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Arne Duncan Boosts Merit Pay At Teaching Conference [UPDATED]

Arne Duncan

First Posted: 07/29/11 04:45 PM ET Updated: 09/28/11 06:12 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- Teachers should have salaries starting at $60,000 and the opportunity to make up to $150,000 based on performance, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told educators at the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards conference on Friday.

"The field of teaching is poised for change," Duncan said. "Many bright and committed young people are attracted to teaching, but surveys show they are reluctant to enter the field for the long-haul. They see it as low-paying and low-prestige."

In his speech, Duncan alluded to a new federal performance pay boost, but provided few details on where funding for it would come from or how it would work. When a teacher pressed him for the nitty-gritty on what he would do differently from here on out, Duncan responded by saying, "We're trying to start a national conversation."

Currently, the federal government supports teacher merit pay through the Teacher Incentive Fund, a grant program that pays for districts to develop performance-pay plans.

"I just fundamentally believe that the incentives are all wrong -- not just the money but the prestige and the career opportunities," Duncan said. He also called for more teacher accountability and autonomy, and said that "it makes no sense to isolate education or poverty."

Some policymakers are seeking ways to increase discipline in a field they say has long existed without robust evaluations. They are also trying to professionalize teaching, altering the pay scale's low starting salary and mostly-guaranteed large pension, aspects they say do little to incentivize increasing student learning.

Critics of merit pay have said that monetary incentives don't inspire good teaching. The concept has gotten flak recently after the Atlanta cheating scandal, in which an investigation concluded that a pressurized environment that stressed score gains as components of a pay scale led teachers and principals to change students' test answers from wrong to right.

New York City just dropped its merit pay scheme after a study commissioned by the New York City Department of Education showed the program on its own did little to boost student achievement. The study speculated that the high pressures surrounding teaching and testing -- before merit pay was even introduced -- might explain why introducing the new incentives did not change outcomes very much.

"We tried doing this," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who initially signed onto New York's merit pay trial run. "From the [New York] study, simply saying we're going to pay people based upon kids' test scores does not work to move student achievement. ... At end of the day, what works is for teachers to see their kids succeed and for them to have the tools and conditions that they need."

Tim Daly, president of The New Teacher Project, says merit pay is a way to retain the best teachers, more than a plan for changing the effectiveness of individual teachers. He added that OECD research shows that the only way a country can afford to dramatically increase teacher pay is by shifting its priorities -- perhaps away from class size.

"We've hired more and more staff members but we haven't raised compensation," Daly said. "The way you would do what the [education] secretary is talking about is to say, 'We're going to place a priority on hiring teachers at the top of the professional scale.'"

Duncan addressed costs only by saying that a merit-pay scheme would involve redirecting existing funds.

"Given the current political climate with the nation wrestling with debt and deficits -- I am sure some people will immediately say that we can't afford it without even looking at how to redirect the money we are already spending -- and mis-spending," Duncan said.

While Duncan's stress on merit pay is nothing new, NBPTS, which rigorously evaluates teachers for board certification, has been involved in the conversation, Daly said.

Though teachers unions are traditionally painted as opponents to merit pay and defenders of the status quo, the American Federation of Teachers has supported several locally-based merit-pay experiments, while saying in its official materials that "it is not abandoning the traditional salary schedule." The National Education Association recently updated its language on merit pay, though officials say the switch simply represents new phrasing -- not a policy shift.

Weingarten told The Huffington Post she was glad to hear Duncan articulate the need to professionalize teaching, an imperative she herself stressed at a recent speech.

"I'm gratified that Secretary Duncan is talking about teaching as a profession, and not as a momentary spectator sport or service project," Weingarten told The Huffington Post. "I'm also gratified that he's talking about things like attrition, which is the most important teacher-quality issue both from the standpoint of education and the standpoint of cost. I'm also glad that he's talking about major changes not only in the way we prepare teachers but how we support and treat them at a school district level."

Weingarten said she was most concerned with seeing the speech turned into action. "The test is, to take a speech like this to places like Wisconsin and Tennessee and Ohio, into the foundations and the reformers and create a bully pulpit or use it to create a climate that enables this to happen," she said. "This was great rhetoric, but the issue is more than the rhetoric."

Duncan called for a revolution like the one that changed the standards and prestige of the medical profession.

"You are not just saving lives like doctors, but you're also creating lives," he said.

Some teachers said Duncan's words fell on deaf ears. Geri Cvetic, a media specialist at Chesapeake High School in Pasadena, Md., said she heard no specifics.

"He didn't really answer questions about his ideas," Cvetic said. "He's not really addressing a problem. He's not talking about what's happening in our schools."

Mary-Dean Barringer, a California teacher on the NBPTS board, said she was happy to be included in the conversation.

"[Duncan] said in five different ways that he wants to transform the teaching profession," she said. "Here we have the secretary of education creating a common platform where a lot of warring platforms can stand."

"I hope he does this more when he's not talking to family," she added.

Cvetic said she wanted justice in pay but not a bonus schedule.

"We want to be treated professionally," Cvetic said. "We don't want these little carrots, because behind the carrots is always the stick. We want to be treated like we have a brain."

This article has been updated to include further comment from Sec. Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Geri Cvetic and Mary-Dean Barringer.

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