August 27, 2008

D.C. Teachers Divided on Merit Pay Plan

September, 2008 issue of Labor Notes

The Washington Teachers Union is on a collision course with D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee over her plan to kill job security for teachers in exchange for merit pay—up to $20,000 a year in bonuses—and higher salaries.

D.C. is home to the second-highest number of charter schools in the country and a slowly declining school-age population. Mayor Adrian Fenty, who took control of the school system last year, believes the plan will get rid of bad teachers, motivate the rest, up student achievement, and raise the profile of a district that has lost 22,000 students and 1,500 teachers in 10 years.

But merit pay has been taboo in teachers unions because it pits teachers against each other, and because awards are often tied to students’ scores on the dreaded standardized tests. Teachers say the tests, loved by administrators looking for quick ways to measure student progress, are not only an unreliable gauge of learning but also a route to deadly dull classrooms.

In many districts, teachers already receive performance pay for attaining board certification, mentoring, or teaching in low-performing schools. Since the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind law, however, standardized tests have become the key measure of teacher performance and student achievement.

During 10 months of negotiations, Rhee’s proposals have created fault lines both within the union leadership and among its members. “This will attract teachers for the wrong reason,” said a veteran teacher and member of the WTU executive board. “Are they going to come for the pay or to make a difference for students?”

“I don’t consider this merit pay, because everyone would get a base pay raise,” said President George Parker. “This is incentive pay, which is a bonus for performance.”

When contract talks stalled in mid-July, Parker was criticized for convening meetings where the chancellor pitched her two-tier scheme to the local’s 4,200 teachers.


Rhee is proposing that current teachers choose one of two tracks, Red or Green. Both include $5,000 “transition” stipends for two years, and better benefits.

Red track teachers would get a 31 percent raise over five years. Green teachers would get a smaller raise, but they’d be eligible for merit pay—as much as $20,000 a year if they met performance standards.

Many teachers left the meetings seeing green. “I’m looking at a 73 percent raise in one year,” said first-grade teacher Steve Oberly. “If we did this program for five years, I would have a retirement nest egg.”

To get on the merit-based pay plan, Oberly, a ten-year veteran, would undergo a year of probation, after which he could be dismissed for under-performance. Though fired teachers can appeal to an elected body of teachers and administrators, the school principal has the final say. Teachers say favoritism would rule the day.

“This could lead to mass terminations,” said Candi Peterson, a WTU trustee and building representative. “And they could get rid of a position, when they really want to get rid of a person.”

All new teachers would join the Green tier as at-will, probationary employees for four years. Over that period, they would see a 20 percent raise and up their total salary from $50,000 to $75,000—if they survived.

Teachers who chose the Red program and got fired would receive a salaried one-year leave or, for teachers with 20 years’ experience, an early retirement package. Green teachers would get nothing.

The union would be giving up job security across the board, as both plans do away with seniority for the hiring, firing, or placement of teachers. “There is no such thing as a safe tier,” said Peterson.

WTU’s parent union, the American Federation of Teachers, recently elected Randi Weingarten to the union’s top spot. As head of the New York City teachers union, Weingarten negotiated merit pay last fall, and her elevation signals AFT’s openness to such pay plans.

As early as 2002, the AFT endorsed what it calls “professional compensation,” but highlighted the pitfalls: “questionable or difficult-to-understand assessment procedures” and “teacher morale problems stemming from the creation of unfair competition.”

Opponents say D.C.’s merit plan contains the same dangers.

“They’re going to ask teachers to vote on this plan before determining how we’re going to be evaluated for performance pay,” Peterson said.

Solvency has been the biggest issue for merit schemes. “Numerous plans have begun in the last 40 years but they flat run out of money,” said Rob Weil, of AFT’s Educational Issues Department. “They’re often programs that we love, but when they require new money, they lose their luster.”

Rhee claims her pay plan has private backing from the Gates Foundation, among others, but only for five years. When this money runs out, she promises to free up resources by streamlining bureaucracy and ending the outsourcing of special education.

Her 20-year early-retirement plan, however, relies on a squeezed district budget. The city already rejected proposals for a 25-year plan last year.


The contract talks have exacerbated the rift between Parker and WTU’s Vice President, Nathan Saunders. After Parker barred him from speaking on behalf of the union, Saunders sued Parker, members of the executive board, and Rhee, charging them with conspiracy.

Saunders’ litigious streak has served the union well. A 2002 suit he filed uncovered a $5 million embezzlement scandal that sent then-WTU president Barbara Bullock to jail for nine years.

