Sunday, November 29, 2020

Hinsdale teachers say D86 board is negotiating badly


Ahead of an Aug 4 school board meeting at Hinsdale South High School in Darien, Ill., accusations are flying between the District 86 board and teachers’ union as they try to hammer out a new contract, the Chicago Sun-Times reports.

The latest volley into the longstanding battle comes from the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association. It concerns the health insurance offer from the board, which would require teachers to pay more for health insurance than the board’s previous offer would have, according to HHSTA. “It’s regressive bargaining,” HHSTA President John Bowman said in a prepared statement. “We are moving towards them and they are moving away from us.”

The two sides remain split over salaries and healthcare benefits. But actual numbers are difficult to confirm, and we will not report them here (latest board offer).

The mood seems contentious and nasty. Before the dispute over the board’s alleged backwards negotiation, the union accused the district of sending out a mailer, using public money, that served mainly to advance the school district’s side in the negotiations, the Chicago Tribune reported.

The district refused to disclose how much the mailer cost, and there was no report of news media requesting financial records. Superintendent Bruce Law also refused to comment on the mailer, which came from Richard Skoda and Ed Corcoran, who serve on the board. The Tribune reported that the mailer made three assertions:

  1. Teachers should pay more toward health insurance
  2. Future salary increases should be tied to student achievement
  3. Teachers are already well paid compared with many other districts (30%, the mailer said, make more than $125,000 a year)

It’s difficult to argue with an opinion, which is what the first assertion is. How much teachers contribute to health insurance is a question of the number and the number only. I don’t think either side thinks it should be nothing, and neither side is likely to think it should be an exorbitant burden. Making it comparable with similarly situated high school districts would be a start.

Basing future salary increases on student achievement

District 86 students perform very well on national measures:

  • 96% of graduates attend a 2- or 4-year college
  • Average ACT composite score of 25.1 (statewide average 20.6)
  • 84% of students who take Advanced Placement tests pass them (national average about 60%)

It’s therefore logical to assume they won’t get much better in the future. In other words, if you’re at the bottom, the only way to go is up, but if you’re near the top, you’ll most likely go down.

This is the first reason it wouldn’t be a good idea to tie teachers’ salaries to student achievement at schools like Hinsdale Central and Hinsdale South: Teachers would likely never get a raise, and increases in the cost of living alone would force them to move on and destabilize the teaching staff at the two high-end high schools. A possible solution is to look for not “growth” but straight achievement at these schools, but doing that also carries a host of analysis problems.

For example, the questions of validity, fairness, and reliability of the tests used to assess student achievement come under a microscope. The ACT, for example, isn’t too bad, but like many tests, it’s a snapshot, not a narrative of student achievement. Reducing student achievement to snapshot assessments or other statistics detracts from the real gains students make during their high school years.

A group of professors and researchers in Massachusetts last year made several recommendations regarding teacher evaluations and merit-based salary increases. These included working with educators, parents, and the public to “craft a new assessment system that will more fully assess the many competencies our children need to succeed in the 21st century and that will avoid the current overreliance on standardized tests.”

Researchers there wanted to prohibit the use of standardized test scores in educator evaluations and in decisions for hiring, firing, laying off, or rewarding teachers. Instead, they would like schools to “focus teacher evaluations on the appropriate use of evidence-based teaching practices and a comprehensive set of indicators of classroom and school-based student learning rather than one-shot test scores.”

Furthermore, some research is now starting to suggest that tying teacher pay to student achievement is just so 2008. Today, we no longer doubt that teachers have an effect on students’ success and should be rewarded for it, but rather, we are starting to ask how we can better estimate these effects and how they should be used in policy and practice.

If the district uses the ACT or new tests from PARCC in math and English, for example, how will it fairly assess the effect a band teacher has on his or her students? Research out of Northwestern, Columbia, and Dartmouth says that while data sets on several measures of teacher effectiveness are being developed, little is known about how we should pay teachers in untested grades or in untested subjects. And anyway, why is it fair that some teachers should use standardized tests while others use different measures of student achievement?

Equally important is further work to better understand how measures of effective teaching should be used in policy and practice. What combination of teacher selection, mentoring and feedback, and pay for performance will be most successful? What specific features of these reforms and how they are implemented make the most difference? Over the next few years, state reforms of teacher evaluation policies will provide a rich laboratory for understanding how organizational design influences educational productivity.

These practical questions are currently far from being answered satisfactorily, but District 86 schools open for students on Aug 22. Negotiations can’t go on forever. I point out only that good research has discovered that one of the main reasons basing teacher salary on student achievement is not working is that we haven’t figured out how to validly and reliably measure student achievement.

The lack of a good connection right now between student achievement and teacher salary has resulted in ineffective policy decisions for teacher quality, recruitment, and retention, decisions that rely too much on test scores. Merit-based pay for teachers just doesn’t seem to work yet, mainly because of market pressures on teachers and the lack of validity and reliability in our student tests.

Teachers generally find merit-pay schemes objectionable because they see themselves as professionals, not merely employees. I object to them because standardized tests, as a snapshot, say more about the socioeconomic status of the students being tested than they do about teacher effectiveness. Also see a study published in the August edition of Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, which finds that “working memory performance was not affected by socioeconomic status, whereas IQ, phonological awareness, and sentence memory scores” in kindergarten—those things that manage to affect scores on standardized tests—differed as a function of SES.

Finally, education historian Diane Ravitch objects to merit-pay schemes because they encourage competition among teachers and “destroy the collaboration that is necessary for a healthy school climate” (see her book Reign of Error, p 116).

There’s still a lot of work to do before we can firmly plant the idea of basing teacher pay on student performance, and we would advise District 86 to reject Messrs Skoda and Corcoran’s second assertion, at least for now. Each community will have to balance these reforms in a way that suits its schools’ own students best, and by all accounts, Hinsdale’s students are doing great right now.


No threat of a strike

Teachers are not expected to strike, according to multiple news sources and the district’s website. There is some history for working without a contract in District 86, as it happened in 2006 and in 2012.

Hinsdale is an innovative community

July 16 … One Hinsdale, Ill., neighborhood contains curb cuts that allow storm water to drain easily into rain gardens and bioswales. With dense vegetation, absorbent soils, and underground storage capacity, these installations help treat the storm water and prevent flooding of homes and streets. (Center for Neighborhood Technology via Flickr)

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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