makers".  Take off that tinfoil hat.  The status quo is unacceptable.  Let's see who leaves.  Me thinks those that fear they'll do particularly poorly when performance matters.


You obviously don't understand the world of DISD teachers today.,Many people will

also face being fired, as Miles wants many heads on the chopping block. No one will be helping anyone but himself. This scheme, along with all the rest of Miles absurd teaching strategies, will put the final nail in the coffin. That must be what the

"money boys" want to happen.

JimSX topcommenter

I have worked at newspapers where they pitted us against each other on purpose. Worked pretty good.


@bullard.randyj @Flabbergasted HAHAHA - when I  made my comment about your repeated use of the phrase "status quo," which is being abused all over education right now, such a hot buzzword, I missed this comment. Threepeat!


@mindingthestore  If teachers aren't performing, their heads should be on the chopping block. After all, we're talking about the future of our children here. Under this system, teachers are given every opportunity to improve. I don't know about your world, but in mine, if you are an employee who can't deliver after repeated warnings, you deserve to be shown the door.


@Cogito. So it follows that Mike Miles should be fired, He didn't make the numbers he promised he would make. Therefore, he should be gone.

And you are wrong that teachers are given every opportunity to improve, Since Miles arrived, teachers are non-renewed at will. When you say "repeated warnings," I assume you mean an administrator says numerous times during the year, "If your students don't achieve at X % growth this year, you'll be fired." It's not as if there

is any real effort to help teachers improve, as there isn't. The administrators and

instructional coaches themselves don't know how to do it.

Poverty is the real reason kids don't perform. The district's students are 89% poor. The higher a district's poverty rate climbs, the lower the performance. Period.

All this teacher churn will not help. New teachers take several years to figure out

what they are doing and how to manage a class. Learning suffers while newbies are figuring out what to do.

Put Miles' head on the chopping block, as he didn't perform satisfactorily,


Spoken like a teacher who can't motivate students to learn. Quit whining and go to Plano or Frisco ISDs if you have written off or are unwilling/unable to motivate at-risk students. The best teachers are helping improve those students' lives by motivating/inspiring them every day.