Merit Pay Distracts From Tenure Issues

The only New Yorkers who will remember the 2000-1 school year with any fondness will be the graduates who finally, blessedly, put the city school system behind them and go on to happier things. Even the City University of New York is looking better these days, as the public schools finish a year marked by abysmal reading scores, horrifying sex scandals and, topping it off, election of the vapid Ninfa Segarra as Board of Education president.

There is one person, however, who ended the year infinitely better educated than when he started it: Harold Levy. Another chancellor has learned that running New York’s schools is to running a business as getting mugged in Central Park is to circling the moon in the space shuttle. It’s enough to make a former businessman long for the sense and security of the stock market.

That said, there is potential for good news on the horizon. It’s teacher contract time. And Mayor Giuliani has a real opportunity to turn things around, should he gain a few key concessions from the United Federation of Teachers.

In exchange for a healthy raise–substantially less than the 30 percent suggested by Democratic Mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer, but a good deal more than teachers make now–Mayor Giuliani needs to obtain a thorough reform of the process used to fire teachers. There has to be real reform this time, not the deceptions of the past.

Unfortunately, what makes it so hard to fire bad teachers–tenure–isn’t even up for discussion any more. No one dares churn those waters, even in the face of massive failure and the apparent lack of alternatives. Yet any parent will tell you it’s the only change that will really make a difference.

The excuse this time will be that the city already is facing a severe shortage of teachers. Working with the ones we have–giving them staff development, providing “master teachers” as role models–will allow us to fix the problems. Some, perhaps, can be saved. But as long as they know they can’t be fired–and that’s what tenure essentially does–why change?

So the Mayor’s negotiating team is trying a new tactic, “teacher incentive pay”–rewarding individual teachers by putting a little extra in the pay check. Sure: Why rid the system of incompetent, lazy or crazy teachers when you can hold onto them and pay more for the ones who actually do their jobs?

Quantifying who is worthy of such a reward–and why–will be one of the decade’s great unsolved mathematical problems. And that’s assuming the selection process is devoid of the politics, pettiness, backstabbing, incompetence, indifference, coziness and downright corruption that mark relationships between teachers and administrators in many city schools.

“You can’t do it,” said a teacher in a nearby school district. “So many things enter the picture.”

One idea, she said, is to develop a control group and then assess every student (that means test) at the beginning of the school year and again at the end. How a class stacks up against the control group can determine who gets a raise–and who can forget about the down payment on a new car.

Of course, the teacher said, that’s assuming the classes are equal: that one teacher doesn’t get four kids with A.D.D., two with dying parents, three about to be evicted–or, as a Bronx assistant principal recently related, a homeless child shuttling from a different shelter every night, coming to school late, tired, disoriented and hungry, until he just stops coming.

Even assuming it’s doable, does anyone really want more tests? Why punish the kids to reward the teachers?

Unfortunately, politicians don’t understand how schools operate (the Principal for a Day thing just isn’t enough). And with U.F.T. President Randi Weingarten controlling thousands of phone callers and votes, she can essentially control the debate.

And that Ms. Weingarten is clever. She met the Mayor’s call for teacher incentive pay with a counterproposal: merit pay for all teachers in schools that improve, but not for individuals. Now the discourse is over the relative merits of these two proposals–not over whether it would simply be better to fire nonperforming teachers, without years of litigation and administrative stress.

Michael Bloomberg, running with Ms. Weingarten’s blessing, also supports the school-merit notion. The Democratic Mayoral candidates are low-keying it, sticking to safer topics like across-the-board raises and tuition payments to lure new teachers into the system.

The fact is, teacher incentive pay is a needless distraction, a non-answer to the problem of incompetent teachers. Making it easier to get rid of bad teachers will do more to boost morale and encourage good teaching than any bonus. But debating it will keep everyone busy, focused on everything but the real ongoing travesty of the public-school system: tenure.

Which Mayoral candidate will mouth the word and open up that discussion?

Terry Golway will return to this space in several weeks.