Federal

Duncan Presses NEA on Merit Pay, Tenure

By Stephen Sawchuk — July 02, 2009 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 4 min read
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Corrected: A previous version of this story misstated the NEA’s policy on extra pay for teachers in hard-to-staff schools. The union allows it.

Teachers’ unions must be willing to reconsider seniority provisions, rework tenure provisions, and work with districts to create fair ways of incorporating student-achievement growth in teacher evaluation and compensation, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said today.

Although the Obama administration has put an emphasis on both performance pay and evaluation in recent months, Mr. Duncan’s speech to members of the National Education Association comes as the clearest sign yet that the U.S. Department of Education will likely put federal funding behind initiatives that incorporate student data as one of several measures of teacher performance.

Speaking before 6,500 officials and local delegates of the NEA, who are meeting here for the union’s annual Representative Assembly, Mr. Duncan underscored compensation, evaluation, and tenure reform as crucial to improving the quality of the education workforce.

“I believe that teacher unions are at a crossroads. These policies were created over the past century to protect the rights of teachers, but they have produced an industrial, factory model of education that treats all teachers like interchangeable widgets,” Mr. Duncan said. “When inflexible seniority and rigid tenure rules that we designed put adults ahead of children, then we are not only putting kids at risk, we’re putting the entire education system at risk. We’re inviting the attack of parents and the public, and that is not good for any of us.”

Delegates applauded Mr. Duncan’s calls for continued federal funding for education, better training for administrators, and for improved teacher-mentoring experiences. But in an indication of the challenges that the federal government will face as it pushes for reforms to compensation and evaluation, they booed and hissed through those parts of Mr. Duncan’s address.

The speech is the fourth Mr. Duncan has given on the core principles in the education-stimulus bill. Much of it echoed President Obama’s rhetoric on teacher professionalism from the campaign trail and from his November address on education.

Like the president, Mr. Duncan sought to reassure teachers that he would seek reforms to the teaching profession in collaboration with them. Nevertheless, the speech underscores that the Obama administration is pushing hard on areas that have long been sensitive for teachers’ unions, a shift for the Democratic party that Mr. Duncan seemed to acknowledge.

“You can boo, but just don’t throw any shoes, please,” Mr. Duncan quipped midway through his address.

Performance Pay a Focus

The issue of performance-based pay and evaluation continues to concern the nation’s largest teachers union. During a town-hall style question-and-answer period, a number of delegates questioned Mr. Duncan on those elements.

“I’m encouraged to hear you say that evaluation should never be based entirely on test scores…[but] in too many cases, our state boards of education, our local boards of education are not getting that message,” said one delegate.

Others were more frank about their dislike for performance-based pay.

“Quite frankly, merit pay is union-busting,” said another delegate, to applause from her peers.

Officially, NEA policy allows for pay bonuses for teachers who hold advanced certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, for those who take on additional responsibilities such as mentoring less experienced teachers, and for teachers serving in hard-to-staff schools. It does not endorse higher salaries for math and science teachers or for performance-based pay. And it eschews the use of test scores in pay and evaluation decisions.

While praising the national board program, Mr. Duncan said unions must work to consider other types of compensation reform.

“School systems pay teachers billions of dollars more each year for earning credentials that do very little to improve the quality of teaching,” he said. “At the same time, many schools give nothing at all to the teachers who go the extra mile and make all the difference in students’ lives. Excellence matters, and we should honor it—fairly, transparently, and on terms teachers can embrace.”

Through the economic-stimulus legislation, the Obama administration put an additional $200 million into the Teacher Incentive Fund, which requires grantees to use “objective measures” of student performance in awarding teacher-pay bonuses. So far, 34 districts, states, and nonprofit organizations have received TIF grants.

President Obama proposed investing an additional $487.3 million in the FY 2010 budget cycle. But that plan could face pushback from key Democratic senators, who expressed skepticism about the program in a recent education subcommittee meeting.

Mr. Duncan did not elaborate on what requirements districts and states will have to address to be eligible to compete for the funds. Many potentially controversial questions remain, such as whether the districts receiving the grants would have to bargain the pay programs collectively with their local unions.

NEA officials said earlier this year that they would prefer the Obama administration increase funding for the Title II teacher-quality state grants rather than put additional funds into TIF. That program provides funds to every state and can be spent on initiatives such as class-size reduction or professional development, in comparison to the narrowly defined and discretionary TIF program.

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