When Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg delivered his first State of the City address in 2002, he promised to rebuild Lower Manhattan, but he also spoke at length about the city’s much-maligned school system.
Every year since then, New York’s mayor has made education a central focus of his State of the City speech.
Speaking last Thursday, Bloomberg devoted most of his 11th and penultimate State of the City address to the cause of education, presumably wanting this to be part of his legacy. Specifically, the mayor proposed a merit-pay system that would award top performers with $20,000 raises, and he threatened to remove as many as half of teachers working in dozens of struggling schools.
“We Have Only Climbed Halfway Up The Mountain”
From The New York Times:
Mr. Bloomberg vowed to double down on his longstanding efforts to revive the city’s long-struggling schools, saying, “We have to be honest with ourselves: we have only climbed halfway up the mountain, and halfway isn’t good enough.”
“We cannot accept failing schools,” he added during an unusually forceful one-hour speech at the Morris Educational Campus in the Bronx. “And we cannot accept excuses for inaction or delay.”
Mr. Bloomberg said he would take several steps to circumvent obstacles to his proposals posed by city labor unions. He pointedly referred to the United Federation of Teachers numerous times and seemed to relish diving into some of the most controversial subjects in the education world, including merit pay, teacher evaluations and a large increase in charter schools.
But in an indication of how difficult the fight will be, the union’s president, Michael Mulgrew, conspicuously declined to applaud during education-related moments of the speech and declared afterward that the mayor was living in a “fantasy education world,” proposing ideas that he did not have the power to put into effect.
Does Merit Pay Work?
Many districts have tried over the last decade to experiment with performance pay systems but most have failed, partly due to powerful teachers’ unions that negotiated the traditional pay structures.
Washington DC is the leader among a handful of large cities that are working to implement a performance pay system. Alongside the aggressive new evaluation system that has made the city famous for firing poor-performing teachers — more than 400 over the past two years — is a bonus-and-raise structure aimed at luring talented people to the profession and persuading the most effective to stick with it.
Here’s how it works (from The New York Times):
During her first six years of teaching in this city’s struggling schools, Tiffany Johnson got a series of small raises that brought her annual salary to $63,000, from about $50,000. This year, her seventh, Ms. Johnson earns $87,000.
That latest 38 percent jump, unheard of in public education, came after Ms. Johnson was rated “highly effective” two years in a row under Washington’s new teacher evaluation system. Those ratings also netted her back-to-back bonuses totaling $30,000.
At first glance, this seems like a great idea. But is it?
Teachers Should Be Rewarded For Higher Test Scores, Right?
To most people, it makes sense that teachers should earn more when their students do well. If salespeople get extra pay when they sell more products, why shouldn’t teachers be rewarded for higher test scores?
It sounds obvious, but pay for performance is in fact an ineffective strategy for improving teaching and learning. Here are a few reasons why:
* The best teachers are already working incredibly long hours, and there’s no evidence that extra pay will make them work harder or smarter—or that it will motivate mediocre teachers to improve.
* With the over-emphasis on test scores, merit pay will steer all too many teachers toward low-level test preparation.
* Those standardized tests are often “instructionally insensitive”—that is, they’re better at measuring students’ family advantages and disadvantages than the school’s or the teacher’s value-added effect.
* Basing merit pay solely on the results of standardized tests is wrong. Standardized tests in many states are poorly constructed and don’t put enough emphasis on writing and critical thinking, and in any case, it is educationally unsound to use only one measure of student achievement.
Bloomberg is clearly committed to improving his city’s schools, which is great, but he is going about it the wrong way.
Photo Credit: davidveracruz