Speaking of paying educators what they're worth, President Obama is proposing a raft of education reforms today, including federal support for merit pay for teachers in up to 150 school districts across the country.
No surprise here: Obama has consistently called for merit pay, even after receiving the endorsement of the National Education Association, a Democratic bulwark that staunchly opposes pay based on performance.
I'm still dubious about merit pay. As I've said before, it's a good principle but a practical nightmare. We all have our opinions about who the best teachers are; how do we fairly codify those opinions into a rational pay system? Could we trust a superintendent, a school board, or any other committee or plebiscite to make an honest assessment of a teacher's actual performance that filters out all the usual small-town politics and petty grievances to which teachers are inevitably subject?
Maybe (pure spitballing here) teachers need to work as independent contractors. End contract renewal and tenure. Each March, the school districts open up every teaching position for bidding. Every teacher on staff who wants to come back next year submits a bid proposal, outlining what they've achieved in the classroom in the past year, what they plan to achieve next year, and how much they think they should be paid for that achievement. Anyone else who wants to apply for the job can do the same. The school picks the best bidder (not necessarily the lowest!), then negotiates a one- to three-year contract with the winner outlining the specific benchmarks to be used to determine any merit pay above and beyond the base.
For instance, suppose I submitted a winning bid for speech education services at Howard High School. Perhaps Superintendent Cullen would offer me a two-year contract, base salary $32,000. We could negotiate that I would receive a $1000 bonus for increasing test scores on a speech assessment that we would design over the summer, a $250 bonus for each student I can recruit to compete at more than one speech contest, and a $5000 bonus for coaching a Howard debater to qualify for Nationals. Maybe I'd even agree to have a $2000 raise contingent upon statistically significant improvement in student and parent satisfaction as expressed on year-end evaluations compared with the previous teacher (if we could agree on a fair evaluation instrument).
Does that sound like an awful lot of work just to set a teacher contract? Imagine the administration going through that process for every teacher on staff. But that's the kind of work fair merit pay will take. If you have better ideas, bring 'em to the table!
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