The Myth of the Evil Teacher Union, Part V

5. Teachers unions prevent effective merit pay systems from being put in place.

This one is half true, which makes it completely false. Teachers unions have actively worked to prevent merit pay systems from being put in place. That’s because merit pay systems, at least all the ones I’ve ever read about, will not be effective at improving teacher performance or student performance. Worse than that, I don’t honestly believe they are designed to do so.

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As pointed out above, merit pay systems complicate the dynamic between teachers and students. Unless students have a reason to try hard on standardized tests, merit pay sytems offer them a vehicle to punish their teachers without consequences. We saw this dynamic play itself out when there was no perverse incentive for the students at all; for years our state tests were used only to measure teachers and schools, but had no bearing on a student's grades, gradation, or acceptance to colleges. Consequently, students just didn't care. This year has been the first year when passing the tests has become a graduation requirement. Suddenly (suprise!) student effort on the tests has increased dramatically. To tie teacher pay to student performance might undermine this effort in a way: Students who have "met" could graduate without trying to "exceed", thereby hurting specific teachers they don't like. Also, students who do like their teachers and want to please them would face even more guilt if they failed. I prefer to have my students doing their best for their own benefit, not trying to hurt me or feeling bad if they take money out of my pocket.

[Lest I forget to mention it, let’s not forget what was pointed out in the book Freakonomics: Merit pay systems encourage teachers to cheat.]

There are different models for merit pay, but most rely on test scores. Ignoring the fact that No Child Left Behind leaves testing up to states, which has encouraged states to create easier and easier tests each year in order to show fictional improvement, the tests are still shoddy measures of teacher performance. In most states (Oregon included) students are not tested against their own previous performance, but at specific grade levels, with their scores compared to previous students taking similar tests, or against other students in the state taking the same test. In other words, as we norm the test we hold the students up against other kids. That’s not a means to test a student. It’s a means to test a school. Even then, it’s a poor measure because the school has no control over who comes through the door. We are not factories trying to make machines out of identical widgets. Regardless of the condition our “widgets” come in, we are not allowed to turn them away. Nor are our students like customers, who can be enticed by better products or lower prices. The idea that schools should be run like businesses doesn’t apply, which is why charter schools keep under-performing on state tests when compared to public schools. They are private businesses, which inclines them to want to import business models onto education. And that causes them to fail.

Despite this knowledge or the limits of their utility (and tests are NOT all bad. Despite what some critics might tell you, they do have a place) merit pay systems use test scores, generally as the be all and end all. They either grade teachers based on the improvement of different students within the district, year after year, or based on over-all passing rates in the state. From there, they do one of two things. Either they identify the “best” teachers and pay them more, or identify the “best” schools and pay all their teachers a bonus.

I’m not sure which model is worse. The first, in my opinion, is a blatant union busting move. To use a sports analogy, it’s locker-room poison. If teachers were rewarded based on the over-all passing rates of their students, some teachers would get a bonus every year, while the teachers (like those who teach our special ed populations) would never get one. How long before that would cause dissension within the ranks? On the other hand, if we measured by student improvement, high performers would be missed. The tests only identify students as meeting standards or exceeding them. I’d love to take all the credit for my kids’ successes, but in my honors classes the kids have been exceeding every year since they were in elementary school. There is no room for improvement, according to the state tests. So I would never get a bonus check based on my honors classes, while those working with what we call the “bubble kids”, those right on the cusp, would see the most dramatic gains every year. And again, those working with our developmentally disabled children would be penalized every year. I also work with second language learners. They often show the most dramatic improvement, but because they are so many years behind their peers in English language acquisition, they almost never meet the state standards. How would we account for that?

I can’t see a way of making an individual merit pay system fair without completely un-doing the system of specialization we have in place, which is one of the things our schools do really well. We should be reinforcing the fact that some teachers have special training and ability when it comes to teaching special populations, like special ed. students, second language learners, and gifted students. To give every teacher an equal chance at a yearly merit bonus, we’d have to give every teacher and equal distribution of students. That would rob the kids of the teachers best bale to serve their specialized needs.

