Last week, Education Nation closed the summit with interviews from President Obama and Governor Romney. The candidates seemed to agree more than they disagreed—in fact, Brian Williams asked Governor Romney if he would retain Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education for a Romney presidency. Performance pay was one area where President Obama and Governor Romney were closely aligned. “There should be some connection between a teacher’s capacity to move students from grade to grade and a teacher’s compensation,” said Governor Romney. While acknowledging issues regarding teacher buy-in and valid assessments, President Obama said, “pay-for-performance makes sense in some situations.” With this bipartisan agreement, it’s hard to imagine that pay-for-performance will not become the standard. It’s important to remember, however, that there is a prerequisite to performance pay: meaningful, accurate, and reliable teacher evaluation.
Following Chicago’s teacher strike, the blogosphere seemed to agree that Mayor Rahm Emanuel “got rolled” by giving up much more than he received, including his proposal on performance pay. While Mayor Emanuel made some unfortunate concessions to finish the deal, it was a win for teachers and students that performance pay did not make it into the contract. Fair performance pay requires consistently valid evaluation, and all evidence indicates that Chicago still has a long way to go before that’s true. From 2003- 2008, only 0.4% of Chicago teachers were rated unsatisfactory. It’s hard to imagine that Chicago has had the time, capacity, and will to change their record of thoughtlessly checking the satisfactory box on teacher evaluations. A recent report by Education Trust-Midwest shows that Michigan is losing the same battle: they found that many districts in Michigan, despite major statewide efforts to make the teacher evaluation process more meaningful, still rate 99.36 percent of teachers effective or highly effective despite low rates of student achievement.
As part of Education Sector’s recent survey of teachers on unions and their role in reform, we conducted several focus groups throughout the country. One participant, a high school math teacher in D.C. who was relatively supportive of the recent reform wave in DCPS, said:
“If they’re raising requirements, because they’re always raising requirements on what teachers have to do, somebody’s job needs to be ‘no.’ That could be seen as a roadblock to teacher quality but it’s an appropriate role for a union. Somebody has to say ‘no.’”
In the wake of the Chicago Teachers Union strike, it’s easy to paint teachers unions as standing in the way of progress and, as Checker Finn writes, “fundamentally selfish.” And sometimes that’s true. But in this lightning-fast education reform environment, we’re building the plane as we’re flying it. While advocates and legislators write the laws and regulations, teachers are the ones implementing many of these changes. It’s in the best interest of everyone involved—especially students—if teachers and their unions push back when reforms play out differently in schools than in advocacy briefs. It simply does not make sense for Chicago—or any other district— to implement a performance pay scheme when they don’t have dependable information to base it on. Sometimes the union’s job is to hit the pause button and make sure steps one and two are in place before we move on to step three.