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Without Merit Pay and Gold Stars

A Connecticut NEA affiliate heads off a “divisive” merit pay plan through solid organizing, research and political action. There’s merit in that!

By Dave Winans, NEA Collective Bargaining and Member Advocacy

In these tough fiscal times, some educators might fall for tastefully wrapped, promise-laden, free-money offers to school districts. But not your average Connecticut teacher.

In district after district, Connecticut Education Association (CEA) members are saying “thanks, but no thanks” to a privately funded program, Project Opening Doors (POD), that offers a “chance for students from all demographics to succeed in Advanced Placement tests like never before.” Rigorous high school AP courses and tests—established by the College Board and scored on a 1-5 scale—are strong preparation for college/university learning.

On paper (and in the media), POD, one of six statewide “replication projects” funded by the National Math and Science Initiative—with hefty upfront funding from ExxonMobil and other corporate backers—promises low-income and minority students a better shot at college entry.

Sponsored by the Connecticut Business and Industry Association’s education foundation, POD currently focuses on 21 high schools serving “underrepresented student populations.” POD components include active recruitment and close guidance of AP students, extended classroom and mentoring time, added training for AP teachers, and even teacher “troubleshooting” help.

Feeling the pull, aren’t you? You might be fully captured by press accounts of POD’s claims for student gains, plus the program’s grants to “participating” Connecticut schools, reported in the press as $600,000 for Windsor High School and some $315,000 for Windsor Locks High.

But you’re not the average Connecticut teacher.

Behind Project Opening Door #1: Merit Pay

When most CEA members look at Project Opening Doors, they see nothing more than a vehicle for merit pay. An AP teacher in a POD-targeted school receives a $100 bonus for each student who scores 3 (“qualified”) or higher on an AP test. And the lucky student gets 100 bucks, defined by POD President Cam Vautour as a hundred-dollar “token,” like “a gold star.”

For the record, NEA policy (Resolution F-10) states clearly that NEA “is opposed to the use of merit pay or performance pay compensation systems.”

And when CEA and its local affiliates witness how POD is implemented in participating schools—through nothing more than a school board vote—they see a clear attempt to circumvent the collective bargaining process and negotiated salary schedules. Several CEA locals have challenged POD projects through contract grievances, unfair labor practice charges, and/or Connecticut’s strong interest (binding) arbitration process.

Progress has been slow on that front. Too often, interest arbitrators just see “new money” for educators without examining the downside of merit pay, which undermines school site collegiality, relies on faulty measures of faculty/student performance, and is often doled out through a quota system—pitting educator against educator.

In April 2010, however, CEA got its first break through “traditional” advocacy. Following a grievance hearing, an arbitrator ruled that the Bloomfield school board violated the collective bargaining agreement when it implemented a five-year contract with POD—ignoring its obligation to bargain exclusively with the Association over terms and conditions of employment.

While not overturning the POD contract, the arbitrator ordered, among other things, the per diem rate for AP teachers who work beyond their normal schedule (“with said payment not based on student performance”) and delivered this body blow to POD: “Money generated prospectively as a result of student performance on the AP exams which is earmarked for teachers shall be placed in a professional development fund for the district’s high school teachers.”

Another Way to Fight Merit Pay

One CEA local, the 547-member Hamden Education Association (HEA), has kept out Project Opening Doors entirely through a different strategy, involving member organizing, research, and smart political action. And better yet: HEA has joined forces with this district, in the urban New Haven region, to create an intelligent alternative to POD, without those bonuses and gold stars.

At its December 2009 meeting, the Hamden Board of Education (school board) heard both a promise-laden sales pitch from POD chief Vautour and a fact-heavy presentation from HEA President Diane Marinaro, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Hamden Middle School. Vautour was pretty much alone. Behind Marinaro was an SRO crowd of Hamden educators.

This was no match. At its meeting the very next month, the school board voted 5-4 not to bring Project Opening Doors into the district.
Why did things happen differently in Hamden? For starters, the politically active HEA had built a prior relationship with school board members, many of whom it helped elect.

