Mr.Mayor: About Your Education Agenda

Harold Kwalwasser, March 2, 2012

I’d love to sit down with Mayor Bloomberg to talk about his education agenda, but we’re not friends. So here is the conversation that ran through my head after reading his State of the City speech, especially the part about proposing to pay teachers $20,000 more if their students did exceptionally well on their standardized exams two years in a row.

“Mr. Mayor,” I’d say, “I sympathize with your struggle with the unions to turn the schools around. It does sometimes seem as if ‘Dr. No,’ first appeared in the Daily News rather than in the pages of a James Bond novel.”

“Your pay idea may be good politics and it might be something you can squeeze through, but you need to rethink it. Yes, it would break down the single salary schedule that pays both good and bad teachers the same money, but that’s not good enough.”

“We don’t know that these kinds of pay packages work. The Federal government has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars every year on testing out various pay plans like yours, and so far, the evidence is weak that they improve student scores. It just seems risky to base so much of your legacy on something that is not yet proven to work.“

“And those lack of results are not some peculiar glitch in the research. I’ve recently investigated 40 high performing or transforming districts around the country, and almost all of them have made real progress without this kind of pay plan.”

“The reason is that they have figured out how to motivate teachers without using this kind of money as an incentive. All the management gurus tell us that is the smart thing to do. You know that. Your own Bloomberg News has run hundreds of reports on companies that motivate people well without relying primarily on money.”

“And you run two big risks going forward. First, the way you want to measure student achievement is still dicey. Think about your embarrassment just a year and a half ago, when the state revised how it graded standardized tests. Scores fell like a stone, and all that progress you were touting looked to be about as honest a count as a mortgage broker’s pitch in the heyday of subprime loans. And, even if that does not happen again, there are simply lots of kinks in the tests to work out, so that there is a real question about how fair these bonuses are going to be.”

“More importantly, Mr. Mayor, you are building a system that relies on greater teacher collaboration than we have ever seen in the public schools in New York. You hate the idea of teachers being able to lock themselves away in their classrooms as if they were lords of the castle. You want people working together, in part because it gets better results and in part because it exposes the laggards for what they are.

Any pay system like the one you propose runs the risk of undermining that kind of collaboration if teachers start with an ‘every man for himself’ mindset. If you are determined to go forward, you might want to do some sort of trial project first.”

Now, I can see the Mayor is plainly sorry that he put me on his calendar. He’s not the kind of guy who likes to see his ideas squelched. So, I decide to offer a compromise:

“Here’s how I’d proceed,” I’d soothingly opine with just enough conciliation and confidence in my voice to get His Honor to listen. “Apply your idea to the worst schools in the City. Offer the bonus to teachers to lure the best ones back to your toughest problems. And keep the bonuses in place only so long as the teachers stay at those schools. But combine the individual rewards with rewards for each school’s overall performance, similar to some of the bonus plans you floated earlier in your administration. Try to fashion something that gets the best teachers to help out the weaker ones (at least at first), and that gives the higher performers an incentive to push the least effective to find another career. It costs less money, and maybe some of the savings can go to paying teachers to be mentors or master teachers who can take on more students or who help struggling colleagues improve. And, if your plan works, you or your successor can think about expanding it in a couple of years.”

And with that, the Mayor turns to me and says, “Well, I’m sticking with my idea, but maybe I’ll suggest to [Council President and likely mayoral candidate] Christine Quinn that she can offer yours as a compromise plan….”

And a smile comes over the Mayor’s face. Leadership does come in many guises.

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