How to Call a Bluff

It’s hard to imagine any long-term improvement in the public schools that does not involve some combination of encouraging good teachers to teach and encouraging bad teachers to do something else. This is all the more important in light of the difficulty of predicting someone’s teaching ability before he or she is hired.

Fortunately, once we get a look at them in the classroom and we can distinguish the good from the bad, there is no mystery about how to retain the former and eliminate the latter.  If we pay good teachers more, we’ll attract and retain at least some good teachers who would otherwise do something else.  If we pay bad teachers less (all the way down to zero in the cases of teachers who should be fired), we’ll induce them to pursue other opportunities.

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee understands this.  And the May 2010 issue of Reason has an excellent article on her efforts, particularly for those who live at a safe distance from D.C. and may not have been following the story.  Katherine Mangu-Ward writes,

In July 2008, Rhee revealed her opening gambit with the teachers union:  She offered the teachers a whole lot of money.  Under her proposal, educators would have two choices.  With the first option, teachers would get a $10,000 bonus — a bribe, really — and a 20 percent raise.  Nothing else would change.  Benefits, rights, and privileges would remain as they were.  Under the second option, teachers would receive a $10,000 bonus, a 45 percent increase in base salary, and the possibility of total earnings up to $131,000 a year through bonuses tied to student performance.  In exchange, they would have to forfeit their tenure protections.

So:  More money for the good ones, less protection for the bad ones.  Who could possibly object?  Only the bad ones, it would seem.  But if so, then the bad ones evidently have the upper hand in the Washington Teachers Union.  In fact, the union is on record against any connection between teacher licensing and student outcomes, telling its members that “a teacher’s true effectiveness should not be linked to a teacher’s right to renew his or her license,” and that it would be “dangerous and discriminatory” to “require a candidate to demonstrate effectiveness to continue teaching in a District of Columbia Public School.”  Oy.  It’s hard to argue with Mangu-Ward’s assertion that these teachers “simply don’t believe that it should be possible for them to be fired — not by a principal, not by a superintendent, not by anyone.”

So, Rhee’s proposal remains unaccepted.  Mangu-Ward suggests that the local union president once seemed on the verge of accepting it, but was big-footed by American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten.  Perhaps Ms. Weingarten has a different version.  But either way, now we know what it takes to make a libertarian magazine praise a municipal bureaucrat:  the AFT.

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2 Responses to “How to Call a Bluff”

  1. David Fitzgerald Says:

    After attending a number of school board meetings (which will turn you into a fascist quicker than anything else) it is now apparent to me that teachers realize the true value in their profession is not, as with most of us, making sure they maximize a dollar today. Because municipal employees retain gold plated healthcare and defined benefit plans, they inhabit a totally different work universe than the rest of us. Increasing their income even by 30 or 40 percent today pales in comparison to hanging on for 25-30 years, retiring at 50-55 at 80% pay, taking a second career to build the true retirement nest egg post-classroom and boosting current income with their summer time off. Far more than the raises you describe Mark will be necessary for the union to trade job security for current income. The “system” they inhabit is simply too good a deal over the long term. Their behavior is entirely rational, the question is whether it is sustainable.

  2. Mark Esswein Says:

    Jaime Escalante (December 31, 1930 – March 30, 2010)


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