One of the most ambitious ideas from last year’s comprehensive schools auditoffering high-performing teachers bonus pay to work in the lowest performing schoolsis going nowhere, thanks mostly to opposition from the local teachers’ union.
Under the plan auditors suggested, Metro would spend an annual $1.87 million for bonus teacher pay at the 51 worst-performing Metro schools. Among the idea’s supporters is Mayor Bill Purcell. “The auditors recommended it, and I think it is absolutely within our ability to provide incentives for teachers to go into schools that need them the most,” Purcell said in January, when the audit was released. “We can provide incentive pay to teachers who have better skills working with at-risk children or who have greater capacity to work with children who are under a series of social restraints.”
The audit recommended that the incentive pay plan be developed this year by a “cross-representation” of teachers and principals, the chairman of the school board, a representative of the mayor’s office and the director of schools, and that it be fully implemented by July 2002. But nothing of the sort is happening. Instead, the local teachers’ unionthe Metro Nashville Education Association (MNEA)rejected the concept during its two-year contract negotiations with the school board earlier this year. “The idea of incentive pay was presented by the school board’s team, but we were vigorously opposed to it in the form that they presented it,” says MNEA president Harry McMackin.
At a time when new schools director Pedro Garcia is trying to reform the Metro school system, the incentive pay situation poses an interesting case study. Because the school board has final say about how the education budget is spent, and because the board must negotiate with the MNEA about anything related to benefits, there are enormous limits to what can be done without the MNEA’s endorsement.
Not only does Purcell support incentive pay as a policy matter, so does Garcia, whose young relationship with the local teachers’ union is far from cooperative, to say the very least. “I would like to explore it,” says Garcia, who was unaware that the audit recommended the idea. “I’d at least like to have a committee take a look at it and see if it is worth looking at.”
The teacher incentive pay plan came from MGT of America, which developed 230 recommendations after spending five months auditing the Metro school system late last year. Among the most expensive was the purchase of new computer hardware and software, most of which is included in Purcell’s proposed capital spending plan now before the Metro Council. The audit also recommended hiring 45 new guidance counselorspositions that have already been funded. Shortly after the audit was released, Purcell said that the recommendations were “all doable” and that they “can and should be done.” In fact, the cost of implementing the audit’s recommendations$166 million over five yearswas one of the driving forces behind the property tax increase the council passed last spring.
The incentive pay plan was one of the larger recurring items the audit recommended. MGT noted that Metro schools with especially poor scores on state achievement tests were more likely to have inexperienced or uncertified teachers and higher rates of teacher turnover than better-performing schools. The auditors suggested incentive pay to remedy the situation.
The audit suggested that as many as 623 teachers be paid an annual $3,000 bonus to teach at one of those 51 low-performing schools. Teachers would be chosen based on past performance assessments, their students’ scores on statewide tests, national board certification, ability to speak a second language and experience working with students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
School board member Patricia Crotwell, who took part in the MNEA pay talks, says she and other board members had hoped to negotiate some form of incentive or merit pay, though not necessarily the one MGT recommended. “There were a number of ideas discussed, from providing incentives for people to fill jobs that are hard to fill, to awarding people or entire schools that were performing in an exemplary manner,” says Crotwell, an attorney who represents East Nashville on the school board. “But that approach to solving problems was never fleshed out to a great degree.”
Crotwell says that MNEA was focused almost exclusively during the negotiations on across-the-board pay raises. (In the end, the board agreed to a 3.25 percent increase this year and 3 percent next year, regardless of whether the legislature passes any increases at the state level.)
McMackin says MNEA argued against the incentive pay plan primarily because such concepts don’t work in practice. “I don’t know anyone who disagrees with the idea of merit pay in the abstract, but I know no one who can come up with a system for defining who the best teachers are, because everyone has different opinions on it,” he says.
McMackin agrees that teachers who work in difficult schools deserve help but suggests other incentives besides bonus pay. “Giving teachers in these schools more money isn’t going to give them more knowledge on how to help young people or help them get certified, and will only marginally help them stay in teaching longer,” he says. McMackin says the system should instead increase the number of teachers at those schools. “This would give them time to work with students, work with the community and work on their teaching plans.”
Because the school board and the MNEA have just negotiated a two-year contract, it is unlikely that the issue of incentive pay could be broached between now and January 2003. “I think it is safe to say that there is no chance whatsoever that incentive pay could be funded starting next July,” McMackin says. “The only way that we can reopen negotiations is by mutual agreement, and I don’t believe that our side would consider reopening negotiations based on something as divisive and unjust as changing the pay plan.”
"I suspect you mean that as an insult, but your odd syntax makes it unclear."
Well said Steve.
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