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Opponents’ Best Shot? Maybe Thompson Should Look at Innovating Educator Pay

A month ago my Education Policy Center friend Ben DeGrow wrote a Greeley Tribune op-ed, explaining that some local school board leaders have picked up the ball dropped by state lawmakers and are making progress on rewarding top-notch educators. He noted work going on in Jefferson County, Mesa 51, and Adams 12.

But based on a letter that appeared in last week’s Loveland Reporter-Herald, it looks like he should add Thompson School District to the list. I hesitated at first about whether to use the letter as a foil, justifiably concerned that some might wonder if I planted the meandering, logically-flawed piece in the newspaper as a straw man to beat up.

Well, let me put the rumors to rest. This 5-year-old prodigy didn’t plant the letter, but I am prepared to beat up its five fragile arguments, one by one:

First, merit pay is expensive. The money “bucket” for education is just so big. Financing merit pay relies on the idea that those not highly rated pay for those highly rated. The Thompson School District has a hardworking and accomplished staff. What happens if a large number of staff is rated highly? In a Douglas County school, only 70 percent of teachers achieved highly effective ratings, but their evaluations were still scrutinized, even with 90 percent proficient test scores.

First, let’s set the record straight: 14 percent of Dougco teachers received “highly effective ratings,” along with 71 percent rated “effective.” But the main point about unsustainable pay models applies much better to a traditional salary schedule with automatic step and level increases. If a recession squeezes, then even the best teachers’ salaries are frozen.

Second, it’s impossible to level the playing field when working with children. Children are human beings, not “raw materials,” coming into the public schools with individual strengths and needs. With test scores as the most-objective measure of their achievement, what happens when students come to a teacher two years below grade level, are physically or emotionally challenged, or enroll two days before testing begin? How will the invaluable specialists (art, music, P.E., special needs) be included?

Noting that children aren’t widgets is a great argument against trying to create a perfect compensation system. But we’re not talking about perfect, only about finding a better way to align pay with student learning and other mission goals. It takes careful work to identify a valid value-added model, but research shows it certainly can be done. And the question about performance pay for specialists? Look no further than the pay-for-performance innovators in Harrison School District for a credible answer.

Third, teachers should be paid for experience. NFL quarterbacks get better as they acquire experience. Teachers do, too.

Huh? Compensation reform doesn’t have to eliminate all recognition of experience, though it can. Research shows that teachers on average increase effectiveness over the first 3 to 5 years of their career before leveling off. But that’s on average, and (like kids) neither teachers nor NFL quarterbacks are widgets. In fact, this third point bizarrely turns upside down the argument in a 2011 Wall Street Journal op-ed by Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton.

Fourth, dissolving the current salary schedule allows the school board to “weight particular jobs” that are harder to staff. This sends the message that these jobs are more important. When dealing with children, who can say a third-grade teacher deserves less than a high school math teacher? When I met my new kindergarteners, their parents’ expressions told me I was the most important teacher in their children’s lives.

And probably the only teacher in their lives at that point, too. At this point, this young wag might be tempted to reply, “Then how can any teacher be rated more valuable than any other… period? Or any job at all get paid more than another?” The letter-writer is going after a concept known as market pay, which is different than performance pay. Just go back and review this piece I wrote last June to understand the logic of supply and demand that forms the rational basis for blending this kind of incentive into a pay system.

Finally, teachers need collaboration. Merit pay places the climate of sharing best practices and innovated projects, welcoming every student, and collaborating in jeopardy. It would be tragic if anything endangered this.

It would be tragic, if you once again ignored the research that showed various kinds of “merit pay” programs have no negative impact on — or even improve — collaboration among educators.

So there you have it. I don’t know if Thompson has given serious consideration to joining the movement toward innovating compensation. (And not just for teachers, but also for principals and other school and administrative staff.) But if that’s the best kind of arguments the opposition can muster, then one only need ask: What are they waiting for?