Now, Saunders and others are filing an unfair labor practice charge against Parker and Rhee after revelations that two nonprofits close to Rhee hired several teachers for $1,000 a week to lobby their colleagues to accept merit pay.

Despite internal divisions, the WTU is opposing any proposal that attacks tenure, a legal right shared by all D.C. employees. Tenure rights ensure due process and recognition of years of service in staffing decisions.

Meanwhile, Rhee has closed 23 schools in the last year, leaving 600 teachers awaiting re-assignment just weeks before school begins. According to Peterson, 78 instructors were fired in June. “Even though we have due process under the old contract, we’ve had people illegally terminated,” she said. “Imagine what it would be like with a weaker contract.”

New teachers can’t be hired, nor can negotiations move forward, until teachers are placed. Rhee’s push for a mid-July vote before the AFT national convention fizzled, heightening scrutiny of her proposals, and making an agreement unlikely before school begins in late August.

August 24, 2008

Black and White

1937 sit-down at the Fisher Body plant; Detroit, MI

Aerial View of Detroit; 1930

Wayne State has digitized portions of the Detroit News Collection dating from the late 19th century. More recently, they've added about 400 newsreels from the 1920's to their Virtual Motor City archive. A few favorites: unharnessed steelworkers putting up the Penobscot; and some bonnie lassies at Bob-Lo's Scottish fest. Better than your grand ma ma's scrapbook.

August 20, 2008

Barns for Obama

In June I received an email from "Obama for America". Barack had an important video announcement-news that he wanted me to hear first-about foregoing public funding (if it's broken, continue to break it!).

In the coming months, I (and millions more) have received several "personalized" messages from Barack telling me "this campaign is in your hands like no other time before." A recent one, entitled “Backstage," informed me that ten regular folks will be fist-bumping with Barack at the DNC.

Ten days ago, David Plouffe was proud to say I could hear Barack's choice for VP via text message: "Barack wants you to be the first to know who will join him in leading our movement for change."

Finding that out won't be difficult, in fact it was all over the news this morning (how do you best “make up” for being young and black?)

This overzealous, high-tech populism warrants our suspicion and betrays insecurity within Obama’s war room about accusations of elitism (look at all them Barns for Obama!). But few things are more elitist than making a novelty of the “regular” American.

We're offered a glowing blue form of access by email, twitter, and facebook, that doesn't alter the inaccessible corporate electioneering machine that keeps Obama centrist when not vague.

No faux-populism would be complete without inspiring faux-music. I couldn’t make it much past two and a half minutes.

August 10, 2008

Beep Beep Yeah

Take your shoes off.

Cultivate a point guard’s court vision. See your path a half-mile ahead (and behind), look for brake lights, disappearing lanes, detours, exits, and police. Position yourself accordingly.

Seek open space, t
ake measured risks and seize openings.
Ex: The far-right lane is a vastly underused channel. The conventional “pass on the left rule” loses weight when you are in the center lane.

Traffic slowdowns aren't always bad. Turn the air off and open the window. Make phone calls. Fix your underwear or a snack.

When in traffic, resist the un-original temptation to jump in the lane that seems to be moving. Cars ahead of you are hastily doing the same thing, meanwhile freeing up the one you're in.

When you happen upon a jam due to lane closure, use the free lane to drive as far as possible before merging. But don't get caught at the end waiting to get in. The "No butts, no cuts, no coconuts" still holds currency.

Many off ramps are right next to on ramps. If you find yourself in traffic and near an exit, you can get off and then right back on, often bypassing some of the congestion. This has worked and backfired.

Cars are karaoke capsules. You’ll also be surprised at the range of dance moves available to the driver.

You can often attain your desired speed in the “slow lane” while letting the left-laners shoulder the risk.

Train yourself to recognize police forms: bumper guards, excessive reflective material, orb-spotlights, rooftop sirens, and buzz cuts, but also oddly spare cars like all-black or all-white unmarked Crown Vics).

Foster good will with the cars around you. Let people in and out of lanes when possible.
The courtesy wave can be used as a sign of gratitude, but also a tool for initiating a bold move.

Maintain momentum and smoothness like a downhill skier. To this end, use the brakes as little as possible.

Steak and Shake's shoestring fries are worth the stop. Burger King will consistently disappoint.

In a tight spot, you might find yourself wondering, "What would Hasselhoff do?" Lean towards the 80's Hoff, and away from the post-Bay Watch Hassle.