Teachers’ union president calls merit pay naive and short-sighted

The Lookout sat down with the president of the nation's largest teacher's union, Dennis Van Roekel, Monday to ask him about a hot topic in education reform right now--teacher compensation.

Van Roekel is attending NBC's "Education Nation" summit in New York, which has focused on the need to boost teachers' salaries. The network hosted the premiere of "American Teacher," a new documentary last night. Teachers and experts profiled in the documentary spoke of the need for the country's teaching force to be treated and compensated like other college-educated professionals.

Van Roekel, a former high school math teacher from Phoenix, pushed back against education reformers who say the best way to increase teacher compensation is by handing out cash bonuses to educators who lift student test scores, calling that idea "naive and shortsighted." He also defended the union's position that student test scores are not a reliable way to evaluate or pay teachers.

Check out Van Roekel's views on these and other questions below. The interview has been edited and condensed.

The Lookout: Everyone's talking about teacher pay. What do you think of the suggestions in the movie "American Teacher" on how schools could pay educators more?

Dennis Van Roekel: Some of their solutions ... how do I say this? They're a little naive and short-sighted. Vanderbilt University did a study over three years. And what it says is when you offer bonuses of up to $8,000, it doesn't change student achievement. Daniel Pink's work says if you're doing a repetitive task, an incentive actually enhances performance. But as soon as you move into complex tasks, not only does it not enhance performance; it actually hinders it. So, with that as a background, what do we do about pay? There isn't enough money there. The pie that's available to distribute to teachers, it's going to have to be bigger.

Whatever size that pie is, education reformers want a new distribution system. I have no problem with creating a new one, but what you're going to have to do is decide what you're going to pay for and how to measure that.

Our current single salary schedule, it came about for a reason. It used to be men got paid more than women, high school teachers more than elementary, friends and relatives of board members more than non-friends. I mean, it was a messed up system. So they came up with a system that was based on research at the time and the fact that over 90 percent of school districts in America use it says there's something in that system that satisfies criteria of a good compensation system.

As a math teacher, when they reformers say, "We need to pay effective teachers more," I always want to ask the question, "Do you really have a number in mind that you want to pay ineffective teachers?" I don't think [ineffective teachers] should be there.

I don't want a system where you can only pay 50 or 60 percent of the people right, but the rest not. Because that's a bad system. It means you want a certain percentage of teachers to be ineffective or inadequate.

The Lookout: So when people say we need to professionalize the teaching force, it seems a lot of those people are saying that goal is incompatible with a unionized workforce.

Dennis Van Roekel: I think they're totally wrong.

The Lookout: How do we professionalize the teaching force within the unionized workforce that we have today?

Dennis Van Roekel: In my union contract back when I was teaching we had what we called a professional day. There was no time I "reported" to school and no time I was required to stay until. I was a professional, I needed to be there to do the job. So if my school got out at 2:00 pm and the only time I could meet a parent was at 4:00 pm then I was there until 4:00. Don't tell me I have to stay until 3:00. What I so liked in "American Teacher" is when they were talking about what a teacher day is. [Ed note: The film estimates that teachers work 65 hours a week during the school year.] It's not an hourly job, you have to do what you need to do until it's done.

So part of professionalization is: teachers have to be involved in the decision-making. You can't dictate. No professional has someone on the outside of the profession telling them what to do. Also, in any profession, there has to be something that if you can't get past this assessment, you can't get into the profession. We don't have that. So you can be unlicensed, uncertified and we'll let you in the classroom as a teacher. I think that's totally wrong.

The Lookout: You mentioned at the 2010 NEA convention that you felt there was an "anti-teacher" tone not just in the public sphere but also coming from the Obama administration itself. Do you think that tone has changed since then? [You can see Van Roekel's comments at the convention here.]

Dennis Van Roekel: Yes.

The Lookout: What's happened to make that change?

Dennis Van Roekel: Just the tone and rhetoric I think is very different now. At the time I said that I wasn't just referring to the administration because I don't think their rhetoric has ever been anti-teacher, between Obama and Secretary Duncan. I think outside of that, all of the attacks in Wisconsin and Ohio and all of these places, it is really anti-teacher. I think it's getting better because people are starting to say "Wait a minute, that's not how I view the teacher in my suburb or in the schools in my community." Other voices are speaking up, that's why I say it's a little better.

Last year, starting with [the documentary "Waiting for Superman," which portrayed unions as roadblocks to reform], that just set the tone, everything emanated from that. It was all negative. Now we're talking about real things, we're talking about compensation, we're talking about what effective teachers are: How do you make them, how do you get them, how do you keep them? That demonstrates a change in the tone.

The Lookout: What if the Gates Foundation's ongoing study on teacher effectiveness finds that student standardized test scores are the best way to measure teacher quality?

Dennis Van Roekel: I'm not worried about that at all. It won't come out that way. There's enough research that shows it's just not there. The value-added models do not predict [teacher effectiveness] on an individual basis.

We do know how to measure effectiveness in teachers through National Board Certification: 20 years, $200 million in research from early childhood through 12th grade in all subject matters. [The research answers] how you assess whether a teacher knows what they should know and has the skills in order to do it. So we can measure teacher effectiveness, we can, but not by a test that is designed to measure student learning.

As we move down this road, I have high hopes for this new generation of assessments. I hope they do those well and they're aligned with the new common core standards, there's great potential there. Get rid of this old set we're using that are just wrong.

The Lookout: If there's a single change you could make across the whole education system what would it be?

Dennis Van Roekel: That we stop looking at the pieces and look at the system. People want to take one piece and change it and assume it will impact the whole system. But that never, ever works. I can give you all the reasons why some of the things [education reformers] are proposing are wrong, but most important thing is that they won't change the system. And the system has to change.

Here's what I know about systems from all the study and work I've done: No system can produce anything other than what it was designed to produce. That's scary to me. So when you look at the drop out rate--it doesn't vary. It stays constant for 20 years. See that's what that theory is saying. The system is designed to do that. We have to change that whole system. So when I listen to the people in Singapore, they say compensation isn't something in and of itself, it's a undergirding. It impacts recruitment, it impacts retention, it plays into all of those. When they talk about the quality of teaching, they do a whole lot of front-door quality [control]--they aren't going to let anyone in who isn't really qualified. So it's the recruitment, it's the training, it's the investment in licensing, then it's the whole professional, career development. All of that is one big piece. You can't say, I'm only going to deal with this one thing and expect everything.

The Lookout: Are there any good examples?

Dennis Van Roekel: Montgomery County, Maryland: they started doing this system change long before it was cool. They have been incredibly successful. And Jerry Weast, who was the superintendent there for like 20 years, he said, "if I was hired as superintendent in a school district and they didn't have a union, the first thing I would do is form one." Because you can't make change in a system if you don't have the employees and their union involved.

The professionalization of teaching can be done in a union environment. In fact, not only can it be done, if you don't have it, it won't be done. If you don't have management, school board, and union involved you cannot transform the system and make lasting change. We have 30 years of experience and more that shows if you don't have that it fails. What happens too often is a new superintendent comes in and just changes directions. When you have the union, management and school board involved and they come up with either a contract or memorandum of understanding, no one group can change it arbitrarily. You still can change but you have to come back to the group and say let's do this differently. And that's the power of collaboration.