Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Demands for school results


A Cincinnati Public Schools proposed teachers' contract and an upcoming renewal levy request got shakier this week, as behind-the-scenes power struggles spilled over into the public arena. CPS is not a district in dire need, but it is a district in dire need of straight talk.

At the top of the list should be a long-promised merit pay system for teachers. It was made a selling point in several levy campaigns, including last May's $480 million school bond issue. It's not in the teachers' tentative contract, and at least two school board members are leading a coalition of high-power community groups to oppose the next levy unless they see improvements in student performance.

The teachers union and CPS administrators need to stop stalling on pay-for-performance and get it done. The Cincinnati Federation of Teachers helped develop CPS's teacher evaluation by their peers, and all the data show high-rated teachers turn out high-scoring students, no matter where the school is located. CPS has been rewarding high-performing schools with bonus awards shared among teachers. If schools fail to produce, CPS replaces the staff and starts over with a fresh team. All that's missing now is tying rewards or penalties to individual teachers. Cincinnati taxpayers expect that degree of accountability. We don't need more years of dithering.

School board members Rick Williams and Melanie Bates are rallying disgruntled past levy supporters - the Baptist Ministers Conference, the Amos Project of religious congregations and the Cincinnati Business Committee - to oppose the next levy unless more authority is concentrated with the superintendent. Williams says it's hard to hold anyone accountable when decisions are made by decentralized school-based committees. Other school board members were not informed of his meetings. Board member Jack Gilligan wants to know by what measure Williams and company are declaring school reform a flop.

Some board members say they have never heard Superintendent Alton Frailey endorse merit pay for teachers, and teachers' union president Sue Taylor says the board's negotiating team didn't make any proposals for new pay structures. Frailey says the board's team did try to discuss incentive pay, "but it didn't go anywhere." He says he fully supports an incentive pay policy, and believes the new state reporting system will allow CPS to tie rewards to individual teachers, but CPS needs to make sure teachers have the "team" support to succeed. He also argues that district power struggles over whether to centralize or decentralize shouldn't be seen as an either-or choice. CPS needs to find a balance between decisions made at schools and those made at central office.

The board wants Frailey's up-or-down recommendation on the teachers contract today. He can do the district and taxpayers a great service by clearly stating if the new contract will advance CPS where it needs to go and if it keeps faith with promises to the taxpayers to hold teachers accountable with merit pay.

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