Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Rethinking Teacher Compensation Part III: Synthesis and Solutions

Day one, we looked at history and rationale for the single salary schedule; day two we took a critical look at neo-liberal reform proposals with an eye to avoiding bad policy.  Today, I propose a set of principles to guide good policy choices.
That said, there are many legitimate reasons to explore new ways of compensating teachers.  Financial incentives are a major lever of public policy and there are already incentives built into the single salary schedule - perhaps not the ones we want.  Compensation reform in education will be an essential component of restructuring schools for the 21st century.  I'd like to propose three basic principles to keep the change process positive and to avoid adding three million education workers to the general instability of our labor force.
  1. Strategic compensation systems should be "opt in."  The best experiments in strategic compensation do so.  This speaks to basic fairness and ethical policy around the social contract.  Veteran educators rightly are cautious about change, having experienced the endless churn of half baked and half completed policy through their careers.  If the strategic compensation system is well designed, even veterans will opt in.  Districts like Denver and Baltimore have followed this practice in instituting their new contracts. 
  2. There should be an adaptive match between policy and problem.  We should not let an enthusiasm for novelty drive the process.  Disruption and change for its own sake do not add value.  Reform can  be achieved through innovative compensation practices and through  single salary schedules (Plattsburgh NY), according to conditions in the community.  We are solving education problems here, not tax policy or public relations problems.  Blind adherence to ideology has no place among leaders who value student learning.
  3. Pay people now for the work they do now.  The big problem with deferred compensation is that someday, somebody is going to have to pay for it, especially if pension systems are chronically underfunded for short term convenience.  The solution is pay as you go.  If you pay a teacher every cent they are owed at the time they perform the work, instead of with an IOU payable decades down the road, tenure and seniority then stand on their own merit as policy choices.  If separation/termination is necessary, a person can leave cleanly, knowing that no deferred money was left on the table.  This is a new type of fair, infinitely simpler and less rule bound.
During his speech at the NBPTS conference, Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke of educators receiving salaries in the range of $60,000 to $150,000.  He was pinning some realistic numbers on a 21st century teacher compensation system. He wasn't talking about a juiced up single salary schedule.
Compensation reform is properly used to improve education, not save money.  To give you an idea, when Denver negotiated the Pro-Comp system with their union, the DCTA, this required 13% new money.  Denver taxpayers agreed to fund the plan by taxing themselves an additional quarter billion dollars over a ten year period.  The bottom line was that the new contract was a plan to improve education outcomes.  Taxpayers will pay for improvements, but are understandably unenthusiastic about mere inflation.
I believe there are ways of rethinking teacher compensation that can lead to better outcomes.  The difficulty we face is that the single salary schedule, pensions, benefits, tenure and seniority (not to mention collective bargaining where it exists) are so inextricably intertwined that you can't take a jackhammer to any one part of the edifice without bringing the whole thing down.  Political vandals may like this idea, but it is bad policy because it demoralizes education workers, degrades the quality of education and hurts students.
The ethical policy alternative is to build a shiny new compensation structure next to the old one, a structure that speaks powerfully to education quality, and solves real world education problems.  And fund it properly.  When the last person has left the old structure for the new, then you can get out the jackhammers - or better yet turn the old edifice into a museum.
Question: what principles would you add so that compensation reform is both fair and effective in advancing student learning?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Rethinking Teacher Compensation Part II: A Brief Critique of Neo-Liberal Compensation Reform

