What is PPS’ Worldview on Incentives?

A news article described the achievements of several schools in the Pittsburgh School District under one of the incentive programs created under the current bargaining agreement between the District and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. As our 2010 report on pay for performance noted, the Students and Teachers Achieving Results, or STAR, incentive program would allow for teacher bonuses of up to $6,000 and staff (represented by the PFT) bonuses of up to $2,000 if the school falls within the top 15% of all Pennsylvania schools on student achievement. The contract stated that if eight schools did not get in the top 15% the threshold would be lowered to the top 25% of all schools so that the goal of a minimum of eight would be met. The article noted that ten schools were named STAR schools by the District.

When the District applied for money from the Gates Foundation with its proposal titled "Empowering Effective Teachers in the Pittsburgh Public Schools" it posited the following: "the plan will correlate teacher compensation with demonstrated student achievement…this is an important step for Pittsburgh, as nearly all of PPS teacher compensation is driven by salary schedule, which is based on factors that research demonstrates are not linked to student achievement: teachers’ educational achievement and years of service".

On the PPS’ Empowering Effective Teachers website page it states "For too long, teachers have gone unrecognized for their individual strengths and contributions to student learning. School districts have been unable to measure differences in teacher effectiveness or use this information to help teachers improve. Until now."

What of the teachers at one school that achieved the bonuses? One said "The monetary incentive isn‘t what I‘m coming here for every day" (but probably was not turned down). Another said "It doesn‘t take just one player to win the game. It‘s the team working together". (as often as teachers say that students need to come to school ready to learn, will the bonus money be shared with parents?) Note that while the STAR bonuses go to only the schools that achieve, there is no differentiation between teachers within the schools that might have done more for the achievement. The teacher who might have greater "individual strengths"-in the words of the EET webpage-gets the same bonus as another at the school. That’s what comes as a result of the District wanting pay for performance but deferring to the teachers’ union since implementing the vision was subject to collective bargaining (as noted in the Gates Foundation proposal).

The PFT president pointed out in the article that teachers who did not get the STAR bonus could "earn an extra $10,000 yearly by working a longer school week and year, assuming more responsibilities as they climb the career ladder." In other words, the teachers that read the article or heard the news through the grapevine should not feel slighted, they can earn money by taking on other duties as they go up the salary scale, which is what the PPS said was one of the factors that does not do anything for student achievement based on what was written in the EET proposal.

But the topper came from the Superintendent who said "We don‘t want teachers in competition with each other because when that happens, kids lose in that kind of culture, and other undesirable things happen…teachers can start jockeying for particular children." So much for individual strengths and differences in teacher effectiveness-based on this statement the Superintendent feels teachers will "cherry pick" students to boost their bonuses. That sounds like the argument public school defenders make about charter or private school enrollment, not about their own teachers. Note again this is not the head of the teachers union-this is the chief executive officer of the District saying that. It has long been understood that principals assign students to classes; but more to the point, does the Superintendent actually believe this?

Timing Poor as Aspen Hits a Wall

In a case of remarkably unfortunate timing, the Aspen Institute just released a report praising the cooperation of administrators and the teachers’ union of Pittsburgh schools in devising strategies for improving education. A key element in the plan, developed using Gates Foundation funding, is an academy to train new teachers. Unfortunately for the academy, budgetary pressures have forced the school district to cancel the program. New teachers may face layoffs after moving to the city.

And what does the new superintendent tell the Gates people? The teacher training was to be a centerpiece of efforts to improve education in the City. After years of new programs designed by legions of "education" experts over multiple decades, the academic performance in many Pittsburgh schools has descended to levels that can only be described as dreadful.

What a shame the Gates Foundation has so much money to waste on yet another doomed to fail experiment. Too bad it did not offer $40 million in scholarships for students to get out of the failing schools into a chance for a good education instead of funding more experimenting with public schools-the money pit of government run programs. A serious exodus of students to non-public schools might actually create incentives to improve in the public schools. But even if it does not, at least the scholarship users would get a better shot at a good education.

And true to form, the Aspen education expert was quoted as lamenting any cuts in state funding for public education. Perhaps his study did not uncover, or chose to ignore, the outrageous per student spending in Pittsburgh or the huge run up in non-teaching employees during the last decade. Devotees and defenders of public education just cannot bring themselves to admit the fundamental flaws inherent in government run monopolies.

Good Money after Bad?

According to a Tribune Review report this morning the Pittsburgh school district needs $44 million dollars in order to receive all of the $40 million in the Gates Foundation grant. All the money is to go to yet another remaking of education in the district.

