Friday, May 28, 2010

Reforming the teaching profession, part 2: Pay-for-performance

Like tenure reform, discussed in yesterday's post, tying teacher salaries to student outcomes is a controversial education reform strategy that is gaining traction across the country, but has yet to be debated in Milwaukee. Many of the recent efforts come from the federal Race to the Top grant guidelines, which expressed a preference for states that included student outcomes as a factor in teacher evaluations.

But even before Race to the Top, several districts already had implemented merit pay plans, most notably the Denver Public Schools. The DPS scheme, call ProComp, was approved by Denver voters in 2005. Teachers new to the district are automatically part of the program and other teachers may opt-in. In exchange for a higher base salary, teachers agree to accept pay raises based on participation in professional development activities, working in a hard-to-staff school, showing proficiency in teacher evaluations, and/or exceeding student achievement goals. The goals of ProComp are to improve student outcomes and to attract and retain quality teachers.

A recent evaluation of ProComp found that the program appears to have contributed to the district's gains in reading and math scores and to have attracted new teachers with better student outcomes in their first year of teaching.

Other programs have shown less promise. An evaluation of a state program in Texas that provided grants to high poverty schools to implement merit-based bonuses found that over the three years of the program, schools that gave bigger bonuses had less teacher turnover; however, no relationship between the merit bonuses and student outcomes was found.

Despite the mixed results of these and other pay-for-performance strategies, federal, state, and district officials continue to seek ways to connect teacher pay to student achievement. In two districts, controversial new superintendents have received approval to implement merit pay plans starting next school year. Michelle Rhee and the Washington D.C. plan were discussed in a previous post. A superintendent that has often been compared to Rhee, Mike Miles, will implement a plan in the Harrison School District of Colorado Springs in which all teachers and principals in the 11,000-student district will forgo salary step increases in favor of raises based on performance.

The Harrison plan stands out among merit pay schemes in its reliance on classroom observations to measure teacher effectiveness. Soon after joining the district in 2006, Miles started intensive professional development for principals in the art of classroom observations. In addition, he established an extensive professional development infrastructure so that principals can refer teachers to training opportunities based on what was observed. Principals are to conduct frequent "spot" observations of 10 to 15 minutes, as well as longer formal observations of entire lessons and/or classes, and give constructive feedback to teachers.

The observation scores will be matched to student performance scores on, at minimum, the state standardized test, progress-monitoring and interim assessments, and district assessments. Together, the observations and student performance scores will place the teacher in one of nine salary tiers. Teachers can move down the tiers, as well as up, and their salaries will be adjusted accordingly. For current teachers, the adjustments will be made from their current salary.

This new merit pay model, which requires not only investment in salaries and raises, but also substantial resources for professional development, is certain to be closely watched across the country as it moves forward. Will Milwaukee's new superintendent be watching as well?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Reforming the teaching profession, part 1: Tenure reform

Milwaukee is often called ground zero for education reform, and for good reason. We have been on the forefront of reforms such as budget decentralization, school-to-work, neighborhood schools, parental choice, charter schools and, the most recent attempt, governance reform.

There are two hot-button issues, however, that have not been on the agenda here: merit pay and tenure reform. But, with both of these tactics garnering more attention across the country, it seems unlikely Milwaukee will be a hold-out for long.

Merit pay, or pay-for-performance, has been implemented or is in the process of being implemented in several schools districts across the state. Tomorrow I'll post about a few of those efforts. Today's post focuses on tenure reform.

In one way, tenure reform has gained a foothold in Milwaukee. The recently passed legislation that gives the state Department of Public Instruction with greater powers over the Milwaukee Public Schools also eliminated tenure for principals in MPS. (MPS is the only district in the state with represented principals.) But it does not tackle teacher tenure, or permanent status, head-on.

