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Teacher salary system decried

Analysis urges focus on gains by Hub students

KEY QUESTION Paul S. Grogan, the Boston Foundation’s president, questioned whether the current system is in the best interest of the students. KEY QUESTION
Paul S. Grogan, the Boston Foundation’s president, questioned whether the current system is in the best interest of the students.
By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / January 18, 2011

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As Boston delves into contentious negotiations with its teachers union, the Boston Foundation yesterday released an analysis critical of the longstanding system of boosting teacher pay for longevity and coursework, instead of for bettering the academic performance of students.

The analysis instantly angered officials of the teachers union and emboldened School Department leaders, who are negotiating during a tight budget crunch and a national debate over teacher accountability.

The analysis, prepared by the Boston Municipal Research Bureau for the Boston Foundation, points out that in addition to annual wage increases, teachers receive raises for staying in their jobs, and for taking higher education courses. The document highlighted the fact that some newer teachers can receive a 44 percent increase over four years because of annual wage increases and longevity, or “step’’ raises, according to the report. If those same teachers also earned a master’s degree in that time, the raise would be 48.2 percent, to $74,196.

“The current contract is a 250-page relic,’’ said Paul S. Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation. The foundation leads a coalition that is pushing for stricter teacher evaluations tied to pay and longer school days, among other changes, as part of a new school contract. “The question now is whether this system, so costly and so disconnected from student performance, is in the best interests of the community,’’ he said.

The analysis was released as Boston and its 7,000-member teachers’ union are in the early stages of negotiating a new contract to replace one that expired in August. The city is facing one of the bleakest financial forecasts in recent memory — the School Department is projecting a $63 million budget shortfall for the next school year — and pressure is mounting on the union to restructure the compensation package teachers receive.

Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said he has not seen the Boston Foundation analysis but called the conclusions an attack on hard-working, dedicated teachers, the vast majority of whom, he said, work far more hours than the normal school day. He said significant wage bumps for newer teachers are in place to attract and retain talented people.

“They picked the worst-case scenario so they could prove their point,’’ Stutman said. “The vast bulk of people don’t make anywhere near those increases.’’

He said the union is willing to tie the pay of teams of teachers to student performance but does not support tying the pay of individual teachers to student performance, in part because many teachers are often responsible for a single student’s learning and test scores.

“There hasn’t yet been a study that payment of individual teachers is a recipe of success in schools,’’ Stutman said. “We don’t object to rewarding schools or teams of folks.’’

The report highlights the 5 to 6 percent raises new teachers receive each year for the first nine years they teach — in addition to negotiated annual wage increases. After nine years, teachers stop receiving annual increases, but receive “career award’’ raises from $1,250 to $5,050 every five years. Teachers also received a 14 percent wage increase over the life of the last four-year contract.

The report also examines the pay bumps teachers receive for graduate studies or degrees — and makes the point that teachers get the raises whether or not the coursework is related to the teachers’ jobs. Step raises, career awards, and education bonuses account for about $20 million in the School Department’s fiscal 2011 budget. Boston teachers make an average of $71,830, higher than the pay in eight surrounding cities and towns, according to the report.

Boston School Superintendent Carol R. Johnson wants to tie step raises to teacher evaluations in the new contract, allowing only those teachers who receive a “satisfactory’’ evaluation, or higher, to receive the raises.

“The system rewards how long you stay and if you take additional credits, and those additional credits don’t have to be related to what you are teaching,’’ Johnson said. “Experience matters, but research suggests the problem is you can’t use experience as the only measure of success.’’

In many ways, the Boston Foundation analysis highlights a chasm between old and new educational philosophy that many school districts are struggling with. Generations ago, teacher experience was considered one of the best measure of an individual’s worth, and teacher contracts included