Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

March 10, 2009


There is nothing in the Constitution that gives the federal government any authority over how local schools are run. But using the greenmail of federal funding, recent presidents have increasingly insisted on their pet ideas.

Jonathan Martin, Politico - Obama will propose spending additional money to reward effective teachers in up to 150 additional school districts. . . Obama’s plan to embrace merit pay will come in a speech before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington, say administration officials who briefed reporters. Teachers’ unions say merit pay causes teachers to compete against each other, rather than collaborate, and is unfair to those who work in disadvantaged areas where it can be harder to boost student performance. . .

In addition to rewarding good teachers, Obama also will seek to push out those who aren’t getting results.

“He supports improved professional development and mentoring for new and less effective teachers, and will insist on shaping new processes to remove ineffective teachers,” said a background statement issued by the White House.

The Obama officials didn’t elaborate on how much he would spend on a merit pay program, or how he would propose to weed out bad teachers, but there is money included in the stimulus package for improved tools to track teacher performance. . .

In a move that may make the merit pay proposal more palatable for teachers’ unions, Obama will speak out against the current standardized tests so loathed by educators in favor of upgraded assessments and better data systems for tracking student progress.

National Education Association - Name a profession in which people earn less each year Through collective bargaining or state legislation, most teachers are placed on a salary schedule with pay "steps" or "increments" for seniority -- seasoning -- on the job and added professional development. They are rigorously evaluated, face recertification requirements, deal with ever-more-complex state and federal standards, and are expected to advance to the master's degree level and beyond.

Merit pay systems force teachers to compete, rather than cooperate. They create a disincentive for teachers to share information and teaching techniques. This is especially true because there is always a limited pool of money for merit pay. Thus, the number-one way teachers learn their craft --learning from their colleagues -- is effectively shut down. If you think we have turnover problems in teaching now, wait until new teachers have no one to turn to.

The single salary schedule is the fairest, best understood, and most widely used approach to teacher compensation -- in large part because it rewards the things that make a difference in teacher quality: knowledge and experience.

Plus, a salary schedule is a reliable predictor of future pay increases. Pay for performance plans are costly to taxpayers and difficult to administer. In contrast, single salary schedules have known costs and are easy to administer. School boards can more easily budget costs and need less time and money to evaluate employees and respond to grievances and arbitrations resulting from the evaluation system. Worse yet, there is often a lack of dedicated funding for merit pay systems.

Merit pay begs the question of fairness and objectivity in teacher assessments. Is teacher performance based on multiple measures of student achievement or simply standardized test scores? Are there teachers who are ineligible to participate in a merit plan because their field of expertise (art, music, etc.) is not subject to standardized tests?


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