Yesterday we explored the history and rationale of traditional teacher compensation practices.  Today we will take apart some of the more toxic neo-liberal ideas.  Tomorrow, we’ll look at some solutions.
Along comes neo-liberal education reform, built around the idea that the invisible hand of markets and competition can solve educational problems.  A whole raft of activity follows.  Reformers talk about billions spent each year compensating teachers for master’s degrees that are disconnected from student outcomes.  Municipalities and school boards balk at funding automatic step raises on the grounds that longevity does not equal quality.  The linchpins of tenure and seniority come under assault on the somewhat contradictory grounds that tenure protects bad teachers and seniority encourages the mal-distribution of good teachers.
An alphabet soup of strategic compensation initiatives seeks to incentivize desired teacher behaviors.  At their most toxic, these schemes merely reward (or fire) teachers for test scores.  The real problem with doing this is that it turns education into a commodity.  Produce more, we reward you more.  I wonder what reasonable person would want to commoditize education.  Ultimately education is a quality more than a quantity, a process more than a product. 
One dimensional solutions like merit pay (and its various sophisticated modern flavors) take institutions that can only be optimally effective by means of a culture of collaboration, and incentivize competition.  By making people compete for a limited pool of merit pay, one encourages the withholding of information and the breakdown of trust.  There is no faster way to destroy a school culture.  Private industry discovered this many years ago.  Why half baked incentive schemes that failed in industry are being recycled in education is beyond me.
Let me repeat – competition in education is bad because optimal performance in schools requires profoundly collaborative cultures.  This is the Achilles heel of neo-liberalism.  You can’t succeed at this endeavor when you make teachers and schools behave like too many piglets at too few teats.
The flaw in pay for performance is that while the goal is 100% success, performance pay requires winners and losers because there is a finite amount of money to dedicate to the purpose – that’s called budgeting.   So there has to be losers.  We already have a system with winners and losers - that’s the problem we are trying to solve.  Do we want to put that system on steroids?
Finally, one cannot ignore the fact that there are lazy and duplicitous politicians and policy makers who are trying to steal veteran educators' deferred compensation so they can evade the tough work of raising the revenues necessary to fund the public good.  Schemes that promise to “do more with less” are the snake oil of education policy. 
Those who would end the defined benefit pensions of teachers and other public workers on whatever spurious grounds, and after failing to fund them properly for decades, turn our government and society into a giant kleptocracy.
The single salary schedule and its associated mechanisms may be a relic of another time, but, by side stepping the more poisonous effects of competition, traditional teacher compensation practices at least leave the possibility of collaborative school cultures and basic fairness intact.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Rethinking Teacher Compensation: Ethics Equals Good Policy - Part I. Time Flows Only One Direction

Rethinking Teacher Compensation: Ethics Equals Good Policy is a three part series.  I will be posting each day as follows:

Monday: Part I. Time Flows Only One Direction
Tuesday: Part II. A Brief Critique of Neo-Liberal Compensation Reform
Wednesday: Part III. Synthesis and Solutions

Part I. Time Flows Only One Direction
The single salary schedule is the most common system for organizing the compensation of teachers.  It rewards for two things: longevity and education.  A teacher receives a raise for each year of service (step increases) and a raise for achieving certain educational benchmarks, such as graduate credits and Masters degrees (column increases.)  It emerged during the Progressive era, some 94 years ago, to solve certain problems in education.  It promoted equity between teachers of different races and genders.  It rationalized compensation, and was used to take favoritism out of the equation.
In order to work the single salary schedule had to be tied to two other mechanisms: tenure and seniority.  Tenure is due process, the idea that civil servants should only be terminated for just cause, in other words for issues related to performance.  Teachers gain tenure when they attain the right to due process, usually after certain number of years and satisfactory evaluations.  Prior to attaining tenure, teachers are "at will employees;" they can be terminated for any reason or for no reason.  Seniority is "last in, first out" which prevents veteran teachers from being terminated in favor of younger, cheaper workers.  Without tenure and seniority, the single salary schedule is functionally meaningless.
There is another issue that further complicates the picture: defined benefit pensions.  Pensions are part of an overall benefit phenomenon - public sector employees have historically traded higher salaries for better benefits.  With pensions, teachers trade salary for income after retirement.  Teachers contribute a percentage of salary to the pension system and the government also makes a contribution.  Actuaries make recommendations for funding the system, which, in an ideal world, policy makers and legislators are supposed to follow.
This is a deferred compensation system.  Teachers are paid peanuts early in their careers on the promise of a middle class salary later in their careers, along with good benefits and a dignified retirement.  Due process and seniority are the glue that hold the system together: without a reasonable expectation that they can last long enough in their jobs to receive their top level salaries and pensions, the single salary schedule would be a cruel joke.
It is also a social contract.  Government benefits by being able to defer costs into the future, and still have a stable, well educated work force in schools, essentially trading the future for short term benefits.  Teachers benefit by having stable employment and clear, understandable rules governing compensation and retirement.  They trade salary in the short term for long term benefit. 
Historically, the single salary schedule has functioned as designed.  A large population of career educators has stuck around, and has acquired additional training and education.  They have paid every penny they owed by statute into the pension system.  Teachers have kept their part of the bargain in this vast social contract and invested their very lives in it.  Teachers cannot take back the years.  There are no do-overs for veteran educators.  Time only flows one direction.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities: Fear and Hope in Education Policy and Unions

I'm going to start off by cross posting a guest blog I wrote for my friend Patrick Ledesma's Leading From the Classroom on Education Week.

