Respond to this Article July/August 2004

Hot For Teachers

John Kerry's quietly radical school reform plan.

By Jonathan Schorr

A while back, I had occasion to talk to a woman named Lillian Lopez about a bold choice she had decided not to make. Lopez, who lives in a barrio on the east side of Oakland, Calif., is a Mexican-American mom with dark red hair and a firm and plain-spoken way of making her point. She was the front woman for a remarkable grass-roots effort by low-income parents to flee Oakland's famously lousy school system and create a handful of new charter schools. Yet while she appeared on television and before the school board, fighting vehemently for the right to build alternative institutions, she herself wasn't planning to take part in the move. Her son Alex would stay where he was, in an overcrowded, low-performing, dilapidated district school called Jefferson Elementary because, she confided to me, Alex had a good teacher.

So, despite the physical dangers--her older son had been assaulted in a school in the same district--and an apparently intractable bureaucracy, she would keep Alex where he was. Later, a run-in with the principal would change her mind, but the bottom line was that she was prepared to suffer an awful lot for just one good teacher.

The truth that motivated Lopez was the same one that presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) has made the main plank of his education platform: In schooling, a good teacher matters more than anything else. In June, Kerry gave a series of speeches on education that set him up for a battle with George Bush over what has become the president's signature domestic-policy issue. Many liberals had hoped that Kerry would attack the testing requirement set forth in Bush's No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which has become increasingly unpopular, especially among teachers' unions. But Kerry, who had voted for NCLB, instead challenged two longstanding, and fiercely defended, union prerogatives: seniority-based pay increases and rules virtually guaranteeing veteran teachers tenure. The candidate proposed a "new bargain"--a $30 billion, 10-year plan of federal grants which would allow districts to raise the pay of teachers whose students consistently test above average, while at the same time making it easier for schools to fire bad teachers. "Greater achievement ought to be a goal," Kerry said, "and it should be able to command greater pay, just the way it does in every other sector of professional employment."

As the campaign moves forward, Kerry's teacher plan may prove to be very clever politics. By challenging the teachers' unions, Kerry gains centrist credibility in an area where he's bucked the liberal line before. (During his 1998 Senate race, he called for an end to teacher tenure.) It also gives Kerry a signature reform that contrasts him with Bush. And his plan ought to resonate with a lot of parents like Lillian Lopez, who know from experience that better teachers are the key to truly improving schools.

But if the plan makes for good politics, is it good policy, too? Is it focused on the big problem? Would it be a credible solution? And is there more Kerry should be doing? The answer to all four questions is yes.

School daze

Improving schools in poor neighborhoods has become arguably the most important civil rights issue of our time. It was Bush's pledge to "leave no child behind" that lent moral weight and authority to his legislation. But despite the consensus assertion that children in even the poorest environments can learn, some still suspect that public schools just can't do much for children who live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, where crime is rampant, too many families are dysfunctional, and the culture too seldom encourages academic achievement.

Look carefully at the education reform literature, however, and you'll find evidence that is both hopeful and frustrating. The hopeful finding is that good teachers can make all the difference. Over the last 15 years, dozens of studies examining failing schools that have been turned around have shown that the secret to success is high quality teaching. OneTexas study showed that putting strong teachers into weakly performing classes nearly closed the gap between poor and affluent students' math scores. The Teaching Commission, a blue-ribbon bipartisan panel headed by former IBM chief Louis Gerstner that has studied the available school reform data, concluded: "The proven value of excellent teaching all but demolishes the notion that socioeconomic status is the most important determinant of what kids can learn."

The problem is that there aren't enough excellent teachers. Teaching pays poorly compared to other professions that require a similar level of educational attainment. And many intelligent young people who might otherwise go into teaching in spite of the low pay are put off by the mind-numbing credentialing process. Indeed, teaching disproportionately draws those with lesser prospects, who often haven't done particularly well in school themselves: According to one recent report, "students with the highest grades and test scores were the least likely among their peers to enroll in education classes or teacher training programs."

This was true a dozen years ago, when I went through my own certification process, and it remains true today. Far too few of my classmates at Cal State-Los Angeles, California's largest teacher factory, fit the mold of great educators. They had no great passion to teach, and would admit candidly that they'd never been particularly interested in their own studies. But faced with a grim job market, they knew what every college graduate knows: They could always teach. It's a disservice to children, and to the dedicated teachers who comprise most of the profession, that shortages force us to bring in folks who aren't up to the job or don't really want it in the first place.

