Duncan, States, & Merit Pay

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said to officials at the National Science Board today that to solve the problem of finding good math and science teachers we should pay them more money. In Duncan’s words, “We pay everybody the same. We have areas of critical need- math, science, foreign language, and special education in some places. I think we need to pay a premium for that” (Holland, 2009). I have,in previous posts,addressed some of the concerns of teachers unions surrounding tying teacher pay to student standardized test scores. But in all likelihood, systems that differentiate teacher pay are an impending reality for most public school systems, if for no other reason than the opportunity to get additional federal funding. There are many different ways that this can be done, but as state education leaders move in that direction, my hope is that differentiated pay is used as a tool recruit and retain effective teachers.

What do I mean by effective? I mean teachers that get the job done. Researchers and practitioners agree that effective teachers are those that posses both the content knowledge AND pedagogical skill to bring about gains in student learning. Recent trends in legislation seems to place much greater emphasis on teacher content knowledge, but a high school teachers’ expertise in physics is of no use unless she/he can relay their understanding to their students. If he/she can not, then school districts are merely paying folks to stand in front of classrooms and be smart. That does students no good at all. Many of us have “not so fond” memories of brilliant college professors who stood at the front of the class and “taught” for an hour three times a week, and yet we learned absolutely nothing. That is not what we want to replicate in our K-12 classrooms.

So as states start to flesh out proposals for the new Race to the Top competition, my hope is that they will use differentiated pay to attract and retain good teachers; not just teaching applicants with impressive resumes (i.e. prestigious college, high gpa, Praxis test scores, experience outside of teaching), but teachers who can bring about student learning. The purpose for all of this must be student learning. That’s all that counts.


Holland, S. (2009, August 25). U.S. students fall behind counterparts in math, science, analysis says. CNN.com. Retrieved August 26, 2009, from cnnwire.blogs.cnn.com.

School Competition: Forcing Improvement, or Forcing Marketing?

In an August 17th Wall Street Journal article, writer Stephanie Simon highlighted some pretty significant public relations campaigns being launched by urban school districts (St. Louis, MO & Denver, CO) in an effort to retain and regain students lost to nearby public charter schools. With school funding levels determined by student enrollment, dwindling enrollments in these districts translates into fewer dollars from state and local taxes. The pressure that these districts are dealing with comes as a result of a shift towards market-style accountability in public education. In fact, the dwindling enrollments that these districts are experiencing is exactly what market-style accountability advocates say is needed to improve public schools.

The goal of market-style accountability is to improve student achievement by increasing the level of competition between schools. In this context, “good schools” demonstrate their worth by attracting students and maintaining sizeable enrollments, while “bad schools” are held accountable by parents who remove their children from the school. What parents deem to be “good” and “bad” schools is highly subjective, and can vary substantially. But for advocates of this type of system, that’s irrelevant. All that really matters, they argue, is that the educational consumer (parent/student) is happy. Public schools become much like private schools. Private schools determine their own goals, standards, and methods, and must satisfy their consumers if they are to stay open.

The pressure of having to compete for students requires that school leaders adopt a markedly different approach to school leadership than in traditional bureaucratic systems or even in performance-based accountability systems. According to Leithwood (2001), school leaders faced with the pressure to compete for students must continually “recreate their schools as marketable products” (p. 227). It appears that for some urban school leaders, however, in addition to ensuring that schools are marketable, competition with charter schools forces them to aggressively market themselves. Many school choice advocates contend that if traditional public schools were good enough, their outcomes would do the marketing for them; but this may or may not be true. Research has shown that parents choose schools for their children for many different reasons, some of which have absolutely nothing to do with student achievement. So could it be that these urban districts are forced into launching marketing campaigns in order to remain viable?

If so, that scenario raises a host of concerns. First and most fundamental is the question which underlies much of the school choice debate: should traditional public schools have to compete for students in the first place? There no argument against public charter schools having to compete for students. The element of parental choice is fundamental to charter schools. But in systems where charter schools are able to pull large numbers of students away from traditional public schools, traditional public schools are forced to compete for survival in a similar vein to the charters. Additionally, there are questions about the appropriateness of spending significant amounts of public monies on marketing campaigns when urban districts clearly have other areas of need. So here’s my question (just to get you thinking): are school choice policies putting traditional public school leaders into situations where competition forces them to improve, or do these policies force traditional public school leaders into no-win situations where curriculum and instruction dollars go to marketing campaigns rather than decreasing class size or providing additional instructional aides?

