School Reform and Money: Can the Former Work Without the Latter?

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO of Educational Policy Institute and EPI International

One of our Australian articles posted in this week’s Week in Review discusses a new merit-pay program introduced in New South Wales. Just yesterday, I sat next to Reg Weaver, the President of the 3.2 million member National Education Association (NEA) at our Retention 2008 conference in San Diego, and the two of us discussed that exact issue. “Merit pay just doesn’t work,” said Weaver, with whom I readily agreed. I commented that when I was a classroom teacher in both Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Hampton, Virginia, I prided myself on being an excellent teacher. Did I deserve more than other teachers? Not so sure. There were certainly other good teachers; some great teachers. But how does one decide who is better than another? How does an official body define who has more value added for students? What pure data provide that level of information to disaggregate all the mediating factors? Think about it for a moment: the primary decision-maker in most of these situations is going to be the building principal, or at least the senior administration. How will they make the decisions? I bet a lot of football coaches get merit pay…

More seriously, the idea of merit pay makes sense, in both the theoretical and practical worlds. But operationalizing such a policy is complex at best. There exist significant barriers in the pathway of an equitable payout to teachers based on performance, and I’m not so sure it can be done. Perhaps we are better served by filtering teachers into the profession and paying for professional development. Many school districts do this, at least in the US, by paying extra funds for teachers who have either achieved higher academic credentials (e.g., masters or doctoral degrees) or reach professional development mileposts.

To be fair, I reside in the camp of those who believe that money matters in education. If one wants quality, there must be adequate funds in the system. The argument resolves around those two issues: defining “quality” and “adequate.” I don’t think we pay teachers well enough given their academic credentials. And it certainly isn’t enough to attract and retain the most talented in our teaching forces. As a former teacher, I may be biased, but given that teaching, as a profession, has a relatively low entrance requirement, almost anyone can get into the classroom. With low wages, the attraction is targeted to those who can or will settle for lower wages, thus not attracting the best and brightest, on average.

In a parallel discussion, Rosa Perez, the Chancellor of the San Jose Evergreen Community College District, who also spoke at Retention 2008, spoke with me about trying to make significant community and educational change within constrained budgets. “We have enough money; that’s not the problem. We just don’t always focus on our priorities.” Perez offered that she runs a $100 million business in San Jose; there is plenty of money to do what is necessary, according to her.

This provides us with either a dilemma or a debate: when does money matter? Do schools, school districts, and higher education institutions have enough money and fail to deal with priorities, or are they underfunded and unable to do what is necessary to educate the community?

The truth is probably that both are true, depending on the nature of the situation. Surely we can point to school districts and other LEAs that, for a broad variety of reasons, including inequitable financing systems, that don’t have enough money to serve all their students appropriately. Others enjoy the fiscal wherewithal but not the boldness to focus on what is right rather than what is politically expedient.

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