Great schools conference: sorry about small schools, let’s try merit pay

5:52 pm

As Portland teachers approach 500 days without a contract, and as discontent bubbles to the surface over a failing experiment in K8 schools and an ill-conceived “surplus” auction, senior management of Portland Public Schools spent last week at the downtown Hilton, enjoying seminars and speakers, not to mention complimentary breakfast and lunch.

They were there as hosts of the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS) fall conference, with a headlining keynote address by former PPS superintendent Vicki Philips. Philips, now director of education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was the architect of Portland’s devastating experiments in K8s and “small schools” high schools.

She openly acknowledges that small schools were a failure (as does PPS, at least as implied by the proposed high school redesign). The latest trend being pushed by Gates — not to mention the Obama administration — is merit pay. Only we can’t call it that. “This has been the third rail,” Philips told Willamette Week‘s Beth Slovic.

Instead, much as fundamentalists have re-clothed creationism as “intelligent design,” Philips and other merit-pay proponents dress up their union-busting with terms like “performance” and talk about ways of measuring it, like videotaping teachers, sampling student work and surveying students.

According to Oregonian education blogger Betsy Hammond, Gates “will award millions to several pioneering urban districts that agree to hire, place, train and pay teachers differently…..”

So while bargaining team members from the teachers’ union report intransigence on the part of the school district in resolving their contract dispute, while a second generation of middle graders begins a middle school career in contained classrooms, and while parents report no homework due to a paper shortage even as the district auctions “surplus” paper, our superintendent and at least ten administrators spent last week taking tips from the very person responsible for a great deal of the morass our district faces today.

Portland Public Schools spends $35,000 a year in dues to the CGCS, and it spent at least $1,750 on conference fees (the superintendent and board members attend at no additional fee), not to mention the much greater cost of 11 person-weeks spent away from the district’s business of (ahem) educating our children. On Facebook, a senior PPS administrator defended attendance at the conference as a “relative bargain.”

But what’s the value to our students in sending so many senior administrators to a week-long conference (at a luxury hotel) touting the latest corporate foundation-driven trends in urban education? Under Carole Smith, our district has taken a welcome turn away from trend-hopping, instead proposing a bold, homegrown vision for our high schools, firmly repudiating the bad Gates medicine we swallowed under Philips.

Why should we blow good money to listen to Philips now?

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Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.

filed under: High Schools, K-8 Transistion, Labor Relations, Media, Middle Schools, National, Small Schools

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8 Responses

  1. Comment from Steve Buel:

    If we pay teachers for “performing” better then we need to pay teacher’s less for “performing” worse. Does this mean that we are satisfied with an overall performance of average when all our teachers’ performances are added together? If so, we need to hire more poor teachers since all of the administration and school board members would say that our teachers are in general very good. The opposite is saying they are mediocre or poor on the average. If we asked any of them in public, what do you think they would say?

    Since PPS is not going to purposely hire poor teachers, then pay for performance has to cost extra money or we have to give only certain teachers raises. If it costs extra money then the money could be better spent adding offerings, activities, more librarians, counselors, arts, activities in the middle grades etc. Unless, my 42 years of experience in schools is all wrong, teachers won’t do any better if they are paid more so giving some teachers more will have no real impact (on real learning).

    However, if it means cutting the pay of some teachers (the other alternative) the administrators and board members need to state this right up front. “Listen, some of you teachers who are working 10 and 12 hour days are still doing a horrible job. We are not sure why, maybe you are just dumb, or maybe you aren’t paying enough attention to inservices which we give you to make you better. Who knows? But anyway we are cutting your pay and giving it to those teachers who are doing … exactly what we want … or getting better test scores cause they are teaching more directly to the test or rigging their own classes to show unimportant gains and calling them important … or not causing trouble (oops, we didn’t mean that)…or they are in a subject which is easier to demonstrate gains. Whatever,tough sh##”

