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The Politics of Education: Is Every Teacher In Ann Arbor Worth $120,700 Per Year?

Let me preface this entry by acknowledging that K-12 teachers have one of the most challenging jobs in education. That being said, K-12 teachers also inhabit the Walled Keep of negotiated privilege, tenure, perks and, in Michigan, an average rate of compensation that is above the national average. Then again, I am fond of saying that you never get what you deserve. You get what you negotiate.

In the Ann Arbor School District, 71 percent of the District’s $187,000,000 ($132,770,000) budget is spent on teacher salaries and benefits. That’s an expense of about $120,700 per teacher employed (1,100 teachers are employed by the AAPS). According to the enrollment analysis provided in the FY 2009-2010 budget, over the past half a dozen years, the District’s overall enrollment has declined from a high of 17,000 students in 2005 to 16,421 students in 2009. Currently, the public schools enroll slightly fewer students than the system did in 2000. To be sure, the cost per teacher in the system is not what it was in 2000, nor is the state’s contribution per student the same as it was in 2000. Both of those amounts have risen. 

In a December 6th post to AnnArbor.com, education reporter David Jesse writes, “Recently, the Washtenaw County Education Association—made up of unions from Chelsea, Dexter, Lincoln, Manchester, Saline, Whitmore Lake, Willow Run and Ypsilanti—voted not to accept concessions or reopen labor contracts.”

Ann Arbor Education Association President Brit Satchwell was quoted in that same AnnArbor.com post as saying, “We understand why they came to us immediately and asked for concessions.  There’s a lot of things that have to happen first.” Satchwell goes on to say (somewhat cryptically), “The wolf has been in the kitchen and is now headed to the bedrooms. The public has to show up and participate in public education…After the process is worked, then we’re willing to talk about concessions.” As a result of Satchwell’s comments, I’m grappling with a couple of questions: Is the main job of a school district to compensate teachers or educate students? Is the school financing system broken, or is the problem that taxpayers have no way to gauge whether the money spent on teacher salaries and benefits is money well spent? 

Union leaders and former state Superintent Tom Watkins are telling us that “the system of funding K-12 education in Michigan is broken.” 

Prior to the approval of Proposal A (read an excellent retrospective analysis of Proposal A here), districts had control, on average, of over 68 percent of their funding. There were large discrepancies in per student funding between school districts throughout the state, and these discrepancies impacted student outcomes. It an effort to level the K-12 playing field, the state decided to dole out the funds, as equitably as possible. Now the state doles out 80 percent of the money in an effort to equalize per student funding (and improve educational outcomes) across the various districts in the state.  Watkins was quoted in a December 13th piece in AnnArbor.com  as saying, “Widely recognized is the fact that an overhaul of the school finance system is meaningless if it is not accompanied by comprehensive efforts to improve efficiency, effectiveness and equity.”

Frankly, I’m  not biting at that fish bait. Here’s why. Washtenaw County school districts alone get half a billion dollars from the state and taxpayers each year to educate 47,000 students. Watkins’s nod to TQM buzzwords such as efficiency and effectiveness are the last thing that we need to focus on. Trying to making a bureaucracy efficient and effective is like herding cats. Equity? How can we address issues of equity without a way to measure whether we’re spending our money wisely?

What needs to be overhauled in Michigan (nationally, actually) are the K-12 teacher compensation, retention and evaluation systems. Overhauling how education is funded, and how the money is handed out is an exercise in futility until there are systems in place to make sure that what taxpayers are spending billions of dollars on yearly is well worth the investment. Does an above average paycheck and better benefits automatically mean we get the “best” teachers in the classroom? Does tenure just guarantee that those one-third of teachers who should really have other jobs, according to the U.S. Secretary of Education Duncan, simply stay put and work their way up the “step” scale toward the top? In Ann Arbor, the top of the step pay scale is currently $84,000 per year. I would advocate for a pay scale for K-12 teachers that topped out at $150,000 per year if there were efficient and effective ways to gauge teacher competency and merit. I agree with Duncan that there are, at any given time, one-third of teachers who just should not be in the classroom, but they are, and in Ann Arbor it’s costing us $43,000,000 every year.

Teachers and their unions, nationally, not just in Ann Arbor and its environs, are quick to say that teacher effectiveness cannot and must not be tied to student performance on standardized tests, such as the MEAP. If not the MEAP, how about data that measure the AAPS’s ever-present education gap? Could we use that data to measure teacher effectiveness? Nope, say the unions, there are too many socio-economic, social, educational and psychological variables that come into play when we’re taking turkey about the local education gap. Graduation rates? The number of students that gain entry into college after graduation? No and no.

The national teachers’ unions, with their approximately 100,000,000 years of collective higher education between the various union leaders and their well-paid minions, can’t come up with an acceptable way to measure teacher effectiveness. So, here in Ann Arbor, figuring out how to determine whether spending $120,700 per teacher is an effective use of taxpayers money is, it turns outs, impossible. Well, according to the teachers’ unions it is. Thus, we taxpayers are told we must focus on the fact that there’s not enough money, and the way the pot of tax money is divided are the most pressing problems. The system of financing is “broken.”