What do you think?


Leithwood, K. (2001). School leadership in the context of accountability policies. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 4(3), 217-235.

Simon, S. (2009, August 17). Hard-hit schools try public-relations push. Wall Street Journal Online, http://online.wsj.com

Chancellors “Retreat” Policy in North Carolina

Leaders of the University of North Carolina System are debating the merits of a current policy which entitles a university president who retires after 5 years of service to a one year “retreat” with his/her full pay before returning as a faculty member and earning 60% of their administrator salary. The policy gained attention after North Carolina State University’s chancellor, Dr. James Oblinger, stepped down this summer amidst questions surrounding the appointment of the former first lady to a high paying faculty position. Under the current UNC System policy, Dr. Oblinger is entitled to that retreat. Given the circumstances of his departure, however, and North Carolina’s current economic climate, the idea of paying him a full salary after stepping down was a bit much for some to take, sparking the current debate over the policy.

Ultimately, we’re talking about state funds that pay university leaders’ salaries, so it is the right of the citizens of North Carolina through their elected and appointed officials to decide whether the policy should be retained. But in making that decision, they should know that policies like the UNC System’s “retreat” policy are not uncommon, and in fact are more the norm than not, especially for campuses that seek to attract the caliber of leaders that the UNC System schools have attracted. In a competitive market, where highly sought after leaders have choices, you can be sure that not having a policy such as this one could hinder the state in college leadership searches.

So while emotions are running high in this period of economic crisis and political turmoil, North Carolina citizens and leaders would be wise to make decisions that will be best for the future of higher education in North Carolina. As a proud alum (NC State, PhD), that’s what I’m hoping for.

CUBE to Honor Wake County Public Schools for Diversity Efforts

The National School Boards Association’s Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE) will recognize the Wake County Public Schools (NC) at their annual conference in October for its continuing efforts to keep its schools diverse. Wake County Public Schools (WCPSS), now the largest school district in North Carolina, includes North Carolina’s capital city of Raleigh and its suburbs. Wake County is unique in that it is one of only a few districts nationally that uses school assignment to ensure a certain level of diversity in its schools. Because of the district’s school assignment policies and magnet programs, many students from more affluent suburban areas attend schools in the heart of the city of Raleigh, and vice versa; many students who live in poorer neighborhoods attend schools in the more affluent suburban parts of the county. As a result, schools in the district have much more socioeconomic and racial diversity than they would have if students only attended schools in their own neighborhoods.

Keung Hui, education writer for the Raleigh News & Observer made the astute observation today that it would be incredibly ironic if days before WCPSS’s superintendent spoke at the CUBE conference, critics of the district’s diversity policy take control of the school board in the Oct. 6th election. The whole situation is ironic, to use Keung’s term, to me. This isn’t the first time that WCPSS has been recognized for its efforts to maintain diversity. For his efforts, Wake’s former Supt. and architect of the district’s student assignment policy Bill McNeal was recognized in 2004 as the North Carolina Superintendent of the Year and the National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators. Someone on the outside might assume (as I did before moving to Raleigh) that Wake County residents are thrilled with the progress that’s been made with maintaining racial and socioeconomic balance in schools. But that is not the case for everyone. There is growing discontentment with Wake’s student assignment policies. A significant number of parents are unhappy that their children are sent across the county to schools for diversity’s sake. These parents argue that they would greatly prefer having their children attend neighborhood schools which are closer to home, making it easier for them to participate fully in school activities.

How will all of this work out? I’m not quite sure. But my hunch is that even if it doesn’t happen with the upcoming school board election, it’s only a matter of time before disenchanted parents gain enough seats on the Wake County School Board to end this policy. In my opinion which appears to also be the opinion of CUBE and the National Association of School Administrators as well, I think the policy has been good for Wake County. As both a researcher and a community member who has lived in places where the neighborhood that you live in dictates the quality of education you receive, I think WCPSS’s goal is praiseworthy. In their heart of hearts, I believe most critics of policy feel the same way. But the question for them becomes one that neither I nor CUBE has to answer, am I willing to inconvenience myself for the sake of what might be the greater good for my community.

