I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Sunday, October 26, 2014

@TIME Gets Tenure Wrong, Part II: Teacher Compensation

Note: Here's my intro to this series, and here's Part I.

When TIME Magazine decided to give Silicon Valley executive David Welch oodles of print space to discuses tenure -- while simultaneously neglecting to give even one teacher any space for a rebuttal --- they included a short biography of the man. Welch is a very successful engineer and businessman; his company, Infinera, did $174 million in revenue last quarter, which means that Welch himself also did quite well:
Infinera Corp
Compensation for 2013
Restricted stock awards$1,433,280
Non-equity incentive plan compensation$390,298
Total Compensation$2,178,886
Not bad, even for a PhD from Cornell. And Welch also pays his senior team very well: his CEO, Thomas Fallon, pulled down a cool $2.9 million last year.

Understand that I don't have any problem with this (I may have a problem with how these guys are taxed, but let's save that discussion for another time). When you value an employee, and you value the role they play, you should pay them well. And, as Welch's own company notes on its website under the "Careers" section, payment isn't always salary:

Benefits Overview

We know benefits are an important component of any total rewards program. At Infinera, we make a point of taking good care of our employees by providing a strong and comprehensive benefits package. From your first day of work, Infinera offers you (and your eligible family members, including domestic partners and dependents) a choice of medical and dental coverage, life insurance and vision care, stock options, a 401(k) savings plan, and much more.
Sounds great! But what would happen if Welch decided to take away any of these benefits from his employees? 

Wouldn't he assume that, in order to attract the talent he needs for his company to succeed, he would have to make up for that loss in total compensation? Wouldn't he naturally react to labor market pressures by either giving his employees more of some other compensation, or otherwise expect that the quality of applicants would decrease?

Which brings us to teacher tenure.

As I have noted many times, tenure has a value for teachers; it is part of their total compensation. Sanford's Terry Moe suggests we'd have to pay teachers up to 50% more if we abolished tenure. Abolishing teacher due process rights would, in effect, be no different than Welch's employees giving up their 401(k)s and stock options: labor market pressures would dictate that, in order to maintain a quality workforce, something would have to take the rescinded benefit's place.

As I said before, Haley Sweetland Edwards, author of the TIME article, made a grave error when she didn't interview any teachers as part of this piece. Had she bothered to seek out and report on the opinion of teachers on tenure, she likely would have learned that taking it away would be viewed as a decrease in compensation -- compensation that, it should be noted, costs the taxpayers nothing in pecuniary terms.

When a teacher who has demonstrated her effectiveness earns tenure, she is not immune from the consequences of doing her job poorly. She is, however, free to speak out on behalf of her students without fear of reprisal. She is less likely to be intimidated in political and personal expression for fear of suffering an employment consequence. She is more likely to stand up against forces that may want to change the curriculum in ways that are harmful to her students: forces that, for example, want to teach creationism or warped views of American history.

Take tenure away and you are fundamentally changing the job of teaching, which means you are changing the willingness of people to do the job for a certain level of pay.

This is a key point in the debate, and it's a question the tenure crusaders have managed to avoid answering, largely because the press lets them. In the absence of tenure, what do Welch or Campbell Brown or David Boies or any of the rest of these reformy folks think we should do to attract qualified people into the profession?

Boies, living in a dream world, seems to think he can get Teach For America to fill the gap, but if he actually thought his arguments through he'd realize that's a fantasy. Brown, it's clear, is an educational tourist, and would rather revel in her outrage than propose an actual solution to this problem.

But their unwillingness to discuss the issue does not excuse Edwards's refusal to confront it. I'll give her credit for discussing the linkage between testing and teacher evaluations; too often, reporters miss this vital connection. But it's amazing to me that Edwards wrote a four-page cover story on abolishing tenure and never once thought she should ask a teacher how that would affect her willingness to do the job.

More to come.

TIME waits for no man...

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