The model of rewarding entire schools rather than individual students seems to be an appealing work-around for this problem. Its advantage is that it encourages teachers to collaborate to bring test scores up school wide. That’s good. But it can’t account for the fact that schools serve different populations, so schools that are behind will have less incentive with which to acquire and retain good teachers, thus falling further behind. In that system whole schools would face the challenge faced by individual teachers in the first model: Schools with disproportionately advantaged students (i.e. schools in wealthy areas) would either succeed every year in meeting benchmarks, or fail every year to show dramatic growth. Schools serving disproportionately challenged populations (high poverty, high non-English speaking populations, etc.) would also be winners or losers depending on whether we measure meeting state standards or measure improvement. In both cases, the success would be largely out of teacher’s control, thus eliminating the chief aim of merit pay, which is to motivate teachers.

At its heart, the problem of merit pay systems is that they are based on an incorrect assumption; that students are failing in school because their teachers are unmotivated. If teachers were primarily motivated by pay …THEY WOULDN’T BE TEACHERS! We don’t do this to get rich. We would like fair pay. I think that any merit pay system that doesn’t recognize this will read like a slap in the face, because that’s exactly what it is. If a pay scheme were to be devised which attempted to deal with all the variables mentioned above, it should still be preceded by a general pay increase. That would show teachers that the scheme isn’t based, first and foremost, on an insulting presupposition, but really is a means to reward the best performers among a group of already respected professionals.

Tomorrow, Myth #6: The Teachers Unions are in bed with the Democratic Party.

The Myth of the Evil Teacher Union, Part III

3. Teachers get lots and lots of vacation.

If you had a friend who lost his job at a factory, would you tell him he’s lucky because he now has lots and lots of vacation? If so, you’re a jerk.

“Vacation” implies that one has a period of time in which they are not working, but are being paid by their employer. Teachers may have extended times during the year when they are not working, but we are not paid during those periods.

Do you know how many days I can choose to take off and still get paid? Two. Do you know what I would do if I chose to take those “personal days” off? I would grade the piles of essays sitting on my desk. Now, I do get bank holidays. I have no complaint about those. And I love my Winter, Spring, and Summer breaks. But I don’t get paid during those breaks, so they aren’t “vacation”. They are regular periods of unemployment. In fact, we are given contracts in the Spring so that we cannot file for unemployment compensation in the summer. We have jobs, just without pay. Your pal who got laid off from the factory might get unemployment. So who’s getting “vacation”? Personally, I would love shorter summers. They would make our students more competitive with their peers over seas, who have shorter summer breaks (or none at all), and they would mean I could work a lot more of the year. I think many parents would love it, as they wouldn’t have to pay for so much childcare during the summer. In all the talk of school reform, how much do you hear about lengthening the school year, one of the guaranteed and proven ways to improve student performance? Not much. Because you’d have to pay teachers. Reformers don’t want to do that. So quit saying I get lots of vacation, and worse, that the union is to blame, when I’m asking you to let me work more.

Tomorrow, Myth #4: Teachers stand in the way of school reform.

Myth of the Evil Teacher Union, Part II

2. Teachers are overpaid.

Critics of teacher’s unions like to claim we’re overpaid. This is a convenient claim, because it’s impossible to refute exactly without a clear sense of what we’re worth. They aren’t lying if they think we’re essentially worthless, which many of them seem to do. I suspect these kinds of critics have very little sense of what we do each day, and I would love to change jobs with one of them for just one day and see how they succeed with my 170 students. Unfortunately, because these vague claims about our compensation are repeated so often, many rational people who value education and educators come to believe we are overpaid, while filtering that notion through their own conception of fair payment.

One of my best friends was working as a tax attorney for a private firm in Portland, and overheard his boss complaining about how little teachers are paid. “They only pay them eighty thousand dollars a year,” the boss informed everyone. My friend, whose wife is a public school teacher, bit his tongue. The boss was trying to argue for teachers, but had no idea that we make far, far less than that. Starting pay, on average, is in the low thirties. In places like Oregon, it tops out in the mid sixties. This is slightly on the low end for national averages. California’s average is $64,424, while South Dakota has the bottom spot with an average of $36,674. This wouldn’t be so bad, if one could get a job teaching right out of high school, but many of us have masters degrees we’ve refinanced for thirty years so that we can still pay the rent. That means we are making student loan payments for, in many cases, our entire careers. This particular boss, a lawyer, probably paid a hefty sum in student loans for his education. For that large amount he received one more year of education than I have (unless he went on for an LLM). As a consequence of that education, he made so much money that he considered that mythical $80,000 a year teacher paycheck laughable.

