Can the Bill Halsam-led education-reform debate include teacher merit pay?

Sunday, March 27, 2011 at 10:05pm
Bill Haslam

From Gov. Bill Haslam on down, Republicans say the most controversial proposal before the legislature this session is aimed at giving better pay to better teachers. They say the teachers’ union stands in the way of performance-based pay, so the legislature must change the law to end collective bargaining on that issue, among others. 

“This is a good bill for teachers,” House Speaker Beth Harwell said. “This is an opportunity for teachers who are good to show that they are and to be rewarded for it. This is what we owe the taxpayers of this state.” 

It’s the central argument of the bill’s proponents, both the Tea Party-style Republicans trying to end all collective bargaining for teachers and the more traditional Republicans who merely want to limit it. 

Speaking to lawmakers during one hearing on her bill, Rep. Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, said the reforms are needed to fix failing schools across the state, which she blamed in part on the teachers’ union. 

“For too long under the old order, selfish political interests, the unions, have been allowed to dominate the discussion when it comes to setting the course of education in our state,” Maggart said. “Instead of discussing actual classroom policy and curriculum, our local school boards have constantly been dragged into debates that serve to build union influence and power, not the children we are all supposed to be concerned with.” 

Yet for all the debate and rallies in support and opposition — the arguments over whether the GOP is motivated by political calculations or concerns about failing schools, over whether Republicans are steamrolling Democrats and thwarting the legislative process, over who will win the widely anticipated showdown between Republican moderates and hardliners — little attention has been paid to that main question: Will this bill result in merit pay for teachers? 

Officials of teachers’ unions around the state paint the Republican claims as mere feel-good talking points intended to hide the GOP’s main motivation, which they say is busting a traditional Democratic political ally. The union officials insist, in the first place, that they don’t stand in the way of performance-based pay. 

As evidence, they point to such pay plans in existence now as part of the Benwood Initiative in Chattanooga, the Gates Foundation-funded programs in Memphis, and Nashville’s five “fresh-start” schools — all of which they say were approved by teachers’ unions. 

“I don’t see us as a stumbling block,” said Erick Huth, president of the Metro Nashville Education Association. 

Rather, the biggest impediment is money, the unions say. Tennessee teacher pay always has lagged behind other states. As the governor emphasized in his State of the State speech this month, the “new normal” in Tennessee is even smaller government and a lower level of services. 

The state is in the process of whacking more than $1 billion worth of services — the size of the crater in tax revenue left by the Great Recession. Under present estimates of economic growth, it will take until 2014 for the state’s revenue to recover to 2008’s level. 

“There’s been a whole lot of legislation introduced up here this year that’s a lot of stick and not much carrot,” TEA lobbyist Jerry Winters said. “If we want to pay teachers more money, we’re all for doing that, but I don’t see anyone coming forward with any suggestions or any money to pay for it.” 

“The Tennessee General Assembly isn’t going to raise taxes,” Huth added. “They just play games every year trying to figure out how they’re going to eek by. There’s no huge pool of money to pay teachers more if only they could get rid of the teachers’ union.” 

All that aside, there’s another issue the legislature has yet to address: Do merit pay plans actually improve schools? 

The MNEA supported a Vanderbilt University study into that question. Nearly 300 teachers, about 70 percent of all middle-school math teachers in Nashville’s public schools, volunteered to participate. Over the 2007 to 2009 school years, they were eligible for annual bonuses of up to $15,000 on the basis of their students’ test-score gains.

The results? Test scores didn’t go up. 

“We sought a clean test of the basic proposition: If teachers know they will be rewarded for an increase in their students’ test scores, will test scores go up?” Vanderbilt researcher Matthew Springer said at the time. “We found that the answer to that question is no. That by no means implies that some other incentive plan would not be successful.” 

Huth said the study suggests that teachers must buy into their evaluation system before bonuses will help improve schools. That makes union negotiations important, he said.

“The proponents of doing away with collective bargaining believe they know what is best for education,” Huth said. “They believe they know what’s best for teachers. They believe that by removing collective bargaining or limiting collective bargaining, that political forces within the community can impose their will upon teachers. That’s the ultimate goal of the legislation.”  

