Despite Critics, DISD Takes a Giant Leap with Merit Pay

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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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