Our Views: Performance pay plan for Janesville teachers is good if it’s fully developed

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Saturday, January 3, 2015

“I can’t keep supporting a system that just keeps on paying more because you have birthdays. It just doesn’t make sense for us to do that.”

—Bill Sodemann, Dec. 28 Gazette

Bill Sodemann, who has served on the Janesville School Board for 10 years, is on the right track. Why reward workers for length of service, regardless of quality?

Kevin Murray has been on the board just as long and sees it differently. He thinks a pay-for-performance proposal would leave teachers guessing about pay expectations.

“That’s the comfort when you’re a public-sector employee in knowing that you can kind of see the future,” Murray said in last Sunday’s Gazette.

You would expect Murray, a retired city firefighter, to support a public-employee union’s perspective. Yet for many years, government growth has outpaced income growth for taxpayers, most of whom work in the private sector. Salaries and benefits drive government’s rising costs.

Sure, Wisconsin Act 10 changed the landscape for teachers and most public employees. Now, teachers unions can only negotiate for base wage increases limited to the Consumer Price Index.

Murray says teachers have told him they’re leaving the district because they want a dependable pay system.

Janesville might approve its system using the state’s Educator Effectiveness Model as soon as March and place its 750 teachers in three tiers—beginning, developing and effective. Rewarding the best and brightest performers is a laudable concept. Most taxpayers should support it. While the new system might cause some teachers to leave, a system that rewards performance might lure top educators.

The big question is how to create a fair system of measuring quality. This isn’t the first school district to explore a pay-for-performance plan. Others across the nation have tried amid controversy and lawsuit threats.

Murray might be right that Janesville’s Educator Effectiveness Model, one of two models Wisconsin is using to gauge performance, isn’t fully developed. He points out that the state Department of Public Instruction discourages using it at this point to determine pay.

Evaluating teachers isn’t an exact science. Student test scores are only one part of the equation. The effectiveness model evaluates such things as instructional planning and delivery, the learning environment and professionalism. These seem nebulous and open to interpretation. Could a teacher who volunteers for extracurriculars and other tasks curry favor with a principal and grade out higher than one who doesn’t but is a better classroom instructor?

Would this system account for socioeconomic factors that can play roles in how quickly test scores rise? Students who have supportive parents and loving homes might learn faster than kids who don’t know where they’re sleeping that night, whether they’ll get supper or if they’ll face another evening of abuse or a parent downing drugs and alcohol. Would this pay system discourage teachers from seeking jobs in schools where kids have the toughest home lives?

Some critics suggest public schools should operate more like businesses. Perhaps to a point. While a business can evaluate employee productivity given similar raw materials, the raw materials that walk into schools vary widely—and public schools must accept them all.

Sodemann, Superintendent Karen Schulte and others who would scrap the traditional step-and-lane system of supplemental pay for one based on performance have a good idea. District officials, however, must ensure that the plan is fair, fully developed and clearly defined.


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