As always, I’d love to hear from you!

Change on the Horizon for Higher Education in Louisiana

Louisiana’s new Postsecondary Education Review Commission convened for the first time week. The group meets with the charge of finding ways to streamline the state’s higher education system. Currently, three higher education systems operate in Louisiana, the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, the Southern University System, the University of Louisiana System, and the Louisiana State University System. Amidst state budget woes, one clear priority for the commission will be to find ways of eliminating academic and administrative duplication. In all likelihood, the commission’s recommendations will have to include the elimination or merger of university systems. The operation of all three distinct systems is neither cost efficient nor fiscally feasible in the present economic climate. It’s also possible that the commission’s recommendations could include closing or merging university campuses. There have already been serious talks of a merger of the University of New Orleans with Southern University of New Orleans.

Whatever the outcome of the commission’s work, one thing is certain, its recommendations will mean significant change and change is never welcomed by everyone. We will keep an eye on this one. More likely than not, the debate will be pretty heated.

Kentucky Achievement Gap Remains- ACT Scores

The Kentucky Department of Education released the results of ACT tests taken by Kentucky Juniors this year (2009). State statute mandates that all Kentucky high school juniors take the ACT test. The composite score for all students fell very slightly from the previous year’s cohort—18.3 to 18.2. There were no noteable increases or decreases in composite scores for any subgroups of students (i.e., African-American, American Indian, Caucasian). What is troubling, however, is the significant gap that remains between the scores of students of color and their white counterparts. This years results show a three (3) point difference between the composite scores of African-American and white juniors, and nearly a two (2) point difference between the composite scores of Hispanic and white juniors. Hispanic juniors trailed their white classmates by 2.8 points in English, 1.2 points in mathematics, and 2 points in Reading. The discrepancies were even greater for African-American students. African-American juniors’ scores trailed white juniors by 3.7 points in English, 2.4 points in mathematics, and 3.2 points in reading.

Is this surprising? Sadly, no.

Why did I write this post? Because “we” have yet to take the steps necessary to ameliorate these shameful gaps.

Who is “we”? We is all of us. From state education leaders, to school leaders, to teachers, to students, to parents, to communities, we are all responsible for this lack of progresss. The ACT test score gap betweem students of color and white students did not worsen from 2008 to 2009, but it didn’t improve either. My only hope is that “we” have not come to the point of being satisfied with the way things are and no longer strive to make things what they ought to be.


President Obama’s “Race to the Top”

Last week President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the U.S. Department of Education’s new “Race to the Top” contest, giving states the opportunity to compete for $4.35 billion in federal education funding. In order to compete for funds, the contest requires states to submit plans for overhauling their education systems with specific components including linking teacher pay to student achievement, easing restrictions on charter schools, improving strategies for recruiting and retaining effective teachers, tracking student performance data, raising academic standards, and developing action plans for turning around failing schools. President Obama contends that research evidence points to these components as critical to improving student achievement.

The president referred to the contest as an example of “evidence-based” policy making. But the contest has already been and will continue to be quite politically controversial. Several of the contest’s requirements, namely merit pay for teachers tied to student performance and the expansion of charter schools, have been measures that teachers unions—traditional supporters of Democratic administrations—have fought against. President Obama has said that that there will undoubtedly be both winners and losers in the contest, and that politics will not come into play in deciding which states will be the winners of the funding. But as the 2012 presidential election approaches, is the promise that the “Race to the Top” will be insulated from politics a realistic one?

Denying education funding to electorally critical swing states whose reform plans might not meet the Department of Education’s requirements would take a lot of courage on the part of the Obama administration. That being said, including such requirements for state reform plans took courage. The president has shown since the 2008 primaries that he is not afraid to take education policy stances that conflict with positions of the traditional public education establishment which includes the NEA and the AFT. Only time will tell whether the Obama Department of Education will back down in the face of electoral threat, or states like Ohio and Pennsylvania will defy the wishes of politically powerful teachers unions and agree to make controversial reforms to be eligible for the contest’s funding. My guess is that the enticement of $4 billion in funding will be enough to at least push many states to attempt to make the reforms the President endorses, setting the stage for some very interesting state-level education policy battles.