More Pay for Good Teachers

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

AT BOTH ends of the country, high-profile fights have broken out over teacher contracts. At issue in both cities -- the District and Denver -- are proposals tying big salary increases to improved student achievement. Some union leaders don't countenance the idea of being held accountable, and that's bad news not just for the children but also for the many teachers whose good work is being shortchanged.

Denver's much-ballyhooed pay differential plan, which rewards teachers for things such as working at tough schools, taking hard-to-staff jobs or raising student test scores, is threatened by stalemated contract talks. There's talk of sickouts and even a strike. D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's revolutionary bid to make results, not length of service, the basis for teacher compensation is in limbo. Reform-minded union leaders appear to have been spooked by a backlash from those who fear change, and it's uncertain -- with a new school year underway -- whether the plan will even be put to a vote.

The fierce opposition is as perplexing as it is troubling. The premium on seniority depresses the wages of early- and mid-career teachers, creates huge inequities among people doing the same jobs and perpetuates the unhealthy tendency of teachers to linger in classrooms just to reap the rewards of longevity. The country's top college graduates are disinclined to become teachers, and many of those who do are quickly driven out.

If opponents of the plans succeed, the result will be less money in the pockets of all teachers. In Denver, there's millions from a special tax collecting interest that officials want to use for incentives to drive student learning. In the District, teachers who don't want to participate in a new pay arrangement that lets them trade tenure for big money would still get generous raises -- a 28 percent salary boost over five years plus $10,000 in bonuses. Who else in this shaky economy can even dream of something similar?

Some teachers are speaking out in support of the needed changes. We were struck by the confidence of second-grade teacher Julia Rosen, 25, who told The Post's Bill Turque that she has no problem with a system in which her pay, and perhaps her job, are linked to what her students learn. And we agree with those who wonder why it seems to be the veterans who are most worried about using student outcomes as a yardstick for teacher rewards. After all, isn't the argument for the seniority pay scale based on the notion that experienced teachers do a better job?

Given the sad history of D.C. school management, Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker is right to push Ms. Rhee to spell out a process by which decisions about retention and raises would be made fairly. More information is also needed on how the system would be financed once private seed money ran out. But these issues should not be excuses for inaction. We urge Mr. Parker and Ms. Rhee to reach agreement and put this bid for meaningful change to the vote it deserves.

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