The problem is further compounded by the fact that only a small number of the outstanding teachers who do enter the profession wind up at the worst schools. Thanks in part to uneven pay scales and a seniority system that allows tenured educators to pick their schools, the best teachers often start at--or move to--schools dominated by wealthier kids. The toughest schools, as you'd expect, too often get stuck with the worst teachers--those who view their jobs as little more than babysitting, who don't know their material, or who have long ago "stopped teaching," as the phrase goes. To be sure, this is far from universally the case. Many great teachers have been drawn, through commitment and energy, to the most challenging schools. And even the worst schools have teachers who are brilliant, inspired, and effective. But our system does little to support such educators in those settings so they'll stay. This is why Kerry's plan to use pay incentives to encourage good teachers to stay in failing schools takes on precisely the right issue.

The plan also has the potential to fill perhaps the most gaping hole in Bush's No Child Left Behind Act. Under that law, states must soon take responsibility for turning around thousands of failing schools. But, as this magazine has previously reported ("Hire Ed," March 2004), states will succeed only if they are able to flood these failing schools with fresh talent, including tens of thousands of skilled, capable teachers--talent that is exceedingly hard to find.

Money matters

Kerry's plan would work like this: Teachers who can demonstrate excellence--by proving through standardized tests that their pupils are learning well--would be eligible for pay raises of about $5,000. Kerry would use similar bonuses to attract teachers to schools that are suffering from staff shortages (typically low-performing urban and rural schools) and to subject areas that have too few teachers, such as math and the sciences. Kerry would use the money not just as rewards for teachers, but also to provide incentives for schools and districts to create paths for career advancement, so that high-performing teachers could be promoted to master-teacher or mentor spots.

Districts that want the cash must show up arm-in-arm with their local teachers' union, and submit a plan to require "rigorous tests" for new teachers and to boot teachers who aren't performing. Under a "fast and fair" review provision, schools would shorten the time it takes to dump bad teachers.

The Kerry "bargain" is earning deserved praise among education wonks. Even the conservative school policy expert Chester Finn has said that this is "the best of Kerry's ideas." Indeed, performance bonuses are intuitively appealing. Bust your butt, do an especially good job, make a noticeable difference, and you get an extra-big paycheck--that's the American way, and a straightforward inducement to hard work and results.

But in America's vast, complex public school system, seemingly straightforward solutions run into myriad problems. One is that any federal effort to reward high-performing teachers and dump the bad ones must go through the states and districts that run the schools, and states and districts have traditionally bowed to teachers' unions, which have long opposed any move that they see as undermining teacher tenure or seniority-based pay scales. Kerry's shrewd political solution is to attach strings to federal money requiring that unions and school districts work together. Unions would thus have veto power over any changes in their tenure and pay rules, but would at least have to consider such changes, or else explain to their members why they're walking away from potential federally funded salary increases. This has helped enable Kerry to win the endorsement of teachers' unions, despite their politely-expressed reservations about the merit-pay provisions of his educational plan--a crucial step forward.

Another problem has been that while raising teacher salaries is crucial to drawing talented people to schools, it is not necessarily the most important variable. Other factors, chiefly working conditions, often mean more to teachers than cash. This should surprise no one. Most educators don't go into the profession strictly for money. I've known many teachers who would gladly have sacrificed pay for a sense of accomplishment and respect. In place of a raise, they'd prefer a schedule that would allow them to go to the bathroom more than once every four hours, a principal who would treat them as professional adults, or a building whose structure wasn't rotting. Most important of all, they'd ask to be part of a successful enterprise--one in which they and their colleagues were achieving goals for their students. Improving local school governance, however, isn't something Washington can really do directly. Kerry's plan, therefore, takes advantage of one powerful lever the federal government does have--money for teacher salaries.

