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[Susan notes: Newspapers always love it when they can find a teacher (or a teacher spouse) arguing for merit pay. Reg Weaver writes a solid, fact-based letter. And it's no surprise that the Journal didn't print Walt Gardner's letter, which is included here.]

Published in Wall Street Journal
11/10/2006

To the editor

Despite Terry Moe's enthusiastic endorsement ("Management 101 for Our Public Schools," editorial page, Oct. 31), there is nothing "revolutionary" about an idea that has been around since the 19th century. England tried it, Canada tried it and several U.S. school districts have tried it -- linking teacher pay to test scores has never worked.

The "Management 101" philosophy advanced by Mr. Moe is grounded in assumptions about pay that are misleading and incorrect. Southwest Airlines has never used individual incentives, and it is the cost and productivity leader in its industry. After surveying companies that experimented with different ways to tie pay to individual performance, consulting firm William M. Mercer concluded that "most individual merit or performance-based pay plans share two attributes: They absorb vast amounts of time and resources, and they make everybody unhappy."

The strongest incentives for teachers and all working people are competitive salaries and good working conditions. Connecticut adopted this view some years ago when its schools were in serious trouble. Today Connecticut consistently ranks above the national average in math and reading, a turnaround made possible by higher salaries for qualified faculty, increased licensing standards and mentoring for all new teachers.

While Mr. Moe and others are riding on the hope that an end-of-the-year cash bonus will translate into student success, teachers and those who know better will continue working to transform teacher quality at its core.

Reg Weaver
President
National Education Association
Washington

My wife is in her fifth year teaching in one of Chicago's worst inner-city schools. She spends nights and weekends grading papers, preparing lesson plans and devising new ways to motivate her underprivileged students. The annual test scores of her students far outpace those of her fellow teachers, yet she receives the same 4% raise as her less deserving colleagues.

My wife is committed to educating needy students, as I expect many excellent teachers are; but the fact that she, and others, are rewarded commensurate with those teachers committed to the status quo (and whose students have the test results to prove it) is unacceptable.

Ryan J. Stecz
Chicago

Terry Moe is right to observe that the Department of Education's grants to fund incentive pay for teachers is a step in the right direction. However, until our fundamental approach is altered, we will continue to be "thrashing at the branches of the problem" (to borrow from Thoreau), instead of striking at its root.

Teachers' unions are not the cause of eroding standards; those are the result of a design flaw that asks government to both provide and produce the product in question. This government factory approach short-circuits the necessary connection between the "producer" and the "consumer." The consumer (i.e. the parent) has no natural recourse when confronted with an unsatisfactory product, in this case: poor quality education.

When Mr. Moe expresses frustration with the lack of "real-world" accountability in education, he seems to forget that without external imposition, honest accountability can never occur. One arm of government putting pressure on another is a recipe for systemic mediocrity.

The answer to the problem of teachers unions' disdain for incentive pay is to expose the unions to the real-world market forces of school choice.

David Allison
President
The Liberty Institute
Cincinnati

I taught for many years at a blue- collar mostly minority public high school. I had students in the same classes who read at grade-school level and at a collegiate level. If there was a wand to wave over that group that would inspire a uniform march forward, I never found it. Most often, I tried to direct instruction to an imagined middle that frequently confused my dullest students and bored the brightest ones.

For the past two years, I've taught top students at a college preparatory private school. Vive la difference. The students are alert, work hard and progress rapidly. More than 90% of them passed the AP exam last year. I've no illusions that my teaching is anything other than what is has always been -- determined in large measure by the students with whom I work.

Patrick Mattimore
San Francisco

Broken or abusive families, or lack of English proficiency, or drug dependency or mental disorders all affect students' ability to learn. This blame-the-teacher strategy explains why good teachers are leaving the profession: They thought they would be teachers, not social nursemaids. They cannot be held accountable for the failures of parents and communities that do not deliver the prerequisites for young minds to perform -- namely, nutrition, safety, health, self-esteem, discipline and respect.

Gene S. Rosera
Alexandria, Va.

Improvement in instruction will occur when teachers face the stick or the pink slip. In Milwaukee, we call it "The Dance of the Lemons," in which incompetent teachers get transferred from one school to another on and on. We have teachers who have been assigned to eight different schools due to complaints of parents and low performance ratings. If you want to see real improvement in public education, fire the lemons.

Ed Koscik
Retired math teacher
Milwaukee

Here's a letter they didn't publish:

Sir:

Terry M. Moe asserts that only in public schools and, by extension, in government is pay divorced from performance ("Management 101 for Our Public Schools," Commentary, Oct. 31). His claim has great intuitive appeal, but it won't stand up to scrutiny.

On the day before Mr. Moe's essay appeared, for example, the Journal published "How to Fire a CEO," which documented how difficult the process actually is in the business world. Not only do nearly 75 percent of the CEOs of companies in the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index have employment contracts or severance plans, but they have sophisticated lawyers who are highly successful at protecting their clients' financial packages. The result is that even in the face of egregious wrongdoing and blatant incompetence CEOs leave monetarily unscathed.

The truth is that the worst CEO can often make more in one year driving a company into the ground than 50 of the best teachers can make in their entire careers effectively educating thousands of students. In attempting to distract attention from this inconvenient reality, Mr. Moe blames the politics and power of teachers unions that he says care more about their members than about children. Yet it is precisely politics and power in the corporate boardrooms across the country that are responsible for the outrageous rewards given to CEOs who diminish shareholder value.

Sincerely,
Walt Gardner
Mr. Gardner taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education.

numerous authors


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