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19th October

First Published in The New York Sun, October 19, 2007

By Andrew Wolf

Anyone who harbors the notion that Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein have just won a victory over the teachers’ union by gaining approval of a merit pay scheme had best look more closely. The plan announced on Tuesday was indeed a “slam dunk,” but not by the mayor and chancellor. It is the president of the United Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, who leaves the bargaining table victorious. It may be a “historic” deal with national implications, but it is one that increases the power of the union.

At the center of most merit pay plans is the idea that individual performance should be rewarded. That is not part of this initiative. Rather it skews power to the group, each school becoming a sort of kibbutz, collectively governed, dividing the fruits of labor by committee. Even participation in the plan will be determined by a vote of the union members, 55% of whom will have to go along.

Mark that it’s “union members” rather than teachers. While teachers represent the largest component of U.F.T. membership in the schools, the U.F.T. also represents school secretaries and paraprofessionals. They will also share in the bonuses. The funding will be divided among the entire pool of U.F.T. members.

This will only increase U.F.T. influence. No doubt employees now represented by other unions will seek their piece of the pie. If they can’t get it through their own union, affiliating with the U.F.T. might become attractive. Should the school security officer or the parent coordinator or the school aides who keep order in the lunchroom be included as factors in the communal success of a school? As of now, the secretaries are in and the school safety officers are out.

The “compensation committee,” which will decide how the bonus will be divvied, will be comprise two union members elected by the union membership, the principal, and another designee selected by the principal. A standoff (and this will happen), will result in the loss of the bonus to the school. Employees and management will now hold equal sway in apportioning the bonus, a concept approaching socialistic ideals. There was more to the agreement announced Wednesday than just merit pay. The union press release gave top billing to the revisions in the pension system. Merit pay may be topic one for the editorial writers, but it is the pension concessions that are being discussed in teacher lounges across Gotham today. The new pension plan - if, as is likely, is ratified by the legislature and governor - will allow many thousands of teachers to retire now, and every teacher, current and future, to make an early, well compensated, exit from the system later. The administration likes this because it will encourage higher paid teachers to leave, their places taken by much cheaper, but less experienced new teachers.

I’m not comfortable with this as a strategy over the long term, although it is boon for current teachers, including a member of my own family. While pension buy-outs are a time-honored strategy to lower costs, such buy-outs are also a strategy that may contribute to the poor results we have seen in the schools. Perhaps a professional and experienced teaching staff is the commodity for change that we should most value.

I am told that the final calculation of pensions will include the new performance bonuses, as they have in the past for supervisors. This is a big win for the union. It also presents a unique opportunity for a cagey compensation committee to “game” the system by awarding larger bonuses to teachers nearing retirement.

Which leads me to the need for vigilance. Consider the case of P.S. 33 in the Bronx, the scene of the 2005 press conference at which the mayor and Chancellor Klein announced the “historic” gains in reading scores. P.S. 33 was chosen because it posted a nearly 50 percentage point gain in the fourth grade reading test that year.

These results helped take education off the table as a campaign issue, smoothing the way for the mayor’s reelection. They also resulted in a $15,000 performance bonus for P.S 33’s principal, Elba Lopez. For Ms. Lopez, this is a gift that keeps on giving. She promptly retired and her bonus was included in the calculation for her pension, adding an estimated annual $12,000, free of city and state income taxes, for the rest of her life.

In the ensuing two years, however, the big gain in test scores has totally evaporated. This spurred an investigation by the Department of Education that is ongoing, and the report is eagerly awaited. So as we prepare to raise the testing stakes even higher, it is time to harness technology to help insure that the public and the children are getting what we pay for. A Utah company called Caveon Test Security has developed what they call “data forensics computer analysis” of test scores, and has won contracts in 11 states. Subjecting answer sheets to their analysis would be helpful in detecting fraud, injecting a bit of private sector oversight to New York’s new collective farm approach to merit pay.

© 2007 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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