Dallas' Teachers Unions Are Ready for Combat over Merit Pay

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.

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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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