Teacher tenure laws arose in the 1920s and '30s from the women's rights movement of the time. In an era in which female teachers were routinely fired for getting married or wearing pants, teachers needed protection from paternalistic employment laws, unfair rules, and arbitrary decisions by administrators. Today, through due process requirements, tenure still protects teachers from arbitrary dismissal, and also provides some protection from political, ideological, or other pressures from administrators, school boards, or parents. An argument also can be made that tenure helps balance out the limitations of the job, such as a low salary, and makes the profession more attractive.

Providing permanent status to teachers has both fiscal and educational drawbacks. From a fiscal perspective, dismissing a teacher is a long and costly process for school districts and districts. And from an educational standpoint, districts often struggle to hold mediocre teachers with tenure accountable for student performance. In addition, some argue that K-12 teachers are not in need of the same "academic freedoms" as professors and that there is not the same threat today of unfair working conditions or arbitrary dismissals.

Over the past year many states have begun debating tenure reform proposals. In fact, at least four states have had tenure reform bills introduced this spring that would bring teacher quality into the tenure/dismissal decision:

  • Colorado: Last week Governor Ritter signed a "teacher effectiveness bill" into law that, among other things, grants tenure only after a teacher has three consecutive years of "demonstrated effectiveness" in the classroom. Tenured teachers lose their non-probationary status if they have two consecutive years of unsatisfactory evaluations. In addition, when layoffs are necessary, effectiveness will be considered before seniority.

  • Louisiana: Gov. Jindal's proposal to tie dismissal decisions to annual performance evaluations has passed the Louisiana House and is awaiting a vote in the Senate. The bill specifies that the evaluations will include consideration of student performance. In addition, teachers deemed ineffective would receive "intensive assistance" for a year. Those judged ineffective a second time could be dismissed.

  • California: Gov. Schwartzenegger's 2005 proposal to increase the probationary period for teachers from two to five years was defeated by the voters. He is now supporting a reform that would prevent layoff decisions from being made based solely on seniority. In addition, the Los Angeles Unified School district is planning to dismiss three times more teachers this year than last year, after the Los Angeles Times reported that an investigation of the district revealed no systematic process for evaluating teacher performance prior to granting permanent status.

  • Florida: Gov. Crist vetoed a bill last month that would have eliminated teacher tenure and linked salaries to student performance. The bill kept tenure in place for current teachers, but tied their pay to performance evaluations. New teachers would have worked under one-year contracts and would have been dismissed for low student performance on end-of-year exams in any two of five years.

Other states also have debated or changed their laws regarding the number of years a teacher works before being eligible for tenure, including Ohio, Maryland, and Delaware.

Interestingly, Wisconsin is the only state in which districts are not statutorily required to provide tenure for teachers, although all districts currently do so. At first blush, it might seem that this unique status would allow MPS to more easily embark on an evaluation of the tenure process, potentially making changes of the type being debated nationally. In reality, however, the district is unlikely to seek any changes in teacher contracts that would make employment at MPS less attractive than in surrounding districts.

Will a district and a city accustomed to being at the cutting edge of education reform sit out this latest wave of reform efforts? The clock is ticking on when tenure reform will become part of the discussion about the urgent need to improve student outcomes in Milwaukee.

Part II, tomorrow: One superintendent's role in tying teacher pay to student achievement.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Some states see economic benefit from prison farms

Milwaukee County Parks Director Sue Black's assertion last week that her department lacks the funds to take over the Farm and Fish Hatchery has reignited debate about the farm. This year's county budget transferred the program – a perennial target for cuts by the Walker administration -- from the sheriff’s office to the parks department midyear, at a reduced funding amount. The County Board's finance committee recommended a modified version of the plan to move the program, and the issue will be discussed by the full County Board on Thursday.

Supporters tout several benefits of the program: the harvested crops are donated to food pantries; the fish stock county ponds; and inmates learn work skills. Those less enthusiastic about the program question its appropriateness for a correctional environment and its necessity given the county's severe financial challenges.

