A Coupla Rich Guys Sitting Around Talking

by Robert Pondiscio
December 1st, 2010

Newsweek columnist Jonathan “We Must Fire Bad Teachers” Alter, who seems determined to be Bill Gates’  Boswell, believes along with his muse, that seniority “is the two-headed monster of education—it’s expensive and harmful.”  (Hey, isn’t that true of columnists too?).  Abolishing seniority rights is “a moral issue,” he writes. ”Who can defend a system where top teachers are laid off in a budget crunch for no other reason than that they’re young?”

“In most states, pay and promotion of teachers are connected 100 percent to seniority. This is contrary to everything the world’s second-richest man believes about business: “Is there any other part of the economy where someone says, ‘Hey, how long have you been mowing lawns? … I want to pay you more for that reason alone.’ ”

I’m no economist, but unless I’m very much mistaken there lots of other parts of the economy where pay is not tied to performance.  Like, oh, nearly all of it.  Government spending accounts for about 30% of U.S. economic activity.  Just about all public employees tend to get across the board annual raises of 2-4% in both good times and bad.  (I’d be curious to know what percentage of government employees have their pay tied to performance at any level; White House employees, incidentally, seem to have enjoyed especially nice raises this year relative to the country at large).  And those of us who have spent time in corporate America can attest that annual pay raises are not  always rigorously tied to performance.  To wit:  only 14% of U.S. companies have instituted wage freezes this year, even as the economy suffers through a “troubling slowdown” of economic growth.  Clearly huge numbers of people are benefitting from pay increases not tied to performance.  And next year, the divide between pay and performance in the private sector may be even wider.  A recent survey shows 98 percent of U.S. companies plan to award  an average 2.9 percent base pay increase in 2011;  just 2 percent of companies are planning across-the-board salary freezes.

Again, I’m no economist, but if corporate pay raises at all levels are expected to rise 3 percent in 2011, that’s about 50% greater than current GDP growth.  None of this is to say that teacher pay should not be tied to performance.  Merely that it’s odd to suggest that teachers are outliers.

Alter’s Ego

by Robert Pondiscio
November 5th, 2009

A suggestion by Claus Von Zastrow of Public School Insights that pundits like Jonathan Alter who write about education be subject to performance pay attracted the notice of Alter, who has been mixing it up with commenters to the post.  It started when Von Zastrow took issue with Alter’s KIPP cheerleading and broad brush take on reform.

What do we make of Alter’s suggestion that only charter schools and merit pay are “real reform?” Well what about better staff development? Better curriculum? Stronger ties between schools and communities? Much, much better assessments? Are those phony reforms?  All in all, Alter gets an unsatisfactory rating, so no performance bonus this year. In fact, his failure to improve since last summer puts him at risk of termination.

That was apparently too much for the Newsweek pundit, who showed up on the blog’s comments to defend himself and do a little advocacy work.  ”With the president’s support, the pool of reformers is growing,” Alter wrote.  “Come on in, guys. The water’s warm.” 

Alter gets points for showing up and opening himself up for further abuse.  The highlight of the thread so far: One anonymous wit who wickedly applies Alter’s take on merit pay to his own columns:

I’m glad you’ve accepted Claus’ merit pay proposal. The formula is clear. Since your job is to inform the public, we’re going to measure your readers’ knowledge. Then, a year from now, we’re going to measure it again. If they’re smarter, you’ll get a substantial bonus. If not, we’ll put you on a 90-day plan of review, support, and, if your readers don’t get smarter, we’ll have to regretfully let you go. Sorry, but it’s all about the readers, not the writers.

Tough crowd.

“We Know What Works For At-Risk Kids”

by Robert Pondiscio
December 8th, 2008

Halfway through an otherwise strong article about Bill Gates’ renewed focus on education reform in Newsweek, Jonathan Alter writes with sublime confidence that ”the challenge is not to find what works for at-risk kids—we know that by now—but how to replicate it.”

In the time it took me to gather up my teeth, several of which were jarred loose when my jaw hit the floor, Mike Petrilli had already set Alter straight over at Flypaper.

Sure, this is true in the simplest sense. KIPP works. Achievement First works. Cristo Rey works. (Read all about it in David Whitman’s recent Fordham book on “paternalistic” schools.) But replicating these schools 1,000 or 10,000-fold is more than just a challenge. It might be impossible. Writing in the Gadfly a few weeks ago, Steven Wilson made the very good point that these “no excuses” schools tend to hire graduates from America’s top universities and work them to death. Neither part of that equation is “scalable.” What we need is a school model that gets great results with mere mortals. No one has cracked that nut yet.

True that.