By September 16, 2015 Uncategorized 3 Comments

I sometimes have a difficult time letting things go.

This is the case with comments written by House Speaker Jeff Hickman in the Oklahoman last weekend.

In addressing the shortage of qualified educators in our state, Representative Hickman resurrected his “new idea” of performance pay for teachers. This just happens to be one of my raw nerves and the speaker stepped right on it.

Or–stepped right IN it–your choice!

As I discussed in my previous post, the concept of merit pay to reward exemplary performance seems reasonable and commonsensical to most:

Hickman wrote:

“Rather than maintaining the century-old method of paying for paper credentials and experience, we must move toward a teacher compensation model that rewards excellence, incentivizing outstanding teachers to stay longer. We need to eliminate the minimum salary schedule from our statutes and let school districts compete for teachers. Like a free agent in the NBA, a talented teacher with a track record of success will naturally earn more in an open market.”

Pulling from my previous experience as an officer in the Marine Corps, I recall that the military employs a nearly identical method for compensating our servicemen and women. Here is the most recent pay scale of monthly base pay for our military officers:

Note 1: Pay grades for military officers start at O-1 (Second Lieutenant or Ensign) and top out at Four-Star General at O-10. O-7 and above are all “General ranks.” The rank of major, a mid-grade officer, is an 0-4.

Note 2: Notice how the pay for an officer with a bachelor’s degree DOUBLES after only eight years of service, from $2,972/month as a 2nd Lt. to $5,818/month as a Captain (O-3). These figures do not include additional compensation such as health care, retirement pay, child care and free or subsidized food, housing and education. The Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that the average active duty service member in the US Army receives an benefits and pay compensation package worth $99,000. Incidentally, it is my humble opinion that most deserve every penny.

Anyhow, I wonder how people would respond if Speaker Hickman (or anyone else) wrote this about our military compensation system:

“Rather than maintaining the century-old method of paying based on military rank and experience, we must move toward a compensation model that rewards excellence, incentivizing outstanding military members to stay longer. We need to eliminate the minimum salary schedule from our statutes and let our various branches of military compete for soldiers, marines, sailors, and airmen. Like a free agent in the NBA, a talented warrior with a track record of success will naturally earn more in an open market.”

Doesn’t seem to make as much sense, does it?

I believe this has tried on multiple occasions throughout the history of man. From a military perspective, this system produces what are commonly referred to as mercenaries.

A mercenary is a person who takes part in an armed conflict, who is not a national or a party to the conflict, and is “motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain and, in fact, is promised, by or on behalf of a party to the conflict, material compensation substantially in excess of that promised or paid to combatants…(emphasis mine).

The United States hired thousands of these specialized professional security forces during our recent military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Have you ever heard of an enterprise called Blackwater? In many cases, these hired mercenaries were paid 10 to 20 times as much as soldiers who were just as much at risk as these experienced fighters.

Erik Prince, the founder and CEO of Blackwater, once made this comment about his organization:

“We’re trying to do for the national security apparatus what FedEx did for the postal service. They do many of the same services, better, faster, and cheaper.”

(Substitute a few words and you could have a new advertising slogan for Teach For America)

My purpose here is not to engage a debate on the moral and ethical issues behind the use of paid “security forces” to fight America’s wars. I am simply pointing out our very own military forces use a compensation system nearly identical to that of most school districts in America. And, adding a merit pay idea to this system introduces some very real concerns.

Imagine the potential impact on our military forces if we eliminated the current system and implemented a merit based system.

Instead of earning a paycheck based on rank and years of service, perhaps we pay servicemen based on their number of confirmed kills on the battlefield (cash for corpses)! Ridiculous, right?

Or, maybe, we just pay extra if you can do more push-ups or can shoot a rifle more accurately than the other guy.

But that would be assuming that all jobs in the military are exactly the same and require the same skills and qualifications. They’re not.

Using the logic of merit pay, why couldn’t we compare the work performance of a sonar technician on a submarine with a diesel mechanic in the Army, a SEAL sniper, or a Marine infantryman–and then pay each one based on their individual merit?

Soldiering is soldiering, right?

That’s the problem. Even if we use the same performance system for all Marines of the same rank (we do), each one has a unique set of job responsibilities and skills. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to label one specialty more meritorious than another.

Should an officer with four years of experience as a Navy Seal or F-15 pilot earn a higher base pay than a computer analyst with the same rank and experience who evaluates satellite photographs from an air-conditioned office every day?

Not according to the current system, primarily because it would not be fair.

In short, relative to base pay, our military does not pay its special forces any more than its regular infantry forces.

Each of these jobs is critically important to the success of the overall mission of the military—namely to fight and win wars.

Likewise, every teacher in a school system contributes to the overall mission of education, which is to prepare all students for success in life.

I admit that this analogy is not a perfect one.

For example, getting promoted to a higher rank in the military generally requires that the officer exhibit a sufficient amount of meritorious work performance. Yet, for officers with a regular commission, a career of twenty years is virtually guaranteed if you meet basic standards for your specialty and branch of service.

Many officers who are commissioned as reserve officers are automatically discharged after their initial three-year tour of duty, unless they have performed in a manner to set themselves apart from the pack. At this point, it is competitive because limited positions for advancement are available.

This is not true for public schools today. We have little choice but to keep our average teachers after the first few years specifically because we do NOT have a consistent pool of qualified candidates from which to draw.

We also don’t have a unlimited reserve of funds we can draw out of the United States Treasury to hire a group of specialized teachers at ten times our normal wages. I hope you would agree that introducing this type of “blackwater-style” system to education is not a good idea at all.

Similar to the military, educational leaders need to recruit, train, and retain the best possible teachers we can. Our children deserve this.

I think it is safe to say this would be an easier proposition if we weren’t in constant battle with lawmakers who constantly disparage and demean our profession.

For the most part, lawmakers trust our military officers to lead their units in a manner they feel is most appropriate. Because most legislators have also not served in the military, they recognize they lack credibility when it comes to giving advice on how to fight a war.

Most legislators have also not served as educators or led a school system, yet they seem to have no compunction in giving direction on how to educate our children.

We are tired of being in the bulls-eye.

Our mission is similar to that of our military. We are both “fighting” to preserve the future of America.

According to Hickman and other in the reform crowd, the solution to the teacher shortage is obvious. If teachers don’t increase student test scores, just fire them and replace them.

We could then hire “mercenaries teachers” or those willing to Teach For Awhile in difficult schools and for more money. They could come in, clean up the place, and move on to the next mission.

This would not be a place I would want to work.

Here’s the bottom line.

We want our schools back. We want to teach. We want to be trusted to help children grow—educationally, socially and emotionally. We want to be respected as professionals and not treated as liars and incompetents.

We just want a little damn respect.

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