Merit Pay in DC Classrooms

Mon, 08 Sep 2008 14:07:46 +0000

The Washington Post reports today on the progress that Washington DC's schools chancellor Michelle Rhee is making on reforming the public school system. Skipping the background, this passage caught my attention:

Since mid-July, Rhee has tried to sell union leaders and the rank and file on a proposal that would propel salaries to more than $100,000 annually in pay and performance bonuses for many teachers. But in exchange, she insists that they relinquish tenure and spend a year on probation -- risking dismissal. Instructors have the option of keeping tenure and accepting lower raises. New hires would have no choice, remaining on the probation griddle for four years, twice as long as the current requirement.

The pay proposal, along with a slew of other initiatives, has turned Rhee into a national standard-bearer for urban school reform and, in particular, a champion for those who regard teachers' unions as the most significant obstacle to progress. From Charlie Rose to Katie Couric to Newsweek, she has become the national media's go-to figure for discussions of what ails big-city schools.

Rhee had once hoped to wrap up a contract by June, but as national and local acolytes look on, she has been unable to build a consensus among teachers, who remain sharply divided over the pay plan. As contract talks continue, she is pressing George Parker, president of the teachers' union, to bring the salary package to a membership vote. So far, he has resisted.

This is the sort of question that could sharply divide the union's membership, pitting younger teachers against their older colleagues. Writing in the paper today, columnist Marc Fisher thinks that competition will force the union to accept the proposal:

But there is a reason the teachers' own union president, George Parker, has been working with Rhee on finding a palatable way to accept the chancellor's bid to sack lousy teachers: Parker recognizes that unless the regular public schools start competing effectively against the city's 56 charter schools, his members will find themselves losing their jobs anyway, as the public schools continue to shrink at a rapid pace.

I do think that the provision (not necessarily the funding) of primary and secondary education should be less centralized and more competitive than it is in most cases. (See these earlier posts.) That the presence of charter schools has gotten the union leadership to think more collaboratively with a reform-minded chancellor is one positive sign.