Chapel Hill: Opinion

Proceed with caution on performance-based pay for teachers

By John Montovan

I am writing in response to Peggy Dreher’s opinion piece published June 7 (CHN, I share Ms. Dreher’s goals of the professionalization of teacher’s working conditions and fair compensation for hundreds of hours of professional development we have done throughout our careers. But no amount of money will replace the feeling of having done right by a child or assuage the feeling of having shortchanged them. I think that is where teachers really own their careers.

I too believe we can learn from the business world. But my lessons are different than Ms. Dreher’s. I would suggest we proceed with caution, examine carefully the products we are being offered and the costs.

While “performance based pay” may seem like a new idea, it is not. Great Britain began tying teacher compensation to measurement (testing) right around when North carolina opened its’ first public school. The results over the next 30 years were a disaster. Cheating was rampant and teaching to the superficial standards of a test was the norm.

At the turn of the century almost half of U.S. schools used merit-based pay and effectively ensured that white men were paid more than women and minorities. Both Nixon and Bush tried variants of the merit-based system; same results. The current step salary scale was a remedy for merit-based pay because it allowed teachers to focus on real teaching and made compensation fair and predictable. Step salary also recognized that years in the profession and training were an effective and efficient predictor of teacher skill.

The new push for “performance pay” is being promoted and sold by our nation’s richest businessmen. Battelle For Kids, the consultant that CHCCS hired to direct this effort at a cost of $150,000, (about what we saved by privatizing our custodial services) is a spinoff from the Battelle Memorial Institute, a “non-profit” that took in over $6.2 billion, mostly from government contracts, and whose chief executive took in over $2.4 million in 2011. Bill Gates, and the Ohio Business Roundtable are other funders of Battelle for Kids. These men (women are small minorities in the Business Round Table, and minorities are practically non-existent) may have their strengths, but do they value diversity, fairness, individuality, growth, and truth the way we do in school? Or like many good businessmen are they happy to sell services to us by convincing us how much we need them? I understand we are currently under new negotiations to see how Battelle might continue to ”help” us. Cost? Unknown.

The specialists at Battelle have marketed this movement as teacher led. I appreciate that 16 teachers were brought in to help design the model, but 62 percent of teachers in a survey just done by the district are anxious about the approach being promoted in the new compensation model. Only 18 percent share Ms. Dreher’s sense of excitement.

This isn’t just a case of not understanding. It’s a case of some facts not being on the table. After lots of time and money spent we still don’t have any idea how this would affect our pay or how the pay categories will be determined. Other facts are all too clear. The American Statistical Association cautions about the misuse of student test data to attempt to evaluate teachers. Other districts that have tried this have ended up funneling 1 percent of their compensation budget to private consultants for administration of a cumbersome and unproductive system, and costs increased every year. For CHCCS that would equal about $1 million per year, the salaries of the 22 teacher assistants cut last year. The value of the new system to the district might be that it provides a way to control and manipulate what percentage of teachers are allowed to reach different levels of pay. At the May meeting, school board members openly talked about controlling costs of veteran teachers and the value of being able to manipulate pay grades. This seems to directly contradict the goals Ms. Dreher and I agree on.

Thanks to Ms. Dreher for bringing this issue to the public’s attention. It has serious implications for the community and our profession. Many of the problems our nation is grappling with, widening inequality, private vs. public, control of one’s profession, fair compensation, are evident in this debate. Certainly we must be able to critically examine the issues and the remedies that will move us forward and leave our children better off when we are gone.

John Montavon lives in Carrboro.