Last February, two very different narratives played out in Denver and Madison.

In Madison, political vandals tried to take out one of the state's great civic institutions: public sector unions. Unions were radically reduced in their capacity to bring the wisdom of the practitioner voice to policy. They were loaded down with legal requirements designed to hobble them with an obsession with mere survival. They lost legal rights to speak for workers in any meaningful way. We know the story: it was big news.

In Denver, overshadowed by events in Madison, the US Department of Education convened a Labor-Management Collaboration Conference. Here, a very different narrative played out. Unions were treated not as enemies to be destroyed, but as valued partners in the policy process. Twelve districts that had collaboratively integrated their union voice, and twelve locals who had responded with care and creativity were highlighted as models. Over 150 districts sent teams of administrators, political leaders, and union leaders to learn from these twelve districts.

The intent and effect was to build the capacity of unions, administrators and boards to work as partners for the goal of great student learning. On display was a uniquely American version of what has long been achieved in Europe: integration of labor as a valued voice in making better policy, and not as a political enemy to be neutralized or destroyed.

The conference, which the Department regarded as a first step, was superbly documented on ED's website. I was part of a team of researchers from the department's Teaching Ambassador Fellowship Initiative studying the twelve featured districts with an eye to uncovering skills, knowledge, language and dispositions that could port collaborative success to other districts.

I am also a union activist, president of my local, and a board director for my state affiliate. I look at these events from this dual perspective.

I cannot grace the political vandals of Wisconsin with the name "Republican." These people are not the Republicans I know, the ones I grew up with in upstate New York. Real Republicans care about government, public policy, and the quality of civic discourse.

The Wisconsin events reduced our collective ability for civic discourse.

Three times in the last week I have sat in union meetings listening for hours to the litany of evils emanating from Wisconsin. The actions coming out of these meetings are entirely built around fear - fear of more Wisconsins. It reinforces a circle-the-wagons mentality. Fear sucks all the oxygen out of a room and suffocates hope. It stifles agents of change, drowning their voices in the soft corruption of business as usual.

Any good union negotiator will tell you that you have to control the table. By reacting, by pouring all resources into this particular fight, we have lost control of the table. Control of the table means control of the narrative. By accepting this narrative, unions fight on enemy turf, battling for public support in a conceptual framework not of their own making.

My frustration as a union leader is the extreme difficulty of promoting a progressive unionism in the context of institutions obsessively focused on self-preservation.

What is lost in the confusion is the positive story, the winning narrative. Not winning because unions win and others lose, but because everybody wins. The story of Denver is one of mature, responsible adults joining together in constructive civic dialogue with one common purpose: great student learning. This is a goal that stakeholders can unite around. Serving this goal means that participants make tough decisions to trade power over people for positive influence over mutually valued ends.

Unions need to organize around education quality. In the long run, addressing the deeply felt service motivation and professionalism of teachers will promote their legitimate economic and political interests.
Organizing around quality speaks to the better angels of our nature and provides a compelling point of contact with other stakeholders.

Organizing around hope rather than fear will bring more engagement from rank and file and ultimately make the union more effective in bringing a measure of control to the lives of education workers.

Students must remain our focus. Our policies and our collective bargaining agreements should be educational improvement plans that can fit through that gateway which protects the well being of children. They should not be a means to manipulate the public to pay extra for more of the same, nor be mechanisms to shift the costs of the public good onto the backs of education workers. That is the path to perdition. The theme of the Denver LMC was communities uniting to put the best interests of children first, deploying enormous creativity and democratic engagement of stakeholders to find fair and equitable technical means to this end.

So here is a tale of two very different cities, Madison, city of fear, and Denver, city of hope. I am torn between Madison and Denver. As a good union activist, I join with my sister and brother education workers to heal the awful wound which was inflicted in Madison. But as an educator, my heart, my soul, and my mind are in Denver.