Friday, February 24, 2012

The New Haven Merit Pay Experiment

In Monday’s Trenton Times, Nicholas Kristof wrote a wonderful piece about the education reform efforts being taken by the New Haven school district, specifically its effort to implement a merit pay system. The plan they have undertaken has the support of AFT President Randi Weingarten and has apparently been well received by the teachers’ union.

The collaboration between district administrators and the union to devise a plan is refreshing and may serve as a model for other inner city school districts. And while I disagree with the large (50%) emphasis they place on data driven assessments, it nonetheless proves what can be accomplished when all the stakeholders are given legitimate participation in the plan’s conception.

The plan is limited to the New Haven district, and I think that is a very important point that we in New Jersey should not overlook. The problem I see in New Jersey is that our political leaders, led of course by the Christie Administration, is trying to devise a system for evaluating teachers with the obvious intent of using that system as the basis for a merit pay plan to be used by all New Jersey school districts. This “one size fits all” approach is, I believe, the absolute wrong way to go in a state like ours with such a huge disparity in the performance of our schools.

It is my contention that the best way to proceed is for our legislature to mandate that all districts have a merit pay plan in place by 2013, but allow for these districts to work with the local union to construct a plan on their own. It is also incumbent on our state government, possibly working in concert with the many corporations that call New Jersey its home, to provide enough supplementary funding to allow for substantial salary increases for teachers in our inner city schools.

Merit pay is one of many ways in which we can attract college students with degrees in areas other than education into the field. There is an extraordinary need for such students to join the ranks of educators. Merit pay is also an important component to a revised system of remuneration for teachers. The current system offers absolutely no motivation for teachers to perform at the “top end of the curve.” It is demoralizing for our best teachers to receive no more pay than mediocre, lazy, risk averse, and disinterested teachers. Years of service and attained degrees are a horrendous basis for pay.

I applaud the New Haven school district and hope that, either by desire or executive mandate, we can find school districts in our State willing to experiment with reform that will clearly result in improvements to the quality of teaching we provide to our students, especially our students in the inner city. There are legitimate concerns among teachers with creating a valued merit pay plan: the plan must be transparent, provide safeguards against arbitrary and capricious decisions, created with the participation of teachers, and include both qualitative and quantitative metrics.

The urgent need for meaningful reform of our inner city schools is without question. It is time for the NJEA, our legislators, the Governor, and our corporate stakeholders to work together and place the needs of our students at the forefront of our thoughts. It is impossible to justify any other need before theirs.

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