Critics often bring up our benefits. It’s true, we’ve accepted salary reductions in exchange for the security of fixed retirement plans (usually provided by our states) and better medical plans. But I can tell you that all the school districts I’ve taught for try to chip away at these with higher out-of-pocket expenses and co-pays every time our contracts are renegotiated. Without our unions, we’d be working for our health care coverage alone.

Some point out that teachers earn more, per hour, than many other white collar jobs. That’s true. So, how can teachers earn more per hour when we earn less per year? Because, even though we work vastly more hours than we’re paid for, technically we’re unemployed for months out of every year. More on that tomorrow.

Now, one can certainly argue that all things are relative. Compared to a teacher’s salary in, say central Africa, I’m rolling in dough. But compared to most Americans with a similar level of education, I’m a shmuck if pay is the measure of success. I tell my students I do my job because I enjoy it and think it’s important, not for the paycheck, and that’s true. But every time someone implies that my paycheck is too large, I admit I enjoy my job just a little bit less.

Tomorrow, Myth #3: Teachers get lots and lots of vacation.

The Myth of the Evil Teacher Union, Part I

Last night, as I lay in bed, I found myself itemizing some of the most pernicious lies people accept about the teaching profession and the teacher’s unions in particular. Then, when I came into work, I received this great cartoon from a colleague (and my former student teacher) and felt compelled to put it all down on paper (so to speak).

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We'll get to merit pay in a few days. As I began to hammer out this list, it quickly became too long for a single post, so I'll put them up in serial form. Here's lie #1:

1. Teachers unions are responsible for keeping bad teachers in the classroom.

I can’t speak for every school district nationwide, but if my district is any guide, this is flat-out wrong. I’m not saying we don’t have any bad teachers teaching in our district. But the union does not protect them. Our contract, like many, creates a three year window at the beginning of a teacher’s time in the district (regardless of how many years he/she has taught elsewhere) in which a teacher can be fired for no reason whatsoever. The union does not prevent these people from being fired, but in my years as a teacher, the district has not exercised this ability once. Not once. Teachers have been let go due to budget cutbacks (Reductions in Force, or RIFs), and a couple of teachers have been let go because of inappropriate behavior which came to the attention of the state’s Teachers and Standards Commission (TSPC), but new teachers, even if they are really struggling, aren’t fired. That’s not the union’s fault. In fact, the representatives who serve on union committees are all teachers, and we don’t like it when a bad teacher makes us look bad. But getting teachers fired isn’t our job. We play our role, trying to fight for fair and consistent working conditions, and we privately wish that administrators would do their jobs and take care of certain teachers.

Now, once a teacher has survived that three year probationary period, they CAN still be fired. At that point, it gets a bit more difficult because the school district would have to find a reason. But they have a lot of discretion in this area. They would simply have to do some classroom observations, put someone on a dreaded “plan of assistance” (the threat of which can often send a teacher into early retirement or in search of another school), and then show that the teacher was not making adequate progress on that plan. The union does try to make sure that this is done fairly, that the school district isn’t running someone out for political reasons or creating some unfair and impossible plan of assistance as retaliation for union activity, but if a teacher is performing below par, they could certainly be let go and the union couldn’t do a thing about it.

Unions don’t keep bad teachers in the profession. School districts that are frightened of consequences, or loathe to do the extra legwork, allow those teachers to stay in the classroom. Or they try to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings by promoting the bad teachers into (sometimes made-up and completely unnecessary) administrative positions. Some administrators were great teachers. And some are great at their current jobs. But the Peter Principle is alive and well in public schools, and that's not the union's fault. We don't make hiring decisions for teachers or administrators.

So if your kid's teacher stinks, don't blame the union. Look up the chain of command. But don't be totally shocked if you find yourself talking with someone who wasn't all that hot as a teacher once upon a time.

Tomorrow, Myth #2: Teachers are overpaid.