Another problem is that merit-pay programs have been tried at the state and local levels--and often have not panned out. Many problems stem from the lack of a commonly-agreed upon objective system for judging performance. In schools that lack these systems, principals are often seen as awarding bonuses capriciously to favorite teachers. The way around this problem is to use an objective measure of teacher performance that removes the burden of the decision from the administrators. The best way to do that is by assessing a class's performance on a "value-added' metric, which measures the growth in a group of students' scores over the course of a year. But that can lead to a second problem: creating perverse incentives. Teachers know that the strongest students are also the ones who typically show the largest annual improvement in test scores. Therefore, the bonus might encourage some teachers to avoid weaker students. Likewise, transiency--the frequent moves from school to school and city to city common among poor families--plays havoc with such metrics. And we already know that some teachers, when enough depends upon test scores, will find ways to make sure that low-performing students stay home on test days. These problems can be figured out, but they're tough.

Two communities that have gone a long way toward solving them are Denver and Chattanooga. Denver's plan, sponsored jointly by the school board and the local teachers union, called for teachers to develop achievement objectives for their students, and raised the pay of those instructors whose students met them. After a pilot program proved successful in hiking test scores, teachers easily approved a new policy that will offer monetary rewards both for achievement and for those who teach in schools or subjects where skills are scarce. The plan, drawing upon the revenues from a new local tax, has raised the maximum teacher pay from $60,000 to $100,000.

Chattanooga has also drawn attention for its merit pay program, which offers $5,000 annual bonuses to teachers who work in low-performing schools and still see their students improve under a value-added metric. As with Denver, Chattanooga has paired its bonus scheme with extensive support and training for teachers, and has seen student performance improve in all its targeted schools.

Trouble with sums

Yet even assuming that plenty of school systems and unions agree to work together to take advantage of the Kerry bonus plan, and use a value-added evaluation system to help determine whether student progress is legitimate, serious concerns remain about whether the program is big enough to make a dent nationally. Even the substantial sums that Kerry has promised to invest in his pay-for-performance plan undershoot his espoused goal of paying teachers "like the professionals that they are." By way of comparison, "Teaching at Risk," the concluding report from Gerstner's Teaching Commission, proposes a federally-funded 10-percent raise for all of the country's teachers, with three times that for strong performers, a package that would cost $30 billion per year. Yet Kerry proposes only a tenth of that sum. It's a good beginning, but as the pundit Matt Miller recently wrote in his syndicated column, "Is it equal to the scale of our teacher woes? Only if Kerry adds a lot more money later." At the very least, Kerry would be well advised to give larger rewards in fewer and more exactly targeted locations. Parceling out some $20,000 bonuses to improve teaching in the very worst schools would do much to help us figure out if a bold performance-pay strategy can truly change the game.

The relative paucity of these sums--Miller contrasts Kerry's education plan with the senator's proposal to spend $650 billion over a decade on health care for the uninsured--is in part due to constraints imposed by the federal deficit, and in part to Washington's traditionally small role in funding education. With NCLB, the Bush administration increased federal education spending by nearly 60 percent--but even now, federal money still accounts for less than 10 percent of all expenditures on public schooling. Nevertheless, Kerry's plan has the potential to change incentives for school systems; perhaps local governments and business groups will help to fatten the rewards. Ross Weiner, policy director for the Education Trust, believes that the $5,000 bonus will make a difference in some places; but, he adds, "Will it entirely transform education? No."

Kerry's plan also includes many other promising but modestly funded initiatives. He wants to require schools to set up master-teacher and mentor slots, a smart move that could both help rookie teachers overcome the often isolating and difficult experience of teaching in tough schools and provide opportunities for veteran teachers to have more peer support and opportunities for professional development. And his plan for a Teacher Corps, tapping mid-career professionals from business and the military, could prove a welcome alternative to the often-alienating experience of the nation's mediocre education schools, creating a useful new onramp to the teaching profession.

But among all of these worthy ideas, Kerry's pay-for-performance plan stands out as the real potential breakthrough. The candidate has put his finger on the next big challenge in America's campaign to reform education, and seems to have figured out a way for the federal government to fix the problem. Kerry's task now should be to commit far more money to his proposal. That would not only give the plan a better chance of working. It would also garner his reform far more notice in the presidential race, signalling to both reporters and voters that John Kerry really is serious about fixing America's most glaring civil rights problem.

Jonathan Schorr is the author of Hard Lessons: The Promise of an Inner-City Charter School.


Mission   Masthead   Features Archive    Writers Guidelines   
Feedback   Customer Service    Subscribe Online    Make A Donation

This site and all contents within are Copyright © 2006
The Washington Monthly 1319 F Street N.W. #710
Washington DC. 20004.
Comments or questions ... please email editors by clicking here