Photo courtesy of Fame Pictures

This is No Action Film — Or What Teacher Compensation Must Be for Kids and Taxpayers: As a son with a mom of my own (and a husband whose father-in-law was a longtime teacher and school administrator), I can appreciate actor Matt Damon’s passionate defense of traditional teacher compensation (and opposition to testing) at last week’s Save Our Schools rally. But that’s where it all ends. While Dropout Nation appreciates all voices, no matter whether they are in education or not, weighing in on this debate, Damon is certainly wrongheaded in his arguments. And when it comes to the costly traditional system of teacher compensation, Damon is not only off-target, but really doesn’t have his facts straight.

Despite what Damon (and smarmy Daily Show host John Stewart) thinks, the real issue with teacher compensation has nothing to do with whether teachers are overpaid or underpaid. The reality is that teachers are well-compensated, especially when one considers that they get near-lifetime employment, nearly-free healthcare and defined-benefit pensions worth as much as $2 million over a lifetime. At the heart of the debate are two critical questions. The first? How effective is teacher compensation in fostering student achievement, recognizing the high-quality work that good-to-great teachers do, and in transforming dropout factories, failure mills and mediocrity malls into cultures of genius in which children can reach their potential. The second? How effective is teacher compensation compared to its costs to the families and taxpayers who must bear it.

The first question has been answered a long time ago. There is no correlation between degree- and seniority-based pay scales (and the additional degrees and experience that comes with it) and student achievement. As Dan Goldhaber and Michael Hanson proved in their 2009 study, a teacher is no better after 25 years on the job than after four years. Nor does the rest of traditional teacher compensation — including extra pay for attaining certification from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, defined-benefit pensions or the near-lifetime employment granted through tenure — do anything to improve student success.

Traditional teacher compensation also doesn’t provide recognition to good-to-great teachers for their high-quality work and doesn’t help foster cultures of genius and student success. In fact, if anything, the array of fringe benefits actually acts as barriers. Seniority protections from layoffs (and the wide use of reverse-seniority layoffs) lead to quality-blind reductions in force that send talented less-senior teachers onto the streets while protecting laggards with more-seniority. Seniority-based assignment rules allow laggard teachers to bump high-quality colleagues from their jobs, and keep principals and districts from improving the quality of instruction in dropout factories.

And because tenure is so-easily granted to teachers during the first years of their career — in 35 states during the first three years in the classroom — this creates cultures of mediocrity and complacency in which good-to-great teachers aren’t recognized for their work and younger, talented teachers are dismissed by veterans (including those who are mediocre). Because laggards are allowed to gain tenure so easily, they are protected from dismissal, acting as cancers in school cultures. Meanwhile young, talented teachers must wait a decade or longer to gain the full rewards of teacher compensation, reaping inadequate pay even if they are doing great work. This is one reason why half of all ed school students never make it into classrooms — and another half leave the profession in five years. It is also why so few of our most-talented collegians want to become teachers in the first place.

As for the second question? The answer is also a big fat no. States must wrangle with $137 billion in budget shortfalls in the coming two fiscal years, and deal with $1.4 trillion in long-term teachers’ pension deficits and retired teacher healthcare benefits. The average state spent 34 cents on benefits for every dollar of teacher salary in 2008-2009 versus 28 cents six years ago. And yet, families and taxpayers are paying for a system in which 150 young men and women each hour, teens who look like Damon and look like me, drop out into the economic and social abyss. In a time in which education is critical to ending poverty, stemming unemployment and preserving the America’s Dream, the traditional teacher compensation system does not work.

Damon is probably a well-meaning guy. But what he defends is a system that is a failure for the very children, taxpayers and good-to-great teachers about whom he professes to care. And it’s unfortunate that he doesn’t recognize this.

What he should recognize is that everyone — including good-to-great teachers, families, taxpayers and, most of all, children — deserve is a teacher compensation system that recognizes and rewards good-to-great work. This includes providing teachers with evaluations based on student achievement, using value-added measurements of test scores that have proven to be reliable over time. This includes replacing degree- and seniority-based pay scales with performance-based salary bands that allow young teachers to gain raises immediately during their career and can attract young, talented collegians to the profession. And it includes performance bonuses, including grants that can be used by teachers to start programs that help improve student achievement and even start their own schools. In short, what everyone deserves is the same kind of performance-based model found outside of education — including in Hollywood — from which the likes of Damon has benefited.

You would think Damon, an actor whose own good wealth has come because of being compensated for delivering blockbuster films and critically-acclaimed appearances, would appreciate the idea of good-to-great teachers being recognized and rewarded for objectively improving student achievement over time on a consistent basis, no matter the conditions in which they work. You would think that Damon would want the Jaime Escalantes, John Taylor Gattos and Steve Evangelistas to get A-list paychecks for their great work, while not rewarding those who are below average, whose educational neglect and malpractice leads far too many young men and women into poverty and prison. And you would think that as a businessman aware of the high costs of doing things poorly, Damon would recognize that you can’t continue a system in which everyone is paid the same wage, regardless of their contributions to the bottom line — in education, that being young men and women well-prepared to write their own stories and even, become the next Matt Damon.

