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Obama Administration Pushes Merit Pay

This is one promise Candidate Obama is keeping: Merit Pay.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I̢۪m Melissa Block.


And I̢۪m Robert Siegel.

As a candidate, President Obama proposed linking teacher pay to student performance. Now, his administration is moving aggressively to make it happen. Last week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan challenged the National Education Association, the nation̢۪s largest teachers union, to drop its opposition to merit pay. As more and more Democrats line up behind the idea, teachers may have no choice.

NPR̢۪s Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan stood before the National Education Association last week and listed some of the proposals the Obama administration intends to use to shake up public education, giving entrepreneurs a shot at creating innovative programs, funding more charter schools, expanding school choice, and attracting more talented people to the teaching profession, and the NEA has to do its part, Duncan said. It̢۪s not enough for teachers to defend their job security, tenure or compensation.

Secretary ARNE DUNCAN (United States Department of Education): I came here today to challenge you to think differently about the role of unions in public education. Because when thousands of schools are chronically failing and millions of children are dropping out each year, we have to do something differently.

SANCHEZ: The NEA can start, Duncan said, by endorsing pay for performance, the idea that teachers should be rewarded based on their students̢۪ performance and test scores. Some teachers in the audience, though, weren̢۪t buying it.

Ms. TONYA KABNER(ph) (Special Education Teacher): Quite frankly, merit pay is union-busting, and it̢۪s an attempt to divide and conquer that the NEA will not accept.

(Soundbite of applause)

SANCHEZ: No way, said Tonya Kabner, a special education teacher.

Ms. KABNER: We need to make sure that we do not have our pay tied to a test score.

SANCHEZ: That̢۪s the core issue that inevitably draws the ire of teachers: having their pay tied to their students̢۪ performance. What about teachers who work with learning-disabled students or kids who don̢۪t know English, asks Scott Miller(ph), an English teacher from Hawthorne, California.

Mr. SCOTT MILLER (English Teacher): Secretary Duncan, how can anyone possibly suggest that my family̢۪s paycheck or my performance evaluation be based on their test scores?

(Soundbite of applause)

SANCHEZ: Test scores alone should never drive teacher evaluation, Duncan responded.

Sec. DUNCAN: But to remove student achievement entirely from evaluation I think is illogical and indefensible.

SANCHEZ: The crowd grew quiet, except for a few boos, which Duncan used to lighten the moment.

Sec. DUNCAN: You can boo. Just don̢۪t throw any shoes, please. You̢۪re welcome to boo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SANCHEZ: Duncan reminded the audience that performance pay also rewards teachers for mentoring, for teaching in high poverty schools and taking tough assignments. But his parting message to the NEA was blunt: President Obama has put pay for performance at the top of his education agenda, and the Department of Education has already set aside at least $200 million in grant money to develop pay-for-performance plans, 132 school districts have applied.

Duncan̢۪s not so subtle suggestion was that opposing merit pay is akin to defending the status quo.

Mr. DENNIS VAN ROEKEL (President, National Education Association): Well, I can tell you right now that we are not satisfied with the status quo. We want to shake things up.

SANCHEZ: NEA president, Dennis Van Roekel.

Mr. VAN ROEKEL: There are some things that we readily agree on performance pay, but it has to be bargained and negotiated at the local level. It just can̢۪t be imposed from the outside.

Representative GEORGE MILLER (Democrat, California): I disagree.

SANCHEZ: That̢۪s Congressman George Miller, a Democrat from California and the powerful chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. Like most Democrats, Miller is a union ally, until the merit pay issue comes up.

Two years ago, the NEA̢۪s California affiliates helped kill Miller̢۪s plan to insert a pay-for-performance plan into federal education law.

Rep. MILLER: They actively opposed it, opposed me personally, but I think they now understand. This is a direction that the country must go in. There has to be a linkage of the performance of students and the teachers so that we can see what̢۪s taking place in the schools.

SANCHEZ: The NEA leadership is having to change its position on pay for performance because in places where it exists, Miller says it̢۪s been good for kids and teachers have embraced the idea. But most of all, says Miller, the NEA will come around because the president of the United States and both parties in Congress are behind it.

— Claudio Sanchez
NPR: All Things Considered


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