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California

Larry Sand
Contract on California
How useless “professional-development” classes for teachers cost taxpayers billions
23 September 2011

With California reeling fiscally and education eating up about half of its budget, the state’s taxpayers are being hoodwinked to the tune of billions of dollars by an outrageous contractual perk that pays teachers to take useless classes, ostensibly with the aim of improving their classroom work. The “Teacher Quality Roadmap,” a report from the National Council on Teacher Quality on how to improve teacher performance in the Los Angeles Unified School District, concluded that it is past time to phase out the system of compensating teachers for such courses; a better approach would be to pay higher salaries to teachers who “consistently produce the greatest learning gains.”

Teacher pay in California has a seniority component, called “steps,” and a coursework component. In Los Angeles Unified, if a teacher can manage not to die over the summer and show up in the fall, she’s entitled to a raise. It’s hardly a meritocratic basis for raising pay. The coursework component appears more reasonable at first glance. Common wisdom has it that if teachers take “professional-development” courses in their field, they will become more proficient at their craft. With the rare exception, however, that’s not true.

As the roadmap states, while a handful of studies “have shown a correlation between a teacher’s degree status and student achievement,” it exists only when teachers complete a degree in the subject they teach. Even that correlation is pretty slight: “Out of 102 statistical tests examined,” the report notes, “approximately 90 percent showed that advanced degrees had either no impact at all or, in some cases, a negative impact on student achievement.” And teachers without advanced degrees who simply take extra coursework in their areas of specialty prove no more effective in the classroom than those who don’t.

Not only is L.A. Unified’s policy at odds with the research, it practically invites teachers to game the system. According to the district contract with the United Teachers of Los Angeles, coursework, to qualify as professional development, must be “directly related to subjects commonly taught in the District.” (Emphasis added.) So a kindergarten teacher can take “Northern and Southern Economies on the Eve of the Civil War,” say, and receive what is euphemistically called “salary-point credit” for it. Or an American history teacher could take a class in identifying different kinds of plankton and also get a bump in pay. Taxpayers pay out a whopping $519 million a year in extra salary payments to teachers who take such courses.

In Los Angeles, teachers receive a pay increase averaging $800 per year for their first nine years on the job. At that point, the only way for them to earn more money is by taking salary-point classes. So an unambitious teacher—call him “Laid-back Louie”—whose beginning salary is $45,637, and who takes no extra classes, would be making $52,406 beginning in year ten. That will be his annual salary from that point on, no matter how long he teaches. But if a more enterprising teacher—call her “Aggressive Annie”—takes the maximum allowable salary-point classes, but couldn’t be bothered with obtaining a master’s degree, she would make $72,592 starting in her tenth year—just over $20,000 more per year than her laid-back counterpart—simply for taking these courses, regardless of her in-classroom performance. She may or may not be a better teacher than Louie. Additionally, because Annie has taken all of the allowable classes, she is entitled to various other “bonuses” the longer she teaches.

This is unfair to the public. Worse, the teachers’ unions also make out, because union dues are typically based on average teacher salary. And of course the providers of the professional-development classes are also quite happy with the arrangement. Taxpayers foot the bill for all of it.

The injustice doesn’t end there. Add to the taxpayers’ bill the higher teachers’ pensions that the extra salary points generate. If Louie begins his teaching career at age 22, teaches for 35 years, and retires at 57, his yearly pension is $40,428. Much further up the salary scale, however, Annie is pulling down $59,184 yearly in retirement. If both live to be 82, Annie will have accumulated a total of $468,900 more than Louie in pension payments. When she adds that to the greater salary that she made for her salary-point classes, she will have brought in about $1 million more than Louie over a lifetime. At present, Los Angeles Unified employs more than 33,000 teachers, many of them Annies.

Various special-interest groups are looting the once-Golden State, leaving taxpayers in ever-increasing debt. One way to help reverse this trend would be to pass legislation that ends the “salary-point” scheme and replaces it with a pay-for-performance system, whereby the state’s most effective teachers would be rewarded with higher salaries. That’s the kind of “professional development” beleaguered Californians would heartily embrace.

Larry Sand, a retired teacher, is president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network.

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