Falcon's confusing merit-pay pitch underwhelms

Kevin Falcon’s proposal to introduce merit pay for teachers remains a mystery. That’s not a good thing in a leadership campaign.
In interviews this week, Falcon proposed a radical re-ordering of teachers’ compensation that would lead to huge battles with their union.
No more pay grid based on seniority with regular raises. “Teachers’ growth in income shouldn’t just be determined by how long they have been in a classroom, but by how well they are doing their job,” he said.
Hard to argue with in the abstract. My children had teachers who were brilliant, committed and devoted great amounts of extra time to helping students and they had some who were duds. It would be nice if their pay recognized their effectiveness.
And the idea is would appeal to the party’s right wing.
But it’s pointlessly impractical. There’s no way to measure teacher effectiveness currently in place in B.C. Any effort would involve huge costs, including much more testing.
It’s not a realistic goal in bargaining with the B.C. Teachers Federation, which is adamantly opposed. Going ahead would mean – once more – using legislation to rip up contracts the government has already agreed to.
And there is mixed evidence on whether merit pay actually improves educational outcomes for students.
All in, not a sound public policy proposal.
In a campaign press release, Falcon changed directions, proposing a “master teacher incentive program.” Better teachers – judged on a range of criteria, from test result improvements to peer reviews to parents’ reviews – would get extra pay.
They would be encouraged to share their skills and experience as mentors. The program could be extended to whole schools, Falcon said.
The model could be based on a proposal by Australia’s Labour government, he said.
That would be expensive. Australia proposes to pay almost 10 per cent of teachers an extra $8,000 a year in merit pay. The cost in B.C. would be about $25 million.
And Australia hasn’t actually done it, so there are no results to monitor.
But it’s a more sensible proposal than empty talk about a merit-pay plan with no chance of implementation or strong supporting evidence.
The whole process left Falcon looking like a less-than-serious candidate. No one should expect fully costed, studied proposals during a leadership race. Part of the point is to hear new ideas from the contenders.
But it’s reasonable to expect clarity about what the candidate is proposing, rather than two contradictory versions.
It would also have been welcome if Falcon had talked about a more modest, inclusive approach, rather than another provincewide edict from government.
Why not invite three school districts to submit merit pay plans, developed with teachers (and their union), principals, school board and school councils, fund them and see what worked?
All the candidates should be addressing some of the major education issues – dismal graduation rates for aboriginal students, the loss of students to private schools, the failure to improve student achievement (while acknowledging it is, compared to other jurisdictions, very good).
Falcon also got things wrong in his press release. “A high quality education system is the best anti-poverty initiative and the best health program government can advance,” he said.
Educational achievement is critical for creating opportunities for individuals and a strong province. Educated graduates are healthier and less likely to be poor.
But Falcon has it backward.
Reducing the number of poor kids in B.C. is the best educational and health program government can advance.
Children who grow up in poverty have lower educational achievement, worse lifetime health and lower incomes and are more likely to commit crimes. Those are facts.
Instead of expecting the school system to change all that, we need to hear a plan – so far missing after nine years of Liberal government – to reduce the number of children living in poverty in this rich province.
Footnote: George Abbott rejected, nicely, Falcon’s plan. He called for a broader focus on helping students in their first years in school. Christ Clark said the idea had merit, but wasn’t worth the conflict it would create. Mike de Jong said he needed more information before commenting.

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