But, let’s say this: At least Damon is paying attention. I, for one, welcome his voice. Now, I invite him to read Dropout Nation, learn more about the nation’s education crisis, and move away from defending a failed vision.

What Arne Hath Wrought: No Child Reauthorization Department: When one reads Tennessee’s request to the U.S. Department of Education for waivers from No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress accountability requirements, one is struck by the low bar the Volunteer State has set for itself when it comes to student achievement. It only hopes to have 51 percent of seventh-grade students proficient in math by 2014-2015, versus the 29 percent for seventh-graders in 2009-2010. It also wants at least 60 percent of third-graders reading proficiently within the next four years (the proficiency goal for 2009-2010 was a mere 42 percent). And yet, state officials complain that because they are finally forcing school districts to actually improve student achievement (after years of dithering on bolstering proficiency requirements), the districts will not meet the aspirational 100 percent proficiency provision in the next few years.

This waiver request should be tossed back to Nashville into a statehouse trash bin. But chances are that Department of Education officials will grant that request for reaching the low bar. Why? Because U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has painted the department — and the Obama administration’s education reform efforts — into a corner with his gambit to force Congress into a speedy reauthorization of No Child on the administration’s terms.

As Dropout Nation has been pointing out for a while now, Duncan’s move has been a blunder. It has ssentially given House Education and the Workforce Committee John Kline what he wants — the gutting of No Child’s accountability provisions — while also giving him the ability to claim that the administration’s effort is executive branch overreach. Meanwhile Kline isn’t moving any faster on reauthorization, and is essentially passing bills that are essentially end-runs around both No Child and Obama’s school reform goals. Congressional Democrats such as Kline’s predecessor as chairman, George Miller, have also rejected Duncan’s waiver gambit, largely because they see how it will weaken accountability and let states go back to setting low expectations for poor and minority kids. And Duncan’s move has not won him any support from the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, who want a full rewrite of No Child on their terms that will give them victory with which they can rally their members and rebuild their influence.

Meanwhile the move has has a destabilizing effect on state-level reform efforts. Reform-minded governors, who must also be thoughtful about their re-election prospects, no longer have a tool with which they can beat back NEA and AFT affiliates. While states have made some great progress this year on school reform, Duncan’s campaign to weaken No Child has actually made it more difficult for them to take up the very measures he proposes. Add in the fact that Duncan no longer has the money needed to run his competitive grant efforts and leverage reform efforts, and these governors are shuffling to keep their efforts going.

All in all, Duncan has made a mess of things for his allies and for the president himself. Given Obama’s low popularity numbers, the blundering couldn’t have come at a worse time. The president needs a substantial domestic policy victory, and education was the one area in which such wins could be delivered with strong bipartisan support.

Certainly the school reform movement, and the Obama administration needs Duncan to keep school reform at full speed. He has proven capable of doing this during his first two years in the job. It will be interesting to see how Duncan pulls off his strategy and keeps the ball moving on the administration’s reform efforts into the next year.

Errata: A few assorted thoughts.

  • I’m staying out of the latest fracas between Mike Petrilli and Education Sector over the National Council on Teacher Quality’s latest report on training aspiring teachers, and whether the study will be valuable or important. All I will say is that one must consider this: That Ed Sector is a competitor of sorts with NCTQ on the teacher quality reform front. That Fordham’s president, Checker Finn, is a longtime member of NCTQ’s board. And given that I have worked with NCTQ, Fordham and Ed Sector’s current executive director at one point or another, I think they all contribute plenty to the discussion about reforming how we recruit, train and compensate teachers. There are bigger fish to fry than each other. This is one of the times the school reform movement needs a little kumbaya.
  • Your editor isn’t surprised that the Government Accountability Office has found problems with the turnaround efforts implemented under the School Improvement Grant program. As I noted ad naseam, school turnarounds rarely work, often because the cultures of the districts running the failing schools are often as toxic as the failure mills themselves. Because of the limits on using value-added data in evaluating and building strong teaching staffs, it’s incredibly difficult for turnaround leaders to take the steps needed to systemically fix schools. And given that schools are dismissive of engaging parents and allowing them to play strong decision-making roles in school turnarounds (a recommendation made last year by Anthony Bryk, John Easton and the University of Chicago team in their book on successful school overhauls) the efforts are often doomed.
  • As for MSNBC talk show host Lawrence O’Donnell’s Damon-related diatribe on last night’s Last Word? Dropout Nation offers him a chance to actually learn more about the issues. And that’s all.