The local’s political action committee works hard to screen, then support, HEA-recommended school board candidates. PAC chair Sharon Drumm keeps detailed notes, plus a vote log, at every board meeting. And she teams with local President Marinaro, who attends and speaks at every meeting of the board and its subcommittees, plus district budget hearings—mobilizing HEA members (even during vacation breaks!) to back the superintendent’s spending plans.

Doing the Hard Work That Pays Off

This hard-working local prepared well for the December board meeting. Marinaro investigated Project Opening Doors projects/contracts in other districts, while HEA and CEA produced solid research (from a former state education department analyst) that punctured POD’s inflated student success claims. And for a POD alternative, HEA invited West Hartford Education Association President David Dippolino to Hamden to talk about his district’s success in collaboratively implementing a strong, teacher-designed AP prep program, without merit pay.

Internally, Marinaro met with high school staff, communicated through bulletins, and spoke to HEA’s council of building reps—educating on POD, gathering feedback, and stressing the importance of teacher unity. HEA members responded by emailing the school board en masse.

By the time the HEA president took the mike in December, backed by a crowd of teachers, board members knew this NEA affiliate meant business and had the merchandise.

Among other points, Marinaro stressed that:

  • Project Opening Doors would cost Hamden money because its contract with the district would give POD the discretion to “amend or revise” terms at will. In evidence, Marinaro submitted POD contracts with three other districts. Moreover, she stressed that Hamden’s first obligation is to bargain with its HEA partner, not take directions from a private, outside entity.

  • Merit pay would undermine staff cohesiveness and morale, would only benefit a target group, AP teachers, and produce “unintended consequences.” Further, financial incentives for teachers and students would constitute “abandonment of the fundamental education principles” by which students learn.

  • Every teacher in a student’s education, from kindergarten onwards, impacts that student’s life and helps build his/her foundation. “It takes a village.”

  • Money spent to meet POD budget requests could be spent on more of the student population, not just AP classes at the high school.

  • The Hamden district should re-evaluate its own elementary and middle-school Advanced Math Placement and Talented and Gifted programs, to strengthen what’s already in place.

Collaborating Around an Alternative

So strong were HEA’s arguments (and organizing) against Project Opening Doors, especially the specter of the school board relinquishing power to an outside entity, that the Hamden district did the right thing--and even went one step further.

In April 2010, the district and union agreed to collaborate on a “RAISES” project, a pilot program to “address ways to identify and support minority students and underrepresented AP students in their freshman and sophomore years—so that they are able to perform successfully in AP classes by their junior or senior years.”

This pilot, funded by an NEA grant and steered by a joint Association/administration committee, will consist of six components: identification of potential AP students, a family meeting, a pre-AP summer institute, ongoing tutoring, data analysis to measure the program’s success, and research-based professional development of appropriate Hamden High School teachers “to support their efforts to make their coursework more rigorous.”

All, of course, without merit pay and gold stars.

Other districts considering merit pay/pay for performance might best listen to their teachers first. “Our members saw the merit pay piece of Project Opening Doors as insulting and divisive,” says Marinaro. “Even AP teachers were concerned! Some of them said they would not want to be rewarded financially while other teachers were not, because every teacher impacts students.” 

And other NEA local affiliates gearing up to battle merit pay—or threats such as privatization, unsound evaluation systems, layoffs, budget cuts, or salary/benefit takebacks—might best listen to CEA’s seasoned leaders and staff.

“I believe you have to make your move before something like this happens, not wait,” stresses Marinaro. “Local leaders need to get out there, participate and speak at meetings, do their research, pull people together, and constantly communicate with members. My members don’t get their information from newspapers, they get it from me first!”

“You get your best results where the organization can cut a plan like POD off at the pass, then collaborate with the district [on an intelligent alternative],” adds Mary Loftus Levine, CEA director of policy and professional practice. “In a nutshell, you need to organize members, and organize in the community, instead of approaching everything only through traditional collective bargaining. You must take both routes.”


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