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CMS' time- and money-wasting teacher pay plan

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The "performance pay" plan may be the worst idea yet from CMS Supt. Peter Gorman. You'd never convince him of that, as he seems determined to push the plan through. After all, it's the kind of big-picture educational strategy that gets school superintendents noticed by national education groups, and Gorman seems to be especially awards-conscious. We know this because he took a full dozen people with him in October to pick up an award for CMS in New York City. The money came from a special fund from the C.D. Spangler Foundation, which at least left tax money unspent for the trip. At the time, however, we wrote that the big, self-gratifying group trip "[came] across as the latest example of CMS management's odd tone-deafness, its lack of connection with students' and parents' wishes and fears." That tone-deafness is once again front and center in Gorman's performance pay plan, or what we'll call the PPP.

The plan, which could be implemented over the next three or so years, with the first batch of teacher guinea pigs due for experimentation this fall, would link teacher pay to student achievement. Like many plans and ideas, this one sounds good at first, but its promise fades quickly upon closer examination. In fact, a few things about the PPP beg the question why Gorman & Co. are still gung-ho and planning to go forward with it.

Item 1: As we all know, CMS has immense budget problems, and is laying off teachers and teacher assistants left and right.

Item 2: A strong general consensus has developed nationwide that kids are being made to take too many officially mandated tests.

Item 3: The federal grant that helps pay for introducing PPP requires CMS to come up with $2.9 million, in a year when our schools are expecting around $100 million in budget cuts. According to an Observer story by Ann Doss Helms, "CMS is spending more than $300,000 a year in county money — the equivalent of about six teacher salaries — to pay administrators overseeing performance pay." That's on top of the $300,000 per year it will cost to administer 52 — count 'em, 52 — new tests.

And finally, Item 4: A scientific Vanderbilt University study of performance pay in Nashville public schools found that after three years, there was no significant difference in student performance.

But to hell with the most authoritative study of PPP to date showing poor results. CMS wants to go ahead with the plan. So Gorman & Co. find themselves in the absurd position of laying off teachers while spending millions of dollars to change the way it pays the teachers they have left. I guess this sounds like reasonable thinking to the CMS administrators downtown. To this writer, however, CMS' decision to follow up on Nashville's failed experiment by doing exactly the same thing and then hyping the PPP in the usual breathless, excited tones is, to put it mildly, pretty odd. It brings to mind something I used to hear rural folks in my hometown say about people who put on a brave face during bad times: "They're sucking hind tit, and they're proud of it."

Speaking of being proud, the daily paper's story reported that Gorman — now get this — "notes proudly that when the new tests debut, CMS will apparently lead the nation's largest districts in testing." See what I mean by tone-deaf and lacking real connection with students and parents?

Now I know the PPP experiment at CMS isn't going to be canceled. All the pieces have been bought and are being moved around the chessboard as we speak. As we've written before, just try stopping a big government project once the plans are in place, particularly if the project's paid staff has already been hired.

The only bright spot in this drama is that, eventually, the majority of participating teachers will have to approve of the PPP changes before the state will allow the plan to be fully implemented. In the meantime, though, teachers are being laid off, essentially to free up money to study a project that is already a proven failure elsewhere.

The school board should tell Supt. Gorman to ditch the performance pay plan. It's being introduced at the wrong time, it costs too much, particularly in these budget-slashing days, and there's very good evidence that it won't work anyway. In plain language, the whole thing is nuts, and makes you wonder why the suits downtown can't see it.

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