INEFFECTUAL MERIT PAY

“we are always slow in admitting any great change of which we do not see the intermediate steps”
Charles Darwin, On Natural Selection

“To read is to cover one’s face. And to write is to show it.”
Alejandro Zambra, Ways of Going Home

Over the years I have worked as a bartender. As such, I frequently work special events – weddings, corporate affairs, holiday parties.

A few years ago I worked a Christmas party for a small company. It was about 25 people, 12 of whom were employees. About halfway through the party, they handed out envelopes to employees. In the envelopes were 5 one hundred dollar bills, given in recognition of the employee’s value to the company. Needless to say with the arrival of the bonuses the party took on a much more joyous air.

Next year, I found myself working at the same party. Pre-party found the owners and I reminiscing about last year’s party.

“Man, I remember you guys giving everybody $500 last year. That was something else.”

“Yea, we are not doing that this year. We learned our lesson.”

Turns out that not a single one of the employees given a bonus last Christmas was still employed by the company. They’d all left for other jobs. One even used the bonus to leave the week after the party. The bonus was a nice gesture, and greatly appreciated, but ineffective in retaining employees.

I reflected on that Christmas party when I read Friday’s Tennessean article announcing that 49 new teachers at Priority Schools received an unexpected bonus of 5K in their paychecks this week. it was a plan launched with little forethought and sans a communication plan.

New Priority School’s Chief Sharon Griffin apparently just found some extra money laying around and it just happened to be enough to double the intended bonuses to new Priority School teachers. Conveniently it was found during the same week that the news stations were filing reports about a shortage of classroom teachers. I wonder if the money was laying next to the pile where Mayor Briley found some money so that the district could give teachers an extra 1.5% raise.

I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to see a pattern here. Things get hot for people in power and money gets found. How come that money can never be found pre-crisis? All this does is reinforce the theory that there is never any money except when leadership needs it.

I would further question, is the doubling of bonuses, or awarding of bonuses at all, a solid strategy?

There is little to no research that provides evidence that merit pay – which is what this is – is an effective means of retaining teachers. The MNPS bonuses reportedly come attached to an MOU that will try to hold teachers accepting the bonuses to a 2-year commitment. Good luck with enforcing that. It also reveals the assumption that teachers are so desperate for money that they are willing to sell 2 years of their lives for 5K. That’s not a good look for anybody – the district or the teacher.

The bonuses are being awarded to new teachers. How do we know if they are even any good? If they turn out to be horrible is the district going to honor the same commitment they demanded from the teachers? What’s our goal here, warm bodies or efficient educators?

What about the veteran teacher that has been doing the heavy lifting for years? What incentive are we giving them to remain with schools or are we just relying on their sense of service to bring them back year after year?

That is the inherent problem with merit pay. It sets up the individual as being more important than the whole. The idea that a teacher can function independently of all other factors and be highly effective is a canard. It takes a team. I promise you that a teacher that works in a school with strong interventionists, strong literacy and math specialists, strong arts teachers and a supportive administration is going to produce better outcomes than one without any one of the aforementioned, yet only one person on that team is receiving the bonus.

Rewarding teachers at a Priority School also serves to put those schools just outside of being designated as Priority Schools at risk for slipping into the lower bracket. What happens when a school just outside of being in the lower 10% of schools loses 3 teachers because they want the extra 5K? Teaching at a school in the bottom 12% is not significantly different than one in the bottom 10%. But now the school just outside the bubble has to compete, at a disadvantage, for resources with schools both above and below them. They are being set up to fail.

Let’s also dispell with this idea, created by rewarding teachers who accept positions in high needs schools, that there are hard teaching jobs and easy teaching jobs. They are ALL difficult. The circumstances of the children may be different but similarities are still there.

Just because you have two parents at home does not mean both are involved. The child who never sees his father because he’s always working suffers similarly as a child who’s father abandoned him at birth. Physical abuse, sexual abuse, and alcoholism do not recognize class barriers. Yes in a poverty school there are a higher number of students who experience trauma, but no school, nor teacher, is immune from its impact.

There is this false perception that teachers in wealthier schools are kicking back tossing bonbons to each other while kids are teaching themselves. That’s just not true. Teaching is a difficult profession no matter where you ply your craft. It’s a stressful avocation for all and needs to be treated as such.

Merit pay sets up teachers to compete with each other. It makes people defend their work and their choices. It creates a perception that one member of the team is more important than others. And so the little bit of good that it may do in rewarding the individual is negated by the damage it does to the whole.

Looking at Friday’s article a little closer and something I find equally troubling is revealed, there is zero mention of MNPS’s Director of Schools Adrienne Battle. Not a single one. How does that happen?

My initial suspicion was that this an exercise in self-promotion created by the newly hired director of Priority Schools Sharon Griffin. Afterall she comes with no shortage of either flair or ambition. The article focuses almost exclusively on her which makes it a logical assumption.

In her defense, several people have told me that Griffin always pushes Battle’s name to the forefront and has in actuality proven to be a solid team player. But if not her, then who is responsible for this gross omission?

No matter what President Trump may lead you to believe, the media doesn’t act much as an independent entity in the way we perceive. Everybody has to make a living and advertising is an important revenue stream, one that is constantly dwindling and that you don’t want to harm by writing needlessly inflammatory stories. As a result, reporters regularly give ample opportunity to subjects to respond to or correct stories before they are printed. That means that somebody in communications should have known exactly what that story would look like before it ever went to press.

Having a story of this magnitude printed without any input is not an accident. Somebody should have caught it and made sure that Dr. Battle was central to the story. The fact that it wasn’t, is yet another indication that others are working their own agenda, one that is not supportive of Dr. Battle. That shouldn’t be acceptable.

Dr. Battle has an incredibly difficult job. She is tasked with fixing a district that has financial, staffing, and performance issues acerbated by the actions of the last administration. She has conducted herself with class and has begun addressing these issues without ever throwing shade at her predecessors. She can’t do this job alone. She certainly can’t do it without the support of the communications department or the human resources department.

Undercutting, whether it’s for personal or professional reasons, can not be tolerated. And this weekend’s article severely undercut her efforts to move the district focus on to people and to make MNPS a more transparent, responsive, and supportive organization. How she reacts to this week’s incident will deeply impact her chances of becoming the permanent superintendent. Making sure a decision of this magnitude never happens again without careful planning, pre-implementation communication to school board members, and an effective communication plan will go even further.

I know that teacher issues are deeply important to Dr. Battle. Thanks to the MNPS Communication department and their failure to effectively communicate with stakeholders, you’ll just have to take my word for it.

This morning the Tennessean followed up Friday’s article about teacher recruitment/retention with a longer article. One that continues to use the cover of teacher staffing being a national issue. The Tennessean article touches on pay, new initiatives, and lowering enrollment numbers at teaching colleges. You know what is not mentioned? Discipline policy.

Last year a new discipline policy was hastily rolled out sans the needed supports for teachers. The new policy all but eliminates suspensions for children who create physical disruptions. The goal was to keep more kids in schools instead of losing them by removing them from schools. A worthy goal but one that missed what the true crux of the conversation should have been, not where but how. As in how do we get students the resources they need, where ever they are?

Over the past several decades, education has become a numbers game. Unfortunately, those numbers are often manipulated in order to create the desired narrative. Suspensions may be down but are the number of incidents? How many incidents, or suspensions, go unreported because administrators know the negative ramifications of not producing the right numbers. Are we actually creating a safer environment?

Over the years we’ve seen countless cheating scandals involving testing numbers. We usually castigate educators for their involvement in these scandals, but I think all of us bear some fault due to our insistence on using these numbers for punitive measures instead of supportive measures. Instead of using negative numbers and applying the inquiry cycle to them, we use it to declare teachers and administrators as ineffective and in need of removal.

MNPS’s discipline policy has had the unintended consequence of contributing to the difficulty of recruiting and retaining teachers. We don’t want to talk about it, quickly dismissing the subject as evidence of implied bias, but too many teachers and students don’t feel safe in our schools. As a result, they leave or never show up.

Scoop Nashville has documented 13 fights in MNPS schools since class began less than a month ago. Do you really believe that those stories have no impact on teacher recruitment and retention? Not to mention, families leaving the district. Currently, we have a policy that benefits 5% of the kids at the expense of 95% of the students, that number needs to flip.

You can’t find solutions if you aren’t having honest conversations. Our lack of honesty is only going to serve to make wide-scale success more elusive. I for one disagree with school board member Rachael Elrod when she is quoted in the Tennessean,

“This is a chronic issue that we are not immune to,” said Rachael Anne Elrod, a school board member. “I would like us to have zero vacancies, but I know that is not possible.”

Show me one parent who is ok with their child showing up to school and not being provided with a qualified teacher. Tell me how not every vacancy filled is an example of “Exceeding Expectations”. We just have to have the will to do whatever it takes to ensure that every child has access to a qualified teacher. Period. Anything less should be unacceptable.

QUICK HITS

Early voting in Nashville’s mayoral election started on Friday. Numbers that I’ve heard for those voting floats around the 1000 people mark. That’s a little troubling in a city the size of Nashville. Please, if you can, get out and vote.

Meanwhile, challenger John Cooper continues to pick up endorsements.

Cracking up about a quote that refers to Hattie B’s as the Nickleback of Hot Chicken. I can’t disagree.

I’ve gone on record saying Nashville is going to rue the day it courted Amazon. Now comes word that Amazon is opening up a store in the Green Hills Mall across the street from Parnassus Books. Author Margaret Renkl has written an op-ed for the NY Times that concludes thus,

Neighborhood bookshops will always be focused on people, and their true currency will always be human relationships. They can only trust that readers and writers will continue to value and support them, too, no matter what happens in the giant mall across the street.

Think teachers were crazy for asking for a 10% raise last year? Seattle just agreed to give their teachers an 11.1% raise over three years. Classified employees of the school district, which include paraeducators and instructional assistants — paid significantly less on average — would receive a slightly higher raise of 12.1% during the same period.

Here’s the interesting part, per the Seattle Times, “the raises provided in the tentative agreement are a far cry from what the district had originally said it could afford, about 2%. But pressure from the union — including public demonstrations and an audit of the district’s budgets and spending —appeared to shift the dynamic over the weekend”. A blueprint exists.

Exciting news for South Nashville. The renovations at McMurray MS are complete and the school looks good. I need to take a moment here and comment that, no slight to the current staff, but about a decade ago McMurray MS had a Hall of Fame teaching staff. They have since scattered to other parts of MNPS – Croft, Overton, Smith Springs, Oliver, HG Hill – but I wanted to take a moment to give them a tip of the hat. Y’all were awesome.

Early enrollment counts show that MNPS currently has 85,657 students enrolled. That number is currently 413 students above projections. Much has been made of students leaving the district during the middle school years, currently, the number enrolled is 179 students over projections. The number of special education students is 311 over, that’s going to require additional actions.

SURVEY QUESTIONS

Nice response this week to the survey questions so let us get to the tally board.

The first question asked how you felt about this year’s teacher attrition rates. Out of 143 responses, 57% of you indicated that it’s only going to get worse. Another 24% said it was only going to get worse. Only 1 person responded that they felt people were trying to create a crisis where none existed. I appreciate Dr. Majors continuing to read Dad Gone Wild and participate in the weekly polls.

Here are the write-in answers,

Treat people like crap and they will leave. 1
Make sure you understand schools have received an influx of knowledge Ac. Stds 1
I’m too close to retirement to leave, or I’d be gone, too. 1
Why would you teach? No pay. No respect. Not safe. 1
MNPS is collapsing from within 1
I’m on the way out the door myself. 1
Petty should go back to teaching 1
Teachers stay with effective administrators 1
I left a long time ago and never coming back 1
Kids aren’t learning math. This is an epic failure of our city. Pay teachers!!!!

Question 2 asked how much attention you pay to the Tenessee Educator Survey, Not a lot according to your responses. Out of 125 responses, 47% of you said that nothing ever happens with it and only 13% of you said you give it a passing glance. Only 10% felt it was a viable method for teachers to express their views. Here are the write-ins,

Never heard of it until you brought it up. 1
Who is SUPPOSED to pay attention? 1
None; it’s b.s. 1
Sample size to small. Where are the exit surveys!!! 1
Vanderbilt involved spinning the results 1
They do nothing with results, why bother 1
Never heard of it 1
District personnel should take it seriously & act 1
I wasn’t allowed to take it as I wasn’t “picked”. 1
total junk 1
Quit wasting money on stupid positions like this and put into classroom!!!

The last question asked for your opinion on HR’s plan to switch specialists to classroom teachers to address vacancies. Out of 138 responses, 33% of you said it was a reaction and not a plan. 25% said that if we sub out specialists, why do we have them. Only 6% of you felt that it sends the right message about our values. Here are the write-ins, and there are a lot,

guess Dr. Joseph is still running the district 1
Teach or go home, Put money in classroom teachers’ pockets 1
Sickened and saddened. 1
All of these answers 1
Why aren’t central office coaches going into schools to teach? 1
The needs of the students outweigh the needs of the specialists. 1
It would be my final draw with the district if it happens to me. 1
They have that position for a reason, they wanted out of the classroom. 1
From bad to worse! 1
lol 1
Do the same with Central office leaders. Trim the damn fat!!! 1
It feels like we’re devaluing these folks’ jobs. 1
Public ed. is dead. Teaching profession is dead. 1
It’s an abhorrent plan. 1
Who does their jobs then? 1
Central office staff should be subbing 1
They will just leave too 1
Some specialists run half the school so good luck 1
Doing so will send a message that the work of specialists is not valued. 1
MNPS Fail. Exposes just how much they devalue what teachers and specialists do 1
Our admin has instr.sp do her job. 1
Really? We’re going to lose some of our most valuable educators!!! Horrible idea

That’s a wrap. Make sure you check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page, where we try to accentuate the positive. If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com.

A huge shout out to all of you who lent your financial support this past month. I am eternally grateful for your generosity.

The official begging is over, but you can still head over to Patreon and help a brother out. Or you can hit up my Venmo account which is Thomas-Weber-10. I don’t need much – even $5 would help – but if you think what I do has value, a little help is always greatly appreciated.

 

 

 

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3 thoughts

  1. Just to clarify definitions
    “Bonuses … being awarded to new teachers” is incentive pay, not merit pay; the point is to incentivize them to come.
    Merit pay is some kind of bonus, given for years of service or some kind of metric of having been in some sense “earned.”
    Beyond that, pretty much agree with the case you’ve made here.

    1. In line with several studies before it, the findings presented here indicate that financial incentives can marginally shift teachers’ decisions to persist in the challenging work environments of high-accountability, high-poverty, racially isolated schools, and promote higher levels of learning than would have occurred had they left. However, for many teachers, additional pay alone is inadequate to overcome pressures to leave, and only affects the underlying learning and working conditions to the extent that retained teachers improve the leadership culture in the building.

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