Two weeks ago, during the final presidential debate, Barack Obama made Bill Sizemore very happy.
And all he did was utter three simple words: "pay for performance."
"That's at least a $50,000 to $100,000 ad for my measure," Sizemore says he told his wife, Cindy, as they watched the Oct. 15 debate from their Klamath Falls home.
Sizemore's "measure" is Measure 60, also known as the "merit pay" for teachers initiative, which Sizemore says will raise the salaries of effective teachers.
But to teachers' unions and their supporters, merit pay is a "distraction." They call it an "attack" on all teachers, saying it's "not good for kids." What's more, they contend it's a back-door assault on the financial well-being of the state's public schools.
It's so distasteful, in fact, a coalition of union-backed forces, parent groups and school board associations called Defend Oregon has raised $10 million to defeat all five of Sizemore's measures, plus two others. Close to $3 million has been spent just on TV and radio ads aimed at striking down the merit pay initiative, which failed in 2000 when Sizemore last put it on the ballot.
This time, however, the measure's underlying message appears to have a new supporter.
"[Obama] is a liberal Democrat, endorsed by teachers' unions, and he still recognizes what we're doing doesn't make sense," Sizemore says.
Yet in Portland, even mentioning merit pay in contract negotiations with teachers would be the equivalent of putting "picket signs" in educators' hands, according to Portland School Board member Sonja Henning.
As the board's only member to voice support for Measure 60, Henning is in a lonely position.
If Sizemore is Public Enemy No. 1 of the Oregon Education Association, the state's most powerful union for teachers, Henning's public position on merit pay has probably earned her spot No. 2.
Putting effective teachers in front of students is the most important task facing Oregon's public schools, Henning says, and it's hard to disagree. Merit pay, as evidenced by Obama's support, may be an issue worth discussing. But the debate over Measure 60 hasn't been a debate over merit pay. It's been a debate about Sizemore. If it were, instead, about rewarding good teachers?
"That would be a conversation worth having," says David Wynde, another member of Portland Public Schools' board.
Rebecca Levison, 38, evokes the keen compassion of an elementary-school teacher and the steely grit of a union president.
For eight years, Levison led fifth- and sixth-grade classes and taught English as a second language at North Portland's Clarendon Elementary School, then Clarendon-Portsmouth K-8. A former community college instructor, she's been a teacher for 14 years.
In February 2008, Levison was elected in a landslide to be the new president of the Portland Association of Teachers union, representing 3,000 Portland teachers and guidance counselors.
Unsurprisingly, she's a Democrat who supports Obama.
Yet she chafes when asked about Obama's support for merit pay. "I obviously disagree with Barack Obama on that," she says.
Her opposition to Sizemore's merit pay measure is even stronger.
She calls Henning's public support of Measure 60 "disrespectful" to teachers. "I thought that was out of right field," she says.
Levison does support paying all teachers more, but says, "I want to talk about what teachers are paid, not how they are paid."
The way she sees it, the current system for compensating and evaluating teachers works just fine.
As it stands now, teachers in each of Oregon's 197 school districts, including six separate ones in Portland alone, negotiate salaries in collective bargaining with their individual school boards every few years.
Because all of those negotiations occur separately, no two teacher contracts are exactly alike. Roughly speaking, however, teachers' salaries in Oregon are dependent on their years of service and educational attainment. A teacher with 10 years of experience makes more than a first-year teacher. But a first-year teacher with a master's degree may make more than a teacher with more years of experience and only a bachelor's degree.
The problem, at least from the perspective of Sizemore and Obama, two public figures whose names are not normally mentioned together, is that teachers currently cannot be paid more simply because they are "better" than their peers, as is the case in many other professions.
Sizemore's measure would abolish the practice of basing teachers' salaries and pay raises on their years of service. It would instead tie teachers' compensation to their "classroom performance," a term he intentionally left undefined. It would also prohibit seniority from entering the equation in times of teacher layoffs, and would put a stop to automatic cost-of-living increases.
Obama's plan differs substantially from Sizemore's in that it makes merit pay a voluntary program for school districts that seek additional funding from the federal government. On the campaign trail, Obama often talks about the Denver public school system, which gives extra pay to teachers in hard-to-serve and hard-to-staff areas as well as teachers whose students demonstrate measurable academic growth. Unlike Sizemore's measure, Denver's merit pay program does not prohibit annual, across-the-board cost-of-living increases.
Barack Obama talks about education reform on the campaign trail:
But both ideas share the same seductive sentiment. Effective teachers should make more money. And sometimes those teachers aren't necessarily the ones with more years of experience or advanced degrees.
And while Sizemore's far-right agenda and his personal legal problems make him one of the more controversial political figures in Oregon, the issue of merit pay still has some currency. Obama's support for the concept doesn't hurt.
