The unions treatment of teachers as interchangeable parts does great damage to the education process.
In my post last week, I gave ample proof that the claim of a nationwide teacher shortage is bogus. For example, in California, where the teachers unions insist that teachers are “leaving the profession in unprecedented numbers,” there is no widespread shortage. In fact, according to the California Department of Education, there are shortages in just three areas– math, science and special ed.
The main fix for this is simple. To induce more teachers to go into specific fields and keep them there, pay them more. As things stand now, in areas like science and math, a fresh-faced college student will undoubtedly be able to command a higher salary in the private sector. So paying them more than elementary teachers, of which there are plenty, would seem to be a logical way to solve the problem. But the teachers unions will not allow this. Invariably they insist on a step-and-column salary scale, whereby teachers earn more by simply showing up for another year, and taking all-to-often useless “professional development” classes.
There are many studies that show how off-base the unions are on this issue. The Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management reports that even just a one‐time bonus program “reduced the likelihood of teachers’ exit by as much as 32 percent in the short run.” Matt Barnum of The 74 cites a study in North Carolina in 2015 which showed that “paying math, science, and special education teachers in high-poverty schools $1,800 bonuses (about $2,500 adjusted for inflation), reduced teacher turnover by 17 percent.” In Florida, another study found that a $1,200 (about $1,700 adjusted for inflation) retention bonus given to middle or high school teachers in certain subjects, had a strong effect. Teachers who received the small payments were about 25 percent less likely to quit than teachers who didn’t receive the pay bump.
Despite all the positive studies, only 13 percent of school districts use pay incentives to attract and retain teachers in areas of need according to the latest federal statistics.
One other advantage to breaking out of the step-and-column straitjacket is that it would enable districts to pay teachers for performance (PFP). A merit pay-based system attracts better quality educators, which we so desperately need. Teachers in the U.S. perform at the international average in literacy, but well below average in numeracy.
The Brookings Institution found “school districts that implemented PFP to reward excellence in teaching secured new teacher hires who graduated from colleges and universities with average incoming SAT scores that were about 30 points higher than the new teacher cohorts hired by districts that did not adopt PFP.” Brookings also reports that “offering a 20% performance bonus to the top performing 10% of teachers would induce roughly an 11% increase in the number of top-third students becoming teachers.”
One prominent district that did offer PFP bonuses has just bailed. In 2012, with the help of Facebook honcho Mark Zuckerberg, Newark teachers signed off on a contract that linked pay to student achievement. It was a rather interesting plan that gave teachers a choice. According to Chalkbeat, “About a third of Newark teachers took advantage of an option that let them remain on the traditional pay scale. And fewer than 200 teachers per year –about 7% of the current teaching force– received the ‘highly effective’ bonuses, while a similar number of low-rated teachers were prevented from earning raises, according to union and former district officials.”
The plan worked. Newark retained almost all of its top-rated teachers: In the 2016-17 school year, 97 percent of teachers who were rated “highly effective” the previous year stayed in the district, but 54 percent of teachers rated “ineffective” were gone.
Now with the Zuckerberg money drying up, a new contract has been signed, and sadly PFP has been eliminated. Local teachers union president John Abeigon summed up the union mentality perfectly in a note to his members, “This contract removes the last vestiges of corporate reform from the district,” and is a “message to our enemies that your evil is not welcome in Newark or any other public schools.” (Emphasis added.)
In late 2017, California Teachers Association president Eric Heins said – apparently with no sense of irony, “Teachers would stay longer if they were treated as the professionals they are – treated with respect and given a voice.”
But the unions don’t see teachers as professionals, but rather as interchangeable widgets, all of whom are of equal value and competence. To differentiate between effective and ineffective educators as a result of what their students actually learn would necessitate doing away with their fossilized, industrial-style work rules like one-size-fits-all salary scales, not to mention tenure and seniority – perennial union mainstays.
And tragically, too many teachers have accepted this mentality; the result is happy unions, unhappy parents and too many undereducated kids trapped in failing government schools.
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Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network– a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.