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Letter to the Senate HELP Committee on the Teacher Incentive Fund

March 12, 2010

Dear Chairman Harkin, Ranking Member Enzi, and Members of the Committee:

As a follow-up to Tuesday’s important hearing about K-12 education and the economy, I would like to provide you with additional information regarding the National Education Association’s (NEA) position on alternative compensation systems, and in particular regarding the Teacher Incentive Fund.

NEA welcomes an informed debate on teacher compensation – including beginning pay and alternative compensation.  The more attention and relevance we can bring to the issue of teacher pay and adequate funding, the better off we all are.  Attracting and retaining qualified and caring teachers in America’s public schools requires treating them as professionals—and paying them a professional salary.  Yet, currently, teachers are paid 14 percent below professionals with comparable skill sets.

Any discussion about teacher compensation should always begin with this essential question: Is the compensation system—whether a traditional single salary schedule or some alternative to it—actually designed to improve teaching and learning?  While we oppose merit pay, NEA does support some creative alternatives and enhancements if they are added to strong, competitive base salaries and reflect sound principles of professional practice.  In addition, we support our state and local affiliates if they choose to enter into creative compensation agreements that have the support of and meet the needs of their members.

With respect to the Teacher Incentive Fund, NEA has opposed diverting funding to this initiative, believing that it makes more sense to increase funding for the Teacher Quality State Grant program (Title II), which provides states and school districts with flexibility to use funds to best meet their specific needs, as opposed to creating a new narrowly-focused federal grant program.  It is counterproductive to reduce Title II formula funds and divert them to a competitive grant program at a time when state budgets are experiencing the worst financial strain in decades. 

If Congress approves a continued grant program to incentivize alternative forms of compensation, we believe such a program must meet the following criteria:

  1. Nothing in any plan should undermine educators’ current collective bargaining rights.

  2. Use of test scores/learning gains must not be required or mandated by federal law.  The federal government does not hire, pay, or evaluate individual teachers, nor does the US Department of Education serve as the nation’s superintendent or principal.  Congress would never mandate what or how states or localities compensate other public employees like police or firefighters.  Therefore, we expect that limitation to be respected in the education arena as well. 

    Furthermore, tests, especially in today’s mandated standardized testing system, are imperfect measures of student performance and even worse measures of teacher performance because they were never designed or validated for this purpose.  Pay plans tied to test scores pressure educators to teach to the test and they often encourage teachers to focus on students who score just below a state’s mandated proficiency level at the expense of other students who may be even further behind. Research indicates that students learn cumulatively from ALL of their educators; therefore, linking one educator’s pay to a child’s test score does not account for other teachers’ and education support professionals’ contributions to that child’s learning, nor does it encourage the type of collaborative skill and information sharing among teachers and ESPs that is proven to produce better results for kids.

  3. Any program that rates teachers and/or affects their compensation must be agreed to through bargaining, or where bargaining doesn't exist, through a 75 percent majority vote of teachers in the district.  A compensation system that is to work well must be acceptable to those implementing it and to those employed under it.  If any of the parties involved do not accept the compensation system, then it is doomed to fail.

Thank you for the opportunity to provide this additional information.  NEA commends the Committee for holding such an important hearing and we look forward to working with you as we move forward with reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.


Dennis Van Roekel