August 1, 2008

A higher-ed unionist's view of the performance-pay debate

Corey Bunje Bower criticized a Newsweek column by Jonathan Alter and has the following response to Alter's slur against teacher unions:

Perhaps the most ridiculous thing that Alter writes -- and the statement that gives away the ideological underpinnings of his argument if anybody wasn't already aware -- is that unions "still believe that protecting incompetents is more important than educating children." Unions are far from perfect, and this is far from the most inflammatory rhetoric that I've read about them, but it's still sheer and utter nonsense.... Though more polite, it's the intellectual equivalent of calling somebody with whom you disagree a [N]azi or a terrorist.

If I were a union leader, however, I would mull over Alter's final point.... the general idea that unions could view submitting their members to more scrutiny in exchange for higher pay is something on which both sides might find some common ground.

I suppose I qualify as a union leader albeit in higher ed, so I'll take the bait. Disclosure: my faculty union was the one to propose merit pay at the table many years ago, and university faculty are more likely to approve of something called merit pay because there is a tradition of peer review for tenure/promotion. (Our collective bargaining agreement provides for general due process and substantive standards but leaves specific procedures for annual reviews to department votes.) So while I am skeptical of several top-down proposals for/policies encouraging performance pay in K-12, it is out of my seeing problems with it rather than a visceral opposition to merit pay. As the car ads say, your mileage may vary.


There are two policy issues here: one is how to think about teacher pay and working conditions in general, and the other is the question of collective bargaining at the local level (and the centralization/local question more generally). In Accountability Frankenstein, I wrote about high-stakes accountability advocates' simplistic and often flawed grasp of motivation. To put it briefly, even if we had a Holy Grail measure of "teacher contribution to learning," that wouldn't be a sufficient justification for relying on test scores for teacher pay. No one has the best idea for what works best, and a top-down approach would short-circuit even the most rabid merit-pay advocate's interest in finding out what works, in much the same way that NCLB's proficiency measure aborted alternative ways to examine student achievement (including quantitative measures such as average scale score, medians, percentile splits, etc.). Essentially, those interested in performance pay have to make the policy choice between experimentation and a crusade. So to all 0.379 Capitol Hill staffers and campaign advisors reading this blog, you should be wary of federal mandates: if you mandate the wrong formula, everyone will pay the price for Beltway arrogance, and you'll endanger the political legitimacy of the idea for the long term.

Caution about top-down mandates also fits with the local nature of collective bargaining and the affiliate structure in American unions. Despite what people may claim about the NEA's visceral opposition to merit pay, the big picture is more complicated: locals have negotiated performance pay or merit pay or whatever you want to call it, and the governance structures of both the NEA and the AFT commit the national affiliates to support collective bargaining at the local level. (There are also the merged locals and state affiliates that belong to both national affiliates.) That federal structure means that the NEA and AFT support what local leaders decide in terms of bargaining strategy and the agreements that the parties ratify at the local level. Where local leadership negotiates performance pay, the state and national affiliates support that. And where local leadership decides not to negotiate performance pay, the affiliates support that, too. (See a March 2008 column from NEA Today for an example of recent rhetoric that illustrates this complexity.) The more accurate policy position of both the NEA and AFT is that they oppose top-down mandates of performance pay, including how it is structured. The AFT is not officially skeptical of performance pay, but both national affiliates work with and for the locals. If you believe that either national teachers union can dictate bargaining positions to locals, e-mail me about my deep-discount sale price on the Brooklyn Bridge.

The second question about performance pay is thus the degree to which there should be centralized decision-making in education, and that is true for collective bargaining as well as for other matters of policy. It is not necessarily a matter of offering a grand bargain to Randi Weingarten and Dennis Van Roekel, because the bargain for some segments of a national union may be anathema to others. Let me put forward a pro-performance-pay, pro-union person's pipe-dream proposal that would serve someone's interests as a union leader, and you may understand: If I were a K-12 union leader in Florida, I would definitely listen to a national policy proposal that would tie some incentives for performance pay (bargained at the local level) to the degree to which a state had the following in place:

  • Collective-bargaining rights for public employees
  • Card-check procedures for certification of public employee unions
  • Binding arbitration for first contracts after a certain length of bargaining (say, 6-12 months)
  • Fair share in a bargaining unit that is represented by a union
Florida currently has one of those (collective bargaining rights for public employees), but gaining the others would be a pretty good trade in return for negotiating some version of performance pay (assuming it's not something that looks like the awful stuff that Florida has tried in recent years). To someone in a state like Florida, that looks like a possible deal. Framed as an incentive, it doesn't step on constitutional toes, but it gives more options to states that respect unions and collective bargaining. On the other hand, that's an awful deal to a union leader sitting in a state that already has fair share as well as collective bargaining. To someone who is opposed to any performance pay in such a state, that proposal looks closer to an insult than a serious attempt at a grand bargain.

As a result of this pattern, where different circumstances lead to different views of policy by local union leaders, you can have leaders sitting in different places, each of whom has a deserved reputation for being able to craft a deal with administrators, but where they have very different views of policy proposals. Ultimately, someone who wants performance pay in K-12 schools has to understand the fact that national affiliates support locals, and that the needs of locals will vary by state environment.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on August 1, 2008 2:38 PM |