Will Paying Dallas' Good Teachers More Than Bad Ones Cause Envy? Who Cares?

It’s not “balanced” journalism if you compare the right big toe to the left big toe but neglect to mention the elephant. The elephant in the room of school reform here and nationwide has always been seniority pay.

With distinguished intellectual defenders like author Diane Ravitch as their standard-bearers and champions, the teachers unions are mounting last-ditch, dead-ender battles in big school districts all over the country against incursions by the concept of merit pay as opposed to the longstanding, common practice of basing pay solely on seniority and advanced education degrees.

Ravitch, for one, always tells audiences that merit pay will diminish cooperation and collegiality among teachers by making them competitive and jealous of each other and that merit pay is not supported by education research.

The problem there, up until recently, has been that you can’t really do much research on a thing that doesn’t exist yet. So, for example, how does Ravitch know already that merit pay will turn teachers against each other?

Back to journalism and elephants: Just now, in fact, merit pay systems are up and running in a few major districts. Our own Dallas school district may even have the most comprehensive and sophisticated merit pay system in the country, a direct legacy of the tenure here of former Dallas school Superintendent Mike Miles.

This year is the first when we have had two years to compare in order to spot trends. But in most of its recent coverage of what is called the “Teacher Excellence Initiative” or TEI (merit pay) system here, The Dallas Morning News has focused only on the criticism of the system brought forward by the teachers unions.

What about the envy felt by a younger, newer, better teacher under the old regime who saw himself getting paid the same as teachers he knew to be incompetent?

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The local branch of the National Education Association is suing the district, claiming that TEI is unfair in the way it distributes raises. A recent Morning News story stated as fact that, “The new review system has been divisive,” swallowing whole cloth the central contention of the lawsuit and the central message of the teachers unions nationwide and their champions like Ravitch.

And, yes, that obviously is what the unions claim. But if you also bother to name the elephant in the story — if you say this is a claim from a lawsuit and one side of a national political battle — then it might occur to you that you need to go on and mention the other side. You might also have to say what else we might be learning from TEI or merit pay. For example, even if TEI may divide some teachers from others, what good might it be accomplishing, according to its defenders?

Aha! The elephant shifts a little on its mighty feet. In fact, this year’s data on TEI in the Dallas school system show us some interesting trends already that seem to fly straight in the face of the unions’ claims.

The merit pay system Miles left in place is based on a careful array of measurements designed in part as checks and balances on each other. Student outcomes as measured in part by test scores compose an important part of it, but two more elements provide balance —  classroom evaluations and student surveys.

Tests are balanced by other tests. The classroom evaluation part is balanced within itself by having different kinds of people go to each classroom to watch a teacher teach — yes, the school principal, obviously, but also people trained in the specific skill of evaluation, some of whom may already know the teacher and some of whom will not, by design. By the same token, the student surveys are weighted and designed so that people who read them can spot the difference between meaningful comments and kids being brats.

Miles designed the whole system in a long process of consultation with teachers. In the meetings on it they may have said things like, “My principal might just have it in for me. Then what?” So the system provided a check and balance for that.

A recent staff briefing on TEI to the board of trustees turned up the following points:
  1. Between 2014 and 2015 the highest teacher turnover was among teachers at the lowest of multiple evaluation scales and the highest retention rate was among the most qualified. Bad ones go. Good ones stay.
  2. Student achievement levels rise as their teachers gain seniority for six years. But as teacher seniority increases — as teachers get older and stay longer on the job — their students’ achievement levels fall.
  3. The higher the advanced education degree a teacher has attained, the worse his students are likely to perform.
  4. The old salary system accomplished just what it set out to do: Pay was flat across the board no matter how low or high a teacher ranked in the evaluations. TEI has created a stair-step system with pay rising according to how good a teacher is at his job.
The Morning News, in its coverage, said this: “Some teachers who performed well have complained about receiving no raise. Some also have voiced concern that they are making only slightly more than new teachers despite having more experience.”

Both things no doubt are true. The first issue, high-ranked teachers who didn’t get a raise based on progress because they were already high-ranked, is thorny. The school board tried to come up with a one-time bonus for the approximately 150 teachers (out of 10,000-plus in the district) who may be affected. There was a legal wrinkle, so they’re still working on it.

The second issue reported by the News — some teachers with more experience are making only a little more than new teachers — is, yeah, the whole damn elephant, is it not? That’s how it’s supposed to work. The pay isn’t based on years of service anymore.

The unions and Ravitch base their arguments against merit pay on their prediction that it will cause jealousy. Then right out of the box, the first thing they do once it is in place is go scouring for jealousy. But isn’t jealousy sort of like fear? You can stir some up just by looking.

And if envy is our chief concern, what about the envy felt by a younger, newer, better teacher under the old regime who saw himself getting paid the same as teachers he knew to be incompetent and not committed to the mission?

I’m not offering that as a major justification for merit pay. I mean to say more that anybody can be envious of anybody else at any time, and it’s just kind of up to people to work on not being envious. Setting up a whole institutional structure just to ward off envy seems sort of like basing it on preventing shyness. Shouldn’t people just figure that stuff out at home and then come to work to get the work done?

Meanwhile, what else is there to find in these first two years of merit pay in Dallas? Is seniority an entirely negative element? Do all teachers just get worse and worse the longer they teach?
Of course not. The briefing materials shown to the board dealt in averages and summaries. As time goes on, even finer measurements and tighter metrics will emerge, and what they probably will show is that seniority works differently for different teachers.

A teacher gifted with basic ability, a strong work ethic and a stout constitution should be expected to get better and better at it over time, and that improvement should be rewarded both in dollars and cents and in respect and trust.

But what about the teacher who was not well-suited to the task at the beginning, who was not gifted with basic ability or doesn’t have an especially strong constitution or work ethic? Do we think those deficits will be overcome simply by keeping him in place and continuing to pay him every year?

The other big indicator to look at, maybe even bigger in some ways than pay itself, is that one about the advanced education degrees. Those results are striking already in just the first two years of TEI.

On a rating scale of zero to 16 based on student achievement, Dallas teachers with a bachelor’s degree scored 14.26 points, teachers with an MA 13.89, teachers with a Ph.D. 11.85. It’s a clear measurement across the board showing that the higher the advanced education degree a teacher attains, the worse his students are likely to perform.

That may be the most important finding so far in TEI, because it is the one that points most directly to the entire public education establishment. When Ravitch objects that merit pay is not supported by any major education research, I want to ask: “Do you mean research carried out at those ed schools that make people dumber the higher the degree they attain?”

In the objections to merit pay and to school reform in general raised by the teachers unions and the education establishment, there is always this one really big elephant: How and why would anyone defend a vast institutional machinery that child advocacy groups now describe as the “cradle to prison pipeline?”

And before somebody starts carping at me again about the effects of poverty, please let me rush to say yes. Yes. Poverty is a monster that devours children. And there is your challenge. What are you doing about it in the schools?

A lot of what you are doing is kicking the most challenged kids out of school — 2,515 pre-schoolers kicked out of school in Texas in 2013-14 according to Texas Appleseed; 36,753 K-2nd-graders; 49,044 in grades three through five.

How do people who have presided over such an abject failure get off denouncing reform efforts on the grounds that those efforts might cause envy among teachers who don’t get raises? And why, when The Dallas Morning News talks about this stuff, don’t they tell people what it’s really all about?
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze