November 24, 2009

A Merit-Based Meeting

Justin Katz

Thankfully, the Tiverton School Committee's workshop on merit pay is much better attended than has been, well, any other meeting since the poorly considered passage of the retroactive teacher contract. Maybe 50 people.

School Committee Chairman Jan Bergandy mentioned some communications that he's received from teachers to the effect of: "How dare you let people discuss this."

Superintendent Bill Rearick just suggested that adding money to payroll may not be necessary, if the goal is to sort through teachers. He suggests stronger evaluations and the ability to dismiss bad teachers. I don't think anybody from Tiverton Citizens for Change would argue against that strategy.

7:27 p.m.

Some discussion has passed, but I was participating, so I couldn't be posting, as well. Former School Committee Vice Chairman Mike Burke is speaking against spending any further time discussing merit pay. He's clearly presenting his prepared remarks as a direct political response to some initial thoughts by Tiverton Citizens for Change. But that's what one is to expect from the people who've been running Rhode Island and its cities and towns: His position is that all change is blocked at contractual, legal, and budgetary considerations.

Tiverton Establishment: "No change. Keep funding a failing system. Let's do some research."

One interesting point that he's made is that the financing of the districts is too closely integrated for a district's merit pay system to work. I'd argue that a system that has relatively low pay for just showing up to work, but high pay for good teachers would tend — within the static system that Burke describes — to attract the better teachers within the state. Not surprisingly, he wants to wait for the state to act and force something from union-controlled top down.

8:24 p.m.

I haven't written much because the conversation has gone along pretty predictable lines, and there's been no deep investigation into specifics of a program. One notable thing is that merit pay does reshuffle the ideological deck, some. I know I've had behind the scenes arguments on my side, and it's clear that the other side is (or should be) having their own.

One lesson, perhaps, could be that merit pay isn't its own issue, apart from broader reforms, especially in Tiverton, which is currently working through the first stages of a strategic plan. I'll agree with some of the suggestions of folks with whom I generally disagree, that we don't want to derail other initiatives. So, perhaps merit should be built into the evaluation system currently in development. (I happen to be on the evaluation committee...)


Overall, the workshop had a productive, cordial tone, so one thing that stuck out felt inappropriate to explore — mostly because it could have devolved rapidly. Comments were made several times that, essentially, teachers aren't really motivated by money. Indeed, School Committee Vice Chairwoman Sally Black said that she found the idea insulting that teachers would work harder for money. A teacher in the audience said the same. School Committee Member Carol Herrmann suggested that perhaps "merit pay" could be refigured as a sort of merit acknowledgment, with no money necessary.

Having sat through school committees watching teachers visibly shaking with passion over raises that amounted to a few thousand dollars, I find tonight's assertions kinda hard to square with experience. Boiled down, they seem to be suggesting that it is insulting not to give them annual increases (on top of step raises) simply for being teachers, but that it is also insulting to promise them additional money for proving themselves to be good teachers.

I honestly believe that the teachers do hold these views sincerely and with honorable intentions, but it just goes to show how infantilizing union membership and propaganda can be.

The bottom line on merit pay, from my perspective, is that it shouldn't be just a bonus, but an entire system aligning compensation with performance. And it shouldn't be based solely on test scores, but on job performance as broadly written as is appropriate. Just like career advancement is in the private sector.

Sure, some component would have to be related to students' actual performance. But other components could be tied to district targets. For example, one argument that I hear all the time is that parents simply aren't sufficiently involved, so perhaps some component of the evaluation and merit increase could kick in for teachers who do something to bridge that divide. A perfect example: retired music teacher (and TCC member) Anne Parker spoke of her experience doing extra work with a parent/student choir. Or, if a target area is math, a shop teacher could prove merit by integrating lessons with the students' math classes, thus improving immediate understanding while illustrating the practical utility of an abstract subject.

When it comes right down to it, though, none of this is going to be free, and the real test of whether teachers are "motivated by money" is whether they think a system of objective, useful evaluations to be worth a few years of very minimal raises.

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I would be grateful if you would provide some information on the "merit system" of compensation that you support.

Let me be clear that I support merit compensation, but also think that a) supporters have not thought it through very well and b) critics concerns ought to be taken seriously.

So, if you will, please describe, in as much detail as you are able, the system of merit compensation that you support.

Posted by: Thomas Schmeling at November 24, 2009 11:10 PM
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