Teacher pay and tenure: creating a free agent market?

I have been known to describe the current situation of public education as not sustainable. The pay and benefits, and job protections, are very generous. Most working schlubs would really like to have that set up. I also freely admit that I would not be a good teacher in the sense of an objective assessment of cost-in versus product-out by which most of us are measured. Perhaps, however, changes will take hold that can save public education from itself. 

In Washington, D.C., the School Chancellor and the teachers’ union look set to make some real reform. According to The Economist,  in exchange for much higher merit-based pay, teachers would give up tenure protections. Teachers who excel get justified rewards while those who do not could be let go with ease. Backers believe not only will school and student performance improve by weeding out ineffective teachers, financial savings will come through greater system flexibility. Jonathan Alter, writing in Newsweek, also addresses the issue, albeit under a political guise. At least this time, I am not a lone voice on “educational sustainability.”

I deal frequently with the disappointment of under-performing students. Special education teachers are already held to a degree of partial accountability. They are required to develop individualized measurable goals for students; to chart progress toward the goals using objective and individual data, not just say-so; and are scrutinized annually by administrators, parents, and sometimes lawyers about the outcome. Ultimately, student progress in relation to student potential is subject to independent review and litigation. Some teachers do all this very well while others not so well. But each teacher ultimately is treated alike. None are easily held to account for unacceptable performance, neither obtaining reward nor earning punishment (punishment is borne by the school district, and there is no reward other than intangible satisfaction).

I am certainly not advocating that every student should have an individual plan and a right to sue. But we can see in special education that assessment of teacher performance is possible and does not need to be based just on questionable No Child Left Behind testing. In the special education example, one component of teacher performance is student performance. But another component is a measure of teacher effort – are the goals properly stated, objective, and measureable; is the data collected, let alone what it shows; and has the teacher responded appropriately to what the data shows about student performance. Looking at it this way takes away that uncertain but definite measure of inequity inherent in assessing one person based just on another’s performance. 

Teacher pay and tenure is not the only area of public education inviting reform. But creating a “free agent” market in which the best teachers, by objective measures of actual instructional performance, can offer services to the highest bidder is one step in the right direction for the ultimate goal of improving opportunity for students.   

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William M. Fox - September 30, 2008 11:50 AM

Placing almost exclusive emphasis upon test-score improvement as a basis for rewarding teachers is patently unfair and, when coupled with inadequate performance-appraisal systems, drives teachers toward unethical behavior or departure to other pursuits.

A primary reason the public has not been more supportive of higher funding for education has been the poor relationship between better funding and higher educational quality as revealed by a number of studies.

Use of an appraisal system based upon the following guidelines should go a long way toward turning things around.

Those associated with schools, need to fairly identify true "stars" and "inadequate performers" as one of the bases for:

justifying good pay for outstanding teachers,

providing for self-guidance on the part of newcomers and present staff,

and providing an important basis for terminating those who cannot, or will not, measure up.

Research findings show that evaluators achieve much better agreement about who are Stars and Inadequate Performers than they do about who are Average, Above-Average, and Below-Average performers. Yet, placing individuals in the middle-three categories is a time-consuming, often arbitrary, and resentment-causing activity that most evaluators dislike having to do. Also, clearly, an average performer in a superior organization deserves much more recognition than an average performer in an inferior one. No wonder that many teachers and their unions oppose conventional merit-rating systems!

To avoid a popularity contest, assure greater fairness, and provide for constructive self-guidance, there should be behavioral documentation for both Star and Inadequate Performer nominations via the Critical Incident Technique.

To lay the groundwork for this, students, parents, veteran administrators, and experienced teachers should be polled at to what specific, observable behaviors they associate with outstanding and inadequate performance for each important aspect of a teacher's job.

Then, required behavioral documentation for Star and Inadequate-Performer nominations from fellow teachers, adminstrators, students, and parents should be based upon the most agreed-upon behaviors, and the agreed-to relative weights that should be assigned to these.

The results of this analysis can also constructively guide the initial training and subsequent selection of teachers, as well as, provide a much-needed, qualifying context for the currently over-stressed evaluation factor of test-score-improvement.

This approach also sets the stage for more productive review sessions between the rater and ratee. Since the ratee has a sound basis for self-rating, the session should start with the rater asking "How do you rate yourself for this past period through the presentation of relevant, supporting behaviors?" No rater can be all-knowing, so if behaviors are mentioned that she or he is not aware of, the rater can postpone giving his or her evaluation to provide time to check out the validity of the assertions, if this seems necessary.

A sound behavioral basis for rating also facilitates the use of motivational goal setting during the review session. For example, if the ratee wants to be a Star, what specific behavioral goals does she or he plan to adopt by such and such a time? If stardom is not the goal, which specific, Inadequate Performer behaviors will he or she need to avoid?

This approach permits a rater to be more of a counselor and coach, than one who appears to sit in arbitrary judgment.

For discussion of relevant research and related citations, see: "Improving Performance Appraisal Systems" by William M. Fox, NATIONAL PRODUCTIVITY REVIEW, Winter 1987-88, pages 20-27.

William Fox
Professor Emeritus
Department of Management
University of Florida
(352) 376-9786

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