THE PLANK MARCH 11, 2009
Most news reports about Obama's excellent, reform-minded
education speech yesterday have focused on his suggestion that we reward effective teachers by increasing their paychecks. What he didn't specify is how he'd go about doing that.
Obama's criticism of the "many supporters of my party [who] have
resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay" is rightly
being described as a strike at teachers' unions, which are skeptical of "merit
pay." Unions worry that the practice might increase competition among teachers, stifle their voices, and prove unfair to instructors in poor schools, where
boosting students' scores is a particular struggle. Unions would prefer a "performance
pay" scheme that would lean heavily on rewarding teachers for additional training and professional development. Dennis Van
Roekel, president of the National Education Association, told an Education Week blog yesterday that his
organization would support a program that provided bonuses for teachers that get
certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, but
not "failed merit-pay plans."
So exactly what sort of program would Obama support? When
asked about the NEA's approach in the press briefing yesterday, Press Secretary
Robert Gibbs explained that the president doesn't share the union's view.
Obama wants "an expansion of performance pay that [he] talked about during the
campaign and spoke about in front of town hall meetings and the NEA; included
in that is also certification." (Indeed, when Obama spoke
to the NEA back in July, he advocated for performance pay measures beyond
additional certification, and he was booed by some in the crowd.) Gibbs went on
to highlight "one instance in the Denver
area, where the school system and teachers worked together to create a plan
that was ultimately passed as part of a referendum."
Obama has routinely praised Denver's program, which
in 2005 at a cost of $25 million. ProComp, short for Professional
Compensation System for Teachers, involves paying teachers who opt in to the
program a base salary, on top of which they can receive bonuses based on several
metrics. These include agreeing to work in high-needs schools, having students
exceed expectations on state exams, receiving a master's degree or advanced
certification, and receiving positive evaluations from principals.
ProComp has had its hiccups: In August, for instance, teachers threatened a
strike when the school district proposed expanding the program in a way
unions thought favored new teachers over veterans. But overall, performance pay seems to have served Denver
well. In 2007, a year into ProComp, the city saw a 10-percent uptick in
teacher applications for "hard-to-serve" schools, and students' reading
and math scores rose between 2007 and 2008 in almost all grades.
It's this brand of comprehensive performance pay that Obama
has in mind. He's invited teachers to the table to discuss policy, but his strong
language Tuesday--"I reject a system that rewards failure"--suggests he's going to forge ahead with promoting his policies, even as
unions maintain their defenses.