So the Dallas ISD Board of Education, which decided at its last meeting to keep but humiliate its superintendent of schools, will meet again tomorrow, locked inside another closed-door "executive session," to decide whether to keep, fire or further humiliate the superintendent. A person looking on as those doors swing shut again would be justified in wondering if something big is going on in there that they're not telling us about.
Yes. There is. Something huge, an elephant in the room, but it never gets talked about, because the people most interested in the elephant never want to admit it's in there. Hint: The most vocal and aggressive interest group agitating for the ultimate sanction, the firing of Superintendent Mike Miles, has been the Alliance-AFT Teachers Association. In press conferences, op-ed pieces and robo-calls, Alliance-AFT president Rena Honea has urged, pleaded and demanded that Miles be fired.
Honea insists the reasons Miles must be fired have everything to do with personality and moral integrity: "Miles has shown no urgency, passion, creativity or even interest in helping improve the education and future of our students by dealing seriously with our very real challenges," she said in a recent essay.
Honea is a serious person, an able and effective champion for her members, and I'm not going to question her sincerity. But how many times can you talk about anybody's personality? So in the interest of getting the ball back in play, if nothing else, I do want to suggest that somebody give that elephant a poke.
According to Honea, the most important issue for the approximately 9,770 teachers in the Dallas school system is that they be treated as professionals. What she doesn't mention -- The elephant enters, stage right -- is that she wants them to be paid as assembly-line workers.
The current system -- the one the unions like -- bases pay entirely on factors the teachers themselves control: seniority and the number of academic degrees they hold. It offers very little discretion or control to management to reward good teachers and get rid of bad ones.
The system Miles favors -- the one he will try to implement if the school board ever settles down long enough to focus -- is based on so-called "teacher effectiveness." And there can be lots of room for serious grownups to argue how effectiveness can or should be measured.
Miles will argue his system is fair, consistent and transparent. When we get to the argument, I assume Honea and her people will counter that it is not fair, consistent or transparent.
Everybody in this picture is smart. Everybody has legitimate standing and cause. But a good argument on the real issue is what we need most. We need to get to it. We need to stop thinking this is some kind of adolescent iPhone spat about who's cool and who's not. This is a labor-management issue about money.
Under the current system, the average teacher salary ranges from about $47,000 for a first-year teacher to about $56,000 for a teacher with 14 years of experience, including bumps for advanced degrees. Under a system Miles favors, that range might be closer to $47,000 to $65,000, with star teachers earning much more and consistently underperforming ones seeing their pay cut.
Think of the current system as a modest slope, the Miles system as a steeper slope with higher rewards at the top. Why would teachers oppose a system that seems to offer better chances for improvement in pay? In casual chats with union people sitting around after meetings, they have raised what I think is a legitimate doubt about the Miles system. They don't believe one of its central premises can be true.
The Miles system is based on an assertion to the school board that he can pull off a true merit-based pay system within the same approximate budget confines that support the current system. In fact, Miles asserts by reducing teacher turnover and shedding teachers at the bottom of the effectiveness scale, he will actually free up a larger overall sum of money to be paid in total teacher compensation.
The unions smell smoke. They believe the real game here is to reduce the overall budget for teacher and principal pay, buy off the top players with star salaries and relegate the masses to lower pay.
It's a fair question. But it dodges our old friend, the elephant. The elephant is this: Should teachers be paid like assembly-line workers, strictly on the basis of time in service? Or, assuming they are professionals and some of them are better or worse at their profession than others, should they be paid according to some formula based on how good they are at teaching?
Notice I said "some formula." Let's put the precise nature of the formula to the side for the moment. We can argue about the formula after we decide the principle: time in service or merit? On which should teacher pay be based?
The Dallas Morning News editorial page is always calling for Mike Miles and the school board to move beyond areas of disagreement and concentrate on things they can be nice to each other about. But in fact that's exactly the opposite of what they need to do. They need to get to the real fight.
Teacher pay. Tenure or merit. Which is it going to be?
In fact, wouldn't it be nice if there were some way you and I could reach in there, clutch them all by the collar and make them take an oath? We would tell them they will be perfectly free to go after each other about who's better looking and which ones are more likely to get into heaven. It will be fine with us if they have a great big wide-open debate on how to measure teacher effectiveness. After.
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They can dive into all those other issues after they decide whether teachers should continue being paid as they are now, strictly according to years in service, or be paid instead according to a merit system that everyone involved agrees is fair.
I'm an old union dude myself, former member of the United Auto Workers Union, former member of the Newspaper Guild, a child of the Motor City. My late mother was a very loyal teachers union member and a strict advocate of seniority pay. I do get where seniority pay comes from, and I do know its virtues as a protection for workers against arbitrary compensation and firing.
But given the massive failure of major American urban school districts including our own to bring poor students to full literacy and mathematical competence, I also believe it's legitimate and fair for people to ask whether we may need to make a change. That issue -- tenure versus merit -- is the elephant in the room.
When the anti-Miles faction on the school board tells me they need to go behind closed doors for yet another closed-door meeting to talk about Miles' personality, I begin to think that poor old elephant has been locked up in there with them for way too long. What they really need in there is the guy with the shovel. Every time they come back out, the odor of truth still clings to their clothing.