6 Comments on this post:

By: cookeville on 3/28/11 at 8:48

It's just politics as usual, the rad right trying to bury any opposition to their plans of a pseudo-theocratic state govt. in which they do what they want and say God told them to do it. Forget merit pay. Revamp grades k-3 to make sure that each and every child of normal intelligence is reading, writing, and doing math at grade level when leaving the third grade. That entails hiring more teachers because at least half the kids will need to repeat at least one grade. Every study done in the last 50 years says that if the child is performing below grade level in these grades, by the time he/she enters 7th grade, the game is lost. They give up because they cannot do the work required because they did not learn the basics. The other thing needed is a revamp of the curriculum and teaching requirements in every teacher college. Half my professors never set foot inside a public school-as did not the good gov, by the way-and so had no clue what teaching in one entails. The education curriculum is out of date, the methods courses are dated, the work is so easy it's laughable and practice teaching is much too short. The gov also needs to understand that teachers are not like the little worker bees in a business who sit in their little cubicles all day entering info into the computer. Teachers' jobs require working with diverse people-young students, parents, administration, school boards, community, from seven in the morning to late evening on most days. Weekends are spent on plans, grading papers, thinking about how to motivate. Merit pay CANNOT EVER insure that the teacher can make all these entities work together for the benefit of the child. EVER. When that many egos get into the mix, we wind up with what we have now and to blame all of it on a teacher is pathetic and laughable at the same time. I'm surprised that any right thinking person would even entertain the thought of going into the teaching profession. You can't get good teachers to buy in unless you have a good product. The good gov should know that, eh?

By: Tull on 3/28/11 at 9:17

I don't think anyone is saying all the schools problems are because of the teachers union. The teachers union has been an obstacle to change, and that needs to be addressed before any change can happen.
I worked in the trucking business for about 5 years and was in the Teamsters union. I was not a regular employee I worked the "extra board" and I had to work VERY hard because I did not have job protection and other people wanted that job. Most of the regular employees did not work hard because they had so much protection from the union, they had no incentive to do the right thing. The teachers union will not endorse change if it has ANY chance of changing there status regardless of the benefit to the students.

By: pswindle on 3/28/11 at 9:21

I kept trying to get my head around why the new GOP majority and the Governor have gone after the teachers. Well, now I know, the teachers are mostly women, and the weakest union with the least outside support. But, most forget that each of you are where you are today because of a teacher. It is not the quality of teachers, but the lack of parental help in raising their children. The lack of known discipline that the children have been taught. The most inportant is the lack of interest in school for a productive and rewarding future. Teachers need collective bargaining because without it, the teachers would be the forgottten workers. Government go after sonmeone your own siize. Our only hope is that elections will be here sooner than later. Teachers touch just about every family one way or the other in TN, and the treatment of teachers will not be forgotten. Teachers are not the problem in education but the glue that holds it together.

By: Kosh III on 3/28/11 at 9:31

"every year trying to figure out how they’re going to eek by."

Sorry Jeff, it's "eke." "Eeek" is what women in 60s sitcoms say when the see a mouse.

The ultimate goal is to destroy public schools. An educated workforce would want decent pay, decent living standards. The corporate masters of the GOP wantsa compliant underclass like third world countries.

By: PhiDelt496 on 3/28/11 at 11:36

I think that the problem lies here, you take a group of 10 year olds, and give them a test. You tell them that the test doesnt get graded and wont count against them in anyway. Then you try to explain how the test helps, and they just keep thinking about how at 3:30 they get to go home and play "Call of Duty" until dinner. I think the problem is that there are no good metrics for measuring teacher ability. The smartest teachers arent always the best, and the student's favorite teachers dont always teach the students anything.

A good point was brought up by cookeville, if the kids are reading on a third grade level, why are we sending them to fourth grade? Hold them back! Use the standardized tests to decide if a student is ready to move on to the next level, dont force them through the system because the "social" impact would make the kid feel bad. If we are sending students who werent ready for third grade into fourth grade, how do you think they are going to do on fourth grade standardized tests?

Society gets way to wrapped up in trying to treat everyone equally, that they forget that all people are different. The world is going to produce stupid kids, or lazy kids, or mean kids. You cant fix all of them, and you sure as hell cant stop the development of the smart, or hard working, or nice kids to try.

By: yogiman on 3/28/11 at 4:13


In my childhood, if you didn't pass your test, you failed, and the kids back then were embarrassed to fail a test. If you didn't pass your grade, you flunked and had to go back to the same grade the next year. Now that was embarrassing back then but I remember one 'boy' who had to repeat every grade. I don't think he made it to high school before he was drafted into the army.

And guess what, they made a cook out of him. Years later my brother was in New Orleans and went into a restaurant and who was the owner? Old John. And it turned out he owned three others in New Orleans.

I guess the army had a pretty good cook school, knowing John.