Dallas' Teachers Unions Are Ready for Combat over Merit Pay

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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