Attacks against Dougco Market-Based Pay Miss Economic Mark, Educational Reality

A few days ago I told you about the national attention attracted to Douglas County School District’s market-based pay system. That was before Choice Media highlighted the story on its Ed Reform Minute, or the Education Intelligence Agency’s Mike Antonucci linked to the Reuters story with the quip:

In Douglas County, Colorado, they are actually going to offer more pay to attract teachers in shortage areas, thus becoming the first school district to enact the law of supply and demand.

Supply and demand? Whoa, how radical for K-12 education! First, let me assure you there is no known threat of economists taking over schools. Put those conspiracy flowcharts away. Douglas County’s fluid system assigns new teacher hires to one of five different salary bands, based on which of 70 teaching job descriptions for which they have applied. Both middle school and high school social studies instructors (who presumably cover economics in class) fall in the lower two pay bands.

For some, however, like displaced union president Brenda Smith, a basic principle of economics is just a passing fad for the world of education:

The most offensive and destructive aspect of [DCSD’s new compensation and evaluation system] would label some teachers as more valuable than others. Since it’s apparently easier to recruit a second-grade teacher than a 10th-grade science teacher, the second-grade teacher would be paid less. Is a great science teacher really worth more to a child’s education than a great second-grade teacher teaching that child to read?

To which I reply: Ms. Smith, is a 30-year veteran 2nd grade teacher more valuable to the kids in her class than the 5-year veteran 2nd grade teacher who works down the hall? So why are most K-12 educator pay systems built around seniority? Because it’s a convenience for the adults and encourages loyalty and longevity, which works up to a point. In most districts, the first teacher would be paid considerably more: How is that fair?

If there are fewer well-qualified applicants for one area of teaching, doesn’t it also make sense to pay them more to ensure there are enough to meet students’ needs? Who decides the inherent value of different employees to the school district’s mission (i.e., adding value to children’s education), and on what (hopefully rational) basis? You don’t have to go down this path of thinking too far before you realize the school district is not its own universe and that the opportunity costs of employees and potential employees also have to be considered.

We may be getting to the root of the issue here. Recognizing the differences in demand for educational specialties, not to mention in teacher effectiveness, undercuts this notion of lockstep labor solidarity transplanted into K-12 education from the industrial world. Market-based pay and performance pay better respect and recognize the importance of professional teaching that honors individual excellence, healthy teamwork, and what schools need to meet students’ needs.

I haven’t even taken time to touch on the inaccuracies and misleading statements in Ms. Smith’s Denver Post op-ed. Like the fact there actually were hundreds of teachers involved in crafting the evaluation system and related pieces — just without her and her fellow formerly-taxpayer-subsidized union officer colleagues acting as filters.

What about the myth of the “$84 million fund balance”, exaggerated claims about a mass exodus of disgruntled teachers, or the wildly overstated decline in third grade literacy? The result is outlandish rhetoric from Ms. Smith about “demonization and devaluation” that leaves the average reader scratching her head.

I think the real fad here to be tossed out of K-12 education, like bell bottoms and disco from mainstream American culture, is the industrial union collective model dictating how teachers are evaluated and paid. Real system transformation can be scary, especially for those losing power. To me, though, the fruits of such change look very promising for productive learning, for using taxpayer resources to help raise up the next generation of citizen leaders and breadwinners. But hey, I’m just a child of the 21st century.