(submitted in response to the June 26, 1999 Plain Dealer editorial on Orange and Solon's proficiency bonuses "Earning Praises")
June 28, 1999
In the June 26 editorial “Earning Praises,” you state that the Orange and Solon schools’ decisions to give teachers merit pay for meeting 17 of the state’s 18 proficiency standards is “common sense” since “Those who produce more, deserve more” and such programs “reward achievement and encourage cooperation.” However, whom should we reward? The teachers, the students whose “proficiency” is actually being tested, or the communities that invest in education?
While I do not doubt that the teachers of these two districts are hard-working and deserve pay increases, I do not agree with the underlying assumption that districts that are not performing well must be in that situation because their teachers are less productive. An examination of the Ohio Department of Education’s 1999 School District Report Card Data for Analysis (available at http://www.ode.ohio.gov/www/reptcard/extract_rc.html) shows that there may be several other factors at work. While Solon and Orange rate among the top five districts in the county (and top 15 in the state) in performance standards met, they have among the fewest pupils per teacher (Orange 15.9, Solon 18.5, State Avg. 20.4), lowest percentage of economically disadvantaged students (Orange 0.5%, Solon 0.6%, State Avg. 15%), highest local revenue per pupil (Orange $10,037, Solon $7,311, State Avg. $3,188), highest median income (Orange $45,251, Solon $34,993, State Avg. $24,431).
Indeed, if you look at the six districts in the county that met six standards or less (Garfield Hts. 6, Maple Hts. 6, Warrensville Hts. 5, Euclid 3, East Cleveland 2, and Cleveland 0) money, or more accurately the lack of it, plays a key role in their poor showings. These districts are also at the bottom of the list in average pupils per teacher (Cleveland 22.4, Maple Hts. 21.7, Garfield Hts. 20.9), percentage of economically disadvantaged students (Cleveland 64.3%, East Cleveland 52,1%, Warrensville Hts. 26.6%), local revenue per pupil (East Cleveland $1,965, Cleveland $3,004, Maple Hts. $3,009), and median income (East Cleveland $18,136, Cleveland $19,102, Warrensville Hts. $23,503).
In addition, Orange and Solon have the highest percentages of students taking college level Advanced Placement (AP) exams in the county (Orange 67%, Solon 40.7%, State Avg. 8.5%) and rank seventh and ninth respectively in the state. These exams, however, cost $75 each to take and students with acute financial need can only qualify for a $29 fee reduction and must still pay $46 per exam. Not surprisingly, poorer systems have small numbers of students taking these challenging exams (Warrensville Hts. 0%, East Cleveland 2.1%, Cleveland 2.4%). In Jay Mathews’ ranking of the nation’s top 100 high schools in the March 30, 1998 Newsweek, the availability of AP courses to all students was the major criterion which resulted in Orange placing 29th and Solon 64th.
The subhead claims “putting a bounty on districts’ academic progress is an idea well worth refining.” But turning teachers into bounty hunters hardly encourages cooperation. As you rightly pointed out, the Solon bonus plan shuts out one third of all teachers because the district unfairly considers them to be uninvolved in proficiency testing despite the fact that attendance and graduation rates are two of the eighteen state standards. Until effective ways of dealing with the issues of poverty, class size, and economic inequality are adequately refined, the real obstacles to academic progress in our schools will never be overcome.