No More Salary Negotiations? It Happened in Utah….

The Ogden Utah School District sent notices to all its teachers around the first of July, informing teachers that it would no longer negotiate with the teachers’ union to set salaries. Instead, the district required teachers to sign their contracts with salaries determined by the district. If the teachers do not support this move, their positions will immediately be posted and the teachers are thereby terminated.

Furthermore, the district announced that it is going to phase out its “steps” which determine pay according to education and experience and instead give merit pay for those teachers who “improve student performance.”

We all know what that means: test scores. The article also pointed out that some veteran teachers shouldn’t be allowed to step foot in the classroom (because, we assume, they are so dreadful). All of these moves are to better “meet the needs of children.”

There are some major flaws in thinking here.

For one, this kind of move presupposes that teachers are fat cats who rake in armfuls of money, more every year because the greedy teachers’ unions demand excessive pay.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In Utah, starting salaries for teachers average $26,521 (and just for comparison, please note that the national poverty level for 2011 is set at $22,350). You can see average teachers’ salaries, state by state, here. As you read the chart, you will see that the average salary for teachers in the United States is about $45,000, hardly a living for a fat-cat.

Another flaw? That veteran teachers are inherently worse than new teachers, and that they don’t deserve raises based on service.  Of course, there are superior teachers among beginners and veterans, but all teachers know that we get better as we go along. It usually takes a few years to find our pace and begin superior teaching.

There is a knee-jerk reaction among politicians and in the press that teachers’ unions ride roughshod over the desires of the public, setting salaries and policies that are outrageous. On the contrary, most teachers’ unions have limited power and stand as advocates for educators and for children.

Another flaw? That school districts have developed good ways to evaluate superior teaching. The Ogden District blithely says that it will go beyond test scores and include parent, student, administrator, and community input, but as most teachers know, there are plenty of outstanding teachers laboring in the classroom every day that no one really recognizes.

Furthermore, there are plenty of untested subjects–like mine, Art. How can anyone know I am an amazing teacher? How could I ever qualify for merit pay?

Advocates of the Ogden District mentality scoff at the idea of group merit pay, which rewards teachers across the board in schools that achieve. But here again, we are back to test scores. If we really want to measure achievement by looking at test scores, we will have to move to formative assessments, which measures individual student achievement throughout the year rather than comparing last year’s test scores with this year’s results. As every teacher knows, each group of students is markedly different, and it reveals little to compare scores year by year.

In my experience, there are few “bad” teachers out there. Most of us are dedicated to kids and passionate about teaching and learning. However, if this flawed thinking prevails, there will likely be fewer excellent teachers willing to enter the profession.

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