Edu Secretary Brings Merit Pay Message to Union

duncan nea.jpg

Photo of Arne Duncan courtesy the Department of Education.

Last Thursday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan brought the Obama administration's carefully calibrated school reform message to the San Diego annual meeting of the nation's largest teachers' union, the National Education Association. As he has in a series of recent speeches, Duncan focused on how the Department of Education will distribute the competitive grants in its $5 billion "Race to the Top" fund. Between eight and 12 states are expected the receive the funds, which are intended to foster and "scale up" successful education "innovation."

While $5 billion sounds like a lot of money, it is actually just a drop in the bucket of the $100 billion the DOE received as part of the president's nearly $800 billion economic stimulus package. Still, Race to the Top excites more interest in education circles than any other federal school program, because of its emphasis on "reform." In front of the skeptical union audience, Duncan emphasized, as he has in the past, that states with experimental performance pay programs for teachers will have a leg up in the process.

…let's also be honest: school systems pay teachers billions of dollars more each year for earning [professional development] credentials that do very little to improve the quality of teaching. At the same time, many schools give nothing at all to the teachers who go the extra mile and make all the difference in students' lives. Excellence matters and we should honor it—fairly, transparently, and on terms teachers can embrace.

The President and I have both said repeatedly that we are not going to impose reform but rather work with teachers, principals, and unions to find what works.

Politically, the key signal here is that Ducan supports differentiated compensation only if teachers and their unions are involved in implementing these systems. In the Democratic Party, which relies on teachers' unions for funding and campaign season organizing, this is crucial. But that doesn't mean the NEA is thrilled about the administration's messaging. As the Los Angeles Times reported, during the event's question-answer session, one union delegate said to Duncan, "Quite frankly, merit pay is union-busting."

That statement reflects an old-school belief that differentiated pay — based upon measures such as student test scores and principal's classroom observations — will lead to so much competition between teachers that unions would no longer be able to cohesively operate on their behalf. In Denver, the site of the largest performance pay experiment to date, there has been some union infighting — particularly between younger and older teachers — but the union remains the key player in collective bargaining. That said, there is little conclusive evidence, so far, that merit pay raises student achievement. Rather, it may emerge that the policy's key success is in attracting high-achieving young people and career-changers into the profession, who would otherwise be turned off by flat, experience-based pay scales.

cross-posted at TAPPED

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