Neuron Culture

I’ve often wondered why there wasn’t more focused discussion on a great paradox in the way public-school teacher contracts are structured in this country. On one hand teachers seek to be considered as professionals; on the other, they seek (and generally get) union contracts that structure their employment like that of trade unions or cops. Paralleling this paradox are my own mixed feelings as a parent with kids in school: I feel the best of my children’s teachers are not paid enough but find it enormously frustrating — well, make that maddening — that the worst ones have tenure and seem essentially unaccountable for their incompetence, much less fire-able. Maybe I wasn’t looking in the right places, but public discussion of this, at both the policy and the media level, seemed close to nonexistent.

Now, however, Paul Tough, who this past week published a nice piece, “24/7 School Reform,” partly on this subject in the New York Times Magazine, has started a month-long blog at Slate that addresses this professional v. public-service-job paradox head-on:

The fight over the compensation of teachers is in many ways a fight over the nature of teaching itself. Is it a skilled profession, like law or medicine or finance, in which those who succeed in a competitive marketplace receive high compensation? Or is it a public-service job, like being a police officer or a firefighter or a civil servant, in which the exchange is job security and ample benefits for a commitment to serve the public? Right now, most teacher contracts are like civil-service contracts: You get gradual and steady raises based primarily on how long you’ve been in the job. Most of the benefits come on the back end, in retirement and in the years leading up to it.

Tough argues that the dynamics of this dilemma are changing as newer teachers feel cramped enough by the pay structure in teaching to consider trading tenure and job security for higher pay — and as a new school chancellor in Washington, D.C., pushes an aggressive and innovative merit-based pay structure that offers substantially higher payment in exchange for giving up the safety of tenure.

In Washington, D.C., right now, the fight over teacher quality is being debated at the negotiating table. Michelle Rhee, the schools chancellor, has been in office only a little more than a year, but already she has become one of the most important education officials in the country. Not “important” in the sense of “powerful”—D.C. is a pretty small school system—but important because of the sweeping reforms she is trying to put in place.

Back in July, Rhee proposed a new contract for the city’s teachers. As the Washington Post reported at the time,

Under the proposal, the school system would establish two pay tiers, red and green. ? Teachers in the red tier would receive traditional raises and would maintain tenure. Those who voluntarily go into the green tier would receive thousands of dollars in bonuses and raises, funded with foundation grants, for relinquishing tenure.

In other words, red for traditionalist civil servants, green for merit-pay rebels.

The bonuses and raises Rhee proposed were unusually large. Even teachers who chose the safer option would do pretty well. But not as well as the greens. As the Post noted, in the red tier, “a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 10 years of service who makes $56,000 could receive $73,800 by 2012.” If that same teacher chose the green tier, she could be making as much as $122,500 in that year. (Currently, the average teacher salary in the country is $47,600.)

As one of Tough’s sources notes, this structure has the potential to radically change the way teachers are hired, paid, evaluated, and (when necessary) fired.

He has other entries on similar doings in Denver, a generational split among teachers in how they receive higher-pay-for-no-tenure idea, and some good reader letters. 

Main page for Tough’s new blog at Slate, “Schoolhouse Rock,” is here.

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