Interestingly, Milwaukee's discussion about closing its farm due to lack of funds comes at a time when corrections facilities in other parts of the country are looking to prison and jail farms as a way to save money. Governing magazine, for example, cites two correctional gardens employed to feed inmates.

One Connecticut prison's savings of more than $5,000 in the summer of 2009 influenced the Corrections Commissioner to replicate prison farms across the state. Those prisons that already have gardens are being asked to expand them. In addition to lower food costs, savings include paying less to dispose of waste at the prison (kitchen scraps are composted), and not having to pay for flowers in landscaping (flowers are grown from donated seeds).

Meanwhile, an Ohio sheriff was so pleased with the way his jail farm is feeding the inmates that he plans to introduce a chicken-raising effort, estimating that for every 50 donated chickens the inmates raise, the jail cafeteria will get 300 pounds of meat. His actions, which in addition to growing food included eliminating all red meat and hot dinners, saved $25,000 on food costs in 2009.

Milwaukee's farm operation differs from the examples in Connecticut and Ohio in that the crops are used to feed the poor and not to feed the inmates. Prior to Milwaukee County's decision to privatize the House of Correction's food service in 2003, the crops were used to supplement inmate meals. Following privatization, however, Hunger Task Force stepped in to distribute the unwanted produce to area food pantries. In addition, while both the Connecticut prison and Ohio jail received their gardening supplies through donations, Milwaukee has found private support harder to come by.

It remains to be seen whether Milwaukee County's program will survive, but the Connecticut and Ohio programs show that in some cases prison farms may be opportunities for savings, as opposed to drains on already challenged budgets.

Monday, May 17, 2010

New insights into the debate on public sector compensation

Two local university professors have waded into one of the most controversial public policy questions of our day: is the compensation of government workers out of line with the private sector?

The relevance of the question is obvious in the wake of the severe recession and its impact on the ability of governments at all levels to maintain existing services. It gained considerable traction with recent cover stories in Barron's and Forbes, and it has played out in fierce political battles in places like Minneapolis, New York, New Jersey and right here in Milwaukee County.

In the midst of this controversy comes a new report commissioned by the National Institute for Retirement Security and the Center for State and Local Government Excellence entitled "Out of Balance: Comparing Public and Private Sector Compensation Over 20 Years". Interestingly, the report is authored by two professors from the Department of Economics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Keith A. Bender and John S. Heywood.

Governing columnist and employee benefits expert Girard Miller wrote a lengthy piece analyzing the report. While making note of the pro-public service bent of the report's sponsors, Miller notes the validity of its approach, which was to examine comparable public and private sector jobs not only on the basis of what the jobs pay, but also on the basis of educational qualifications and other factors that would logically influence pay levels. Using that approach, the authors find that "wages and salaries of state and local employees are lower than those for private sector workers with comparable earnings determinants."

Miller also raises several questions regarding the report's methodology, however, including the possible over-weighting of highly educated teachers, and the failure to take into account unfunded retiree health care liabilities when determining the value of public employee benefits.

Obviously, this issue is not going away, particularly as many state and local governments gear up for another round of excruciating budget deliberations this summer and fall without the benefit of federal stimulus dollars. And, as one who has worked in both sectors, I think continued discussion about public sector compensation is appropriate.

Indeed, even if public sector compensation is shown to be lower than the private sector, it is legitimate to consider whether perhaps that should be the case given that there are many non-compensation factors that make government service attractive to those who work there.

At the same time, it is critical to remember you get what you pay for, and setting public sector compensation levels too low might backfire by leaving government incapable of attracting and retaining workers with the qualifications required for increasingly complicated and politically-charged jobs.

As with most controversial public policy issues, those with pre-determined opinions on public sector pay likely can find the right data to support their position. Let's hope that as the debate rages, those who are making the decisions take into account both sides, including the insightful research performed by our two local professors.