    Now that’s education we could all get behind and not too far removed from the other wonderful ideas that Vicki brought us — the destruction of Benson High School, a messed up unfair transfer system which depleted offerings in neighborhood high schools, and the costly, undereducating

  2. Comment from Miss Merry Sunshine:

    MERIT PAY==== BROWN-NOSE PAY! Kiss up, put up, do what you’re told to, keep your lips zipped, and be ALL THAT THE ADMINISTRATION THINKS YOU SHOULD BE!!! Yup, merit pay is really going to be great for teacher collaboration! In my building, if it were up to merit pay???? I’d have been making minimum wage years ago, left to the devices of some staff and our “stellar” administration, hahahaha!

    Uh….and how on earth do you give merit pay to those who teach special populations? Perhaps I should open up a stem cell lab for application in my classroom, so that I may reverse congenital disabilities so that my students could meet benchmarks???

    Yup, just lower all teacher pay to minimum wage (and make that FEDERAL min. wage). Pay current salaries to the kiss-ups in each building, and we WILL FIX EVERY EDUCATION ILL!!!!! YEEEHA!!!! BINGO, I HAVE THE ANSWER!!!

  3. Comment from marcia:

    Bill Gates should keep his mental disabilities to himself and out of the public schools. Wow! AND So sorry I missed Vicki’s visit. I would have had the opportunity to thank her for the K-8 mess she dumped in our laps.

  4. Comment from Ken:

    I wonder which seminars the PPS employees attended.
    Please, please, please, oh district employees, please tell me you didn’t absorb the “wisdom” of these presentations:
    •National standards: What’s the status and next steps for Urban schools
    • Broad Prize finalists: How Have They Done it?
    • Successful Teacher incentive and Pay for Performance Programs in Urban Schools

    But I’d give major kudos to anyone attending this panel:
    Improving Achievement and Closing the Achievement Gap in Academic Writing: The Story of Portland’s Grant High School
    -Linda Christensen

    It’s sad to see education writers duped into believing the words of Vicki/Gates; framing the $500 million the Gates Foundation will spend on teachers as “pioneering,” as Betsy does in her article, is head-shaking. Money talks – and education reporters, like most other journalists, are more or less lap dogs for the big foundations.

    Maybe Bill can call up his billionaire pal Eli Broad – Eli paid for some really bogus merit-pay research conducted by Oregon’s very own market fundamentalists at the Cascade Policy Institute.

    For those interested in Mr. Gates and his foundation’s history, there’s a new website dedicated to the foundation’s foray into reforming public education. It’s not fully operational yet, but it will be soon. Check it out at:


  5. Comment from marcia:

    Betsy Hammond really believes what she writes? I am always amazed….

  6. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    I don’t think Betsy Hammond is paid to think about what she writes, so it’s probably not fair to single her out.

    The Oregonian has six full-time ed. reporters (at last count), one (Kim Melton) dedicated to PPS, and two (Betsy Hammond and Bill Graves) who write about local, state and national ed. issues.

    They and their predecessors have, over the two decades I’ve lived in Portland, completely missed the story of how market-oriented “reforms,” funded by corporate foundations, in combination with radical revenue cuts, have led to the re-segregation of our public schools, even as our neighborhoods re-integrate and gentrify.

    They’ve also completely missed the story of how the Portland Schools Foundation has given cover to allow wealthy, white Portlanders to privately fund their public schools, while the rest of us fight over crumbs.

    It’s rare to see anything critical about the corporate or governmental status quo in the pages of the O, especially if it smacks of populism. It is this kind of lazy, cozy elitism that is the downfall of papers like the Oregonian, not their failure to adapt to new media (though they suck at that, too).

  7. Comment from Zarwen:

    Steve, don’t you get it??? I thought everyone knew—the O doesn’t criticize those people because it is in bed with those people! But you are right about the effect on subscriptions; I cancelled mine a year ago.

  8. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    Zarwen, most people probably don’t realize you’re speaking literally when you say “in bed with those people.” (Not to mention, in bed — and hot tubs — with each other.)