What’s broken is the steady stream of tax dollars that flowed like the Mighty Mississippi toward K-12 education in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County. That may be the best thing to happen to K-12 education in our county and Michigan in quite some time. The situation is pushing everyone involved in the process to re-examine all of the usual assumptions, including the concepts of teacher evaluation and retention, and tying compensation and retention to evaluation.  

Since the failure of the millage, teachers have weighed in on the various online news sites (particularly AnnArbor.com) to say that cuts to balance budgets can’t be taken from their paychecks. At the moment, my reaction is a simple “Why not?”  Rather than retreating to the Keep, teachers and their unions should be working like mad to figure out ways to show taxpayers, concretely, that what we spend on their salaries and benefits are dollars well spent. It would certainly go a long way toward stemming the free-floating frustration that gets aimed at teachers and their jobs, which many perceive as too “cushy.” 

I spent a few minutes going through the campaign finance disclosure forms of the pro-millage groups. The AAEA gave $3,000 to the Citizens Millage Committee; the Ann Arbor Administrators Association gave $5,000. That’s almost one-quarter of the total $33,896 raised by the pro-millage group. Individual teachers supported the millage with donations to the Citizens Millage Group. Educators counseled, cajoled, begged, guilt-tripped, pleaded and reasoned with taxpayers to support a tax hike in the middle of the worst economic downturn in 70 years.

They wanted that $150,000,000 million in additional tax revenue so badly they could taste it.

However, I was left asking the same question: how do I know I’ll be getting my money’s worth? While Tom Watkins is well-intentioned to be sure, the Obama administration’s push to link federal money for K-12 education to teacher evaluation and accountability is where we should focus our attention. Once I know who I want in the classroom, then I can feel confident that paying $120,700 per teacher will buy the kinds of student outcomes we want and expect from our K-12 schools. 

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7 Comments for “The Politics of Education: Is Every Teacher In Ann Arbor Worth $120,700 Per Year?”

  1. I think those who read this post will be interested in this piece in U.S. News & World Report about Michelle Rhee: http://www.usnews.com/articles/news/national/2009/12/21/dc-schools-chief-michelle-rhee-fights-union-over-teacher-pay.html?s_cid=rss:dc-schools-chief-michelle-rhee-fights-union-over-teacher-pay

  2. There is a great risk in evaluating teachers and that risk has to do with the fact that we lose a good many teachers by attrition with just a few years of their first teaching assignments. Teachers need to be held accountable but they also need mentoring along with evaluation. The last thing we need is a teacher shortage nationwide because of insane standards set by some bureaucratic entity. This would just make a difficult situation even worse. I agree that Michelle Rhee’s ideas as ground-breaking. I just hope that when the time comes to measure student progress comes, Rhee’s changes will result is positive change.

  3. @3 Joe, Michelle Rhee is poised to change the face of K-12 education in the United States. If her reforms in DC translate into improved student outcomes, the question from BOEs to unions across the United States will be “Why can’t OUR district implement this change, as well?” She is an extraordinarily bright, creative and courageous superintendent.

  4. The idea of standardized tests makes abstract sense; in the school, the quality of the test is everything. Anything not on the exam (art, music, creative writing, web design, wood shop, social & emotional intelligence skills, citizenship skills, teamwork, wonder, engagement with the material, etc) does not get measured, and therefore will eventually not be taught. As much as I support the premise behind standardized testing (finding out what students can actually do, finding out how effective teachers actually are), I am uncomfortable with the idea of education reduced to mere test prep.

  5. A2P, it’s like you read the opinion section of the Wall Street Journal today (http://3.ly/UVS). The piece concerned Michelle Rhee, chancellor of DC Public schools. She too pushes paying good teachers $150K!

  6. Thank you A2P. This is a wonderful post.

  7. A few thoughts on evaluating teachers…

    Great teachers are not overpaid, they are underpaid. The problem comes from the bad teachers with tenure. There needs to be a comprehensive approach to identify the teachers that need to go. Standardized tests don’t tell the whole story. They test knowledge that has been accumulated over years, not within one classroom. Perhaps if they were administered twice per year they would show student progress more accurately, but that would be an onerous task to undertake. Additionally, since there aren’t grades (rewards or punishments) associated with these tests, children could theoretically manipulate the system.

    How about a random sampling of student and peer reviews? Combined with standardized test performance and graduation rates (from grade to grade, not just graduation from HS), we would have a broader picture of teacher performance. A teacher can be a jerk in the classroom and still be an effective teacher. (I think of one of my HS teachers who insisted that homework be turned in before the bell, with the name, date, period, class title, and time written at the top. Points were deducted if anything was missing. Annoying, but you learn to follow instructions and pay attention to detail. Nobody really liked him, but he was passionate about the subject and a pretty good teacher overall.) Everyone knows who the slackers are at work, I doubt teachers are any different. Students are in the classroom every day. If an anonymous system was administered through a third party, it would allow people to speak their mind without retribution.

    There would of course be outliers, but over time an accurate picture would develop if all these methods were integrated. I do agree with the teachers’ union that using one method to evaluate teachers is not the way to move forward. If they could come up with a comprehensive method to eliminate bad teachers, they would have an easier time negotiating at the bargaining table. If Duncan’s estimates are correct, it would be a huge win for over 60% of their union members.

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