Education reform requires more than taking potshots

Posted Jan. 08, 2010, at 7:10 p.m.

The Jan. 4 editorial “Teacher Pay Shake-Up” presents several interesting issues surrounding teacher compensation. Some points effectively capture the complexity of compensation for public employees, while others completely lack any understanding of the real issues. Generally speaking, does the current methodology of teacher pay need to change? Yes. Does this mean that some teachers are grossly overpaid? No. Does it mean there is a better way to hold teachers accountable? Maybe.

It is interesting that the first fact cited in the article is the state-mandated $30,000 minimum salary and the claim that it makes teacher compensation equitable. On the contrary, this Baldacci administration political gimmick has caused salaries to stagnate.

While state subsidies raise salaries for teachers earning below $30,000, many will remain at the minimum for up to six years until the regular collective bargaining agreement brings them above the minimum. Pay scales for teachers above $30,000 remain subject to base salaries below the minimum. The campaign promise from the governor to raise teacher salaries has failed to create any noticeable change or equity in teacher pay.

The awareness of the similarity between the average teacher salary and the average wage in Maine is interesting. In fact, teachers also receive more vacation days and generous health benefits, pushing them above average when all forms of compensation are considered.

However, what is missing from this comparison is the later-mentioned fact that a large portion of Maine teachers are nearing retirement. These professionals are all at the high end of the salary scale making, for this argument at least, the data irrelevant. The impending mass retirement of teachers will certainly drive down Maine’s average teacher salary. Therefore, a complete evaluation of the data shows that, even considering vacations and benefits, teachers are still underpaid.

Two other concepts mentioned need further explanation. First, the idea of giving teachers increases in salary only in five-year intervals as opposed to a more typical annual schedule and the idea of testing teachers every five years lacks viable reasoning. The editor argues that the larger five-year steps would encourage longevity, implying that annual steps do not. Second, the author argues that salaries should be capped after 10 years. Does this mean that teachers get only two raises in their careers?

The five-year raises would cause problematic irregularities in school budgeting, and the 10-year cap would put a massive number of teachers at the top of the pay scale, causing a drastic increase in educational spending. As for the repeated testing of teacher knowledge, it is expensive and unnecessary. In addition, a Praxis-like test is not specific to a teacher’s assignment and is likely to be an inaccurate assessment of ability.

Finally, Stephen Bowen’s idea of implementing more “sophisticated student assessments to measure teacher competence” is not a new concept. Schools in Connecticut, Utah and more specifically in Toledo, Ohio, have implemented different versions of this evaluation with the cooperation of teachers unions and with tremendous results. These schools were able to objectively weed out many underperforming educators with a comprehensive evaluation system. However, four strong factors are problematic for such a program in Maine.

First, the programs are expensive and require teams of peer evaluators. Second, they require large numbers of expert teachers, skilled and trained in the evaluation process, to populate the teams. Third, removing inadequate teachers assumes that there are people ready and able to fill the void. Last, the process involves taking expert teachers out of the classroom to conduct the assessments. In Maine, it is questionable at best to spend more of our education dollars on things that are not directly related to instruction, to put more inexperienced teachers in our classrooms or to excuse our best teachers for administrative duties.

The opinions expressed in the editorial provide further evidence that the wrong people, such as the Maine Heritage Policy Center and former politicians, are working hard to shape public opinion about education. Real educational reform, such as teacher salaries and accountability, require more effort than taking potshots at teachers during a financial crisis.

Educationally sound decisions are not made in Augusta or in conservative think tanks. Education is a labor-intensive industry that requires a highly motivated and intellectual work force, and the public deserves the right to hold schools and teachers accountable.

Adam Leach is the immediate past president of the Bangor Education Association and has been teaching in Maine schools for 17 years.

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