Here’s the untold story. The Pittsburgh district spent $525 million in the last school year to educate 26,123 students. That amounts to over $20,000 per pupil. And that does not count all the money being doled out by the Promise Program to district graduates to help with college costs. Despite all the spending and programs, enrollment continues to plunge at the rate of a thousand students a year. Does anyone think this new effort and additional spending will succeed in the Pittsburgh environment?

Pittsburgh schools have engaged in countless reforms over the years and still have dismally performing high school students. One very important reform has never been tried nor is it likely to be-the establishment of a voucher program to allow students to opt out of poorly performing public schools. It is always the same argument: vouchers would allow the best students to escape and undermine the public schools. Never has it been considered that the public owes students the best opportunity to learn and it is morally reprehensible to force them to attend grotesquely inadequate public schools. Schools that administration after administration have failed to improve in any meaningful way.

Moreover, competition might actually force the worst schools to try to get better at delivering education. But the denial of opportunity of a good education to kids and parents who want and value quality education reflects a seriously distorted moral compass.

The New Teachers’ Contract

Articles in yesterday’s papers delivered the news that there is a tentative five-year contract between the Pittsburgh Public Schools and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers on the table. If ratified, the deal would extend through June of 2015 and, if current trends hold (enrollment falling by 3% annually, and average growth in expenditures of 3% annually), the District will be spending about $662 million and serving 23k students by the time the contract expires.

It appears as though employees will see no changes in health care insurance benefits in the years of the contract and will enjoy annual salary bumps, with those at the top of the salary schedule getting $1,500 each year of the agreement. Not bad considering the rising cost of health care and the massive pension spike that is headed our way.

And what of pay for performance? The possibility of tying teacher pay to student achievement, though a remote possibility given union opposition to the idea, was raised first in November of 2008 when the school board outlined goals for the 08-09 school year. One board member said "people need to see the reward because it gives them the incentive to do more" while the head of the PFT said many performance pay models were "tremendous failures".

The award of $40 million by the Gates Foundation this past fall certainly gave the idea momentum, and the District at that time had a few years of experience with a performance pay model for all of the school system’s principals (around 70) who no longer get salary step raises but are instead "compensated based on their performance" according to the website of the office that oversees the program.

So the District and the teachers appear to have settled on a "voluntary" arrangement for teachers instead of a widespread adoption of performance pay. Consider that principals are not unionized and their pay system did not have to be collectively bargained, whereas the teachers are and it does. If there is a five year contract with only minimal movement to performance pay for teachers then it appears the union, not surprisingly, won on this issue.

$40 Million to Learn What Makes an Effective Teacher

Pittsburgh has received $40 million from the Gates Foundation to figure out how to define and promote effective teaching. That is more money than many school districts spend in a year-true, not nearly as much as the outrageously expensive Pittsburgh school district that should already know what makes an effective teacher.

After unimaginable amounts of money spent by governments, philanthropic organizations, schools of education and private research over the past century or more, one would have thought we would know what makes a teacher effective. Granted, technology changes, curriculum content changes, etc., mean teachers might need to adapt pedagogically and to reflect technology. However, the basic thrust of imparting knowledge, encouraging interest, inspiring students and rewarding achievement seem to be timeless.

Indeed, it is entirely possible that the concept of "effective teacher" has been studied to death. Some teachers are more effective than other for a variety of reasons. Love of the subject, love of the profession and burning desire to make a difference in children’s lives and futures. It is doubtful that after $40 million of expenditures Pittsburgh will be able to define precisely what makes an effective teacher. They will conclude there are a number of factors that appear in different levels among effective teachers.

One thing we know for sure. Teachers whose primary interest is union membership and ever bigger paychecks and benefits will probably not be the ones who will do the most to help with the $40 million effort to define effective teaching.

Bulletin: Teacher Union Head Agrees to Performance Pay

In a stunning bit of news, it is reported that John Tarka, head of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, agreed in principle to the concept of performance pay for teachers in order to help the school district secure a $40 million grant from the Gates Foundation.

Anyone familiar with the long and strident objection by teacher unions to merit or performance pay has to be surprised by this apparent breakthrough. But before we regard this step as an indication of the softening of teacher union resistance to an idea that should have been the norm for decades, bear in mind that the teachers in the union still have to approve the "performance pay" plan. And, as is commonly said in these situations, the proof is in the pudding. Will teachers in fact approve a meaningful performance based pay system?

More likely they will approve a system that provides equal bonuses for all teachers or some equivalent measure of performance that does not differentiate actual performances. Further, even if a meaningful system is put in place, the likelihood of its being implemented as designed is remote.

The question is, "Will the grantor accept such a turn of events and continue to remit annual installments of the six and half year grant?" A true test of their own philosophy will be on the line.