Levison's reasons for opposing merit pay range from the philosophical, like the fear the measure would promote competition among teachers, to the specific, such as the concern that only teachers with high-achieving students will get raises (because those students test well). In the meantime, she says, all students would be made to suffer because they would all be forced to take more tests, a burden that already seems too heavy under President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act.
"Children are tested enough," Levison says. "They're tested at kindergarten. Have you ever seen a kindergartner grasp a little mouse on the computer to try to take a standardized test? It's ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous. It's just another idea that looks good on a bumper sticker but has very little depth."
Yet nowhere in Measure 60 will voters find the word "test." Even Sizemore now knows such a notion is simply too toxic, and he doesn't have to look far for the evidence. His merit pay initiative in 2000 linked teachers' salaries directly to their students' test scores, and voters overwhelmingly rejected it by a margin of almost 2-to-1.
Most Oregonians clearly do not want a public school system that gives additional money only to educators whose students score well on high-stakes exams. They don't want educators who "teach to the test."
More testing is not the answer, education experts in the state also argue.
But it doesn't have to be under Measure 60.
There are any number of ways school districts could gauge the effectiveness of teachers—from subjective evaluations by principals or committees of teachers or parents to objective measures that determine students' academic improvements over time.
It's done in higher education in Oregon.
And St. Mary's Academy in Portland has experimented twice with merit pay, but abandoned it both times, says Rose Bontemps, the private girls' school's finance director. "We felt it changed the atmosphere," she adds.
Neither Catlin Gabel School nor Central Catholic High, two other private, college-preparatory schools, gives administrators discretion to pay teachers more based on performance.
The unknown appears too scary for some to contemplate.
"These are children, not widgets," Levison says.
Spend a day in Scott Moyer's classroom and you're likely to come to the conclusion he deserves some sort of merit, if not combat, pay.
A first-year math teacher at David Douglas High School, the state's largest, Moyer, 24, has one of the toughest education gigs in all of Portland. Yet he is near the bottom of his school district's pay scale.
A 2007 graduate of Lewis & Clark College with a bachelor's degree in biology and a 2008 graduate of Concordia University with a master's in teaching, Moyer currently earns about $41,000 a year.
In Southeast Portland's David Douglas School District, 63 languages are represented among the students. Nearly seven in 10 qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
And in the quick calculus of educators, that means trouble.
Moyer, who is goofy and energetic and could pass for a high-school student were it not for his button-down shirt and tie, teaches algebra and geometry to ninth- through 12th-graders. Yet he acknowledges that on any given day teaching his students the sum of interior angles of a regular pentagon isn't his top priority. His goals aren't easily measured by tests, either.
"My students aren't all going to be mathematicians one day, but they're all going to be people," he says. "I want them to leave my room feeling more comfortable in their environment, in their school and their community.… Sometimes math isn't my top goal."
Just six months before the start of school this September, some of his students were living in international refugee camps with no running water or electricity. About 40 percent of his students are—like sisters Me Me Aye and Me Me Win, refugees from Thailand (see "Second Life," WW, July 16, 2008)—still learning English even as they're expected to learn the difference between complementary and supplementary angles.
At 9:30 am on a recent Thursday, about a dozen students shuffled into Room 114 at David Douglas High. As Moyer bounded to the front of the classroom, he carried a cheat sheet, a piece of white computer paper with the word "hello" written phonetically in the various languages spoken by his students.
Eight days before the start of school this fall, he learned he'd be responsible for crafting a brand new curriculum for these students.
But Moyer is making his way. He was hired, he says, not just because he's certified in two high-demand areas (science and math) but because of his "people skills" and his ability to relate to teenagers.
He didn't ask to be given one of the toughest assignments at David Douglas. It was given to him. And though he's not so naive as to think he landed a coveted spot at the school (working with a school's most challenging students is often the reverse), he's also glad he got the gig.
As two teenage girls at the back of his class continue to chat after the opening bell rings, Moyer walks toward them and interrupts. It's a crucial moment and one that seems on the verge of backfiring when Moyer asks the girls an odd question: "Are you two in a street gang?" The girls look puzzled.
"Because I saw the way you two were attacking those numbers the other day," he says, earning smiles (and quiet) in response.
Moyer, one of 38 first-year teachers out of 695 in the David Douglas School District, supports the notion of merit pay, even though he's only two months into his teaching career. He can hardly guess the effectiveness of his methods. But he doesn't support Measure 60.
"I feel like, in general, teachers are against it," says Moyer, a registered Republican who is leaning toward voting for Obama. "The idea behind it is great, just like the idea behind No Child Left Behind is great. It's the implementation that can't be rushed.... I can't see a quick, easy solution about how to do it fairly."
A part of him, the altruistic part, also recognizes that higher salaries are a cynical motivation. "Obviously, I wouldn't turn it down," says Moyer, who's originally from Roseburg. "But there's a part of me that enjoys teaching these kids."
Two days before Obama's last debate against Sen. John McCain (who also supports merit pay), another group of elected officials met to talk about the direction of Portland's public schools.
On Oct. 13, in an at times tense exchange, the Portland School Board gathered to discuss a joint resolution opposing Sizemore's Measure 60.
Only one of the seven members voiced dissent.
That member, Henning, has a reputation for taking positions rejected by her fellow board members. Under former superintendent Vicki Phillips, for example, Henning was the only member to vote against shifting federal anti-poverty dollars from the district's high schools to the lower grades.
"One of the things I respect about Sonja is that she knows what she thinks and is always willing to speak up for what she believes whether that's politically convenient," says David Wynde, who sits on the board with Henning.
Her support for Measure 60 put her in the unlikely company of Sizemore and in the crosshairs of one of the state's most powerful unions, the Oregon Education Association, whose opposition to Measure 60 is evidenced by the union's $5 million contribution to Defend Oregon, which is fighting several ballot measures. Sizemore, when told of Henning's support, said he was "shocked."
Measure 60 would do "something local districts cannot do, quite frankly," said Henning, a Stanford graduate who's been on both sides of the labor disputes as a former president of the Women's National Basketball Association players' union and a labor lawyer representing corporate management.
She dismissed the idea that the statewide measure would take away local control. "Actually, it does the opposite," said Henning, who now works as a marketing executive at Nike and has said she doesn't plan a second run for the School Board.
And she outright rejected the idea it would encourage teachers to compete in a bad way. "I don't believe it," she said.
Henning would not offer further comment on her support for Measure 60, and did not return several phone calls from WW.
But her passion was clear at the Oct. 13 meeting and so was her belief that school boards in Oregon could implement merit pay successfully.
"Nothing is more important than getting an effective teacher in front of students," Henning said. "[Measure 60] gives experts the opportunity to come up with solutions...and I'm confident enough smart people in a room can come up with criteria that are workable."
Sen. Barack Obama's support for merit pay initiatives is not new. In 2006, he introduced Senate Bill 2441, the "Innovation Districts for School Improvement Act."
Had it been approved, the bill would have allowed "differential pay" for high-performing teachers and those who work in certain schools or teach certain subjects.
It never made it out of committee. But its echoes reverberate on the campaign trail.
On May 28, 2008, in a speech in the Denver suburb of Thorton, Colo., Obama talked about pay for performance when he highlighted its role in Denver's public schools.
"I don't just want to talk about how great teachers are, I want to reward them for their greatness," Obama told an audience of teachers and students. "It's possible to find new ways to increase teacher pay with teachers, not to teachers, and that is the basic principle we have to embrace if we're going to think about compensation."
Denver's program, approved by voters in 2005, allows teachers to receive pay increases and rewards in a variety of ways—everything from taking hard-to-staff assignments to increasing students' standardized test scores.
Under the program, called the Professional Compensation System for Teachers, schools recognized as outstanding can offer additional pay incentives to teachers. Extra training serves as another route to a pay increase, as does getting a positive evaluation from a committee of teachers and administrators.
In Oregon, the only school districts that come close to offering merit pay are Sherwood, Tillamook and Forest Grove.
With the support of the Chalkboard Project, a statewide nonprofit group that advocates on behalf of K-12 education, the three districts are creating "alternative compensation models."
Sherwood's program, funded by a $1.3 million grant, is not a pure merit pay system, say administrators for the district.
"We're redefining merit pay," says Erin Prince, assistant superintendent. "There's not one perfect measure. You have to look at children's growth through multiple lenses."
The program is still being designed. But those lenses will probably include standardized tests as well as tests that gauge student progress over time.
The idea is that teachers should be able to move up Sherwood's pay scale faster, skipping steps on the salary schedule, by demonstrating merit, proven leadership or professional growth.
Sherwood, which is southwest of Tigard, has about 250 teachers and 4,500 students.
No cost estimate yet exists for how much money it will take to implement the Sherwood program. But Prince says an individual teacher stands to make an additional $45,000 to $50,000 in merit pay over the course of his or her career. —Beth Slovic
Willamette Week's editorial board
Portland Public Schools employs roughly 3,000 teachers. During the 2007-2008 school year, no teachers were let go because of poor performance.
Twelve teachers chose to resign in 2007-2008 instead of being let go, according to PPS.
Teacher salaries in Portland Public Schools range from $35,000 to $70,000 a year.
The state of Oregon contributes $3 billion, or about 70 percent of the money needed, to fund K-12 education, compared with 30 percent in 1990.
Oregon School districts spent 88 percent of their operating budgets on salaries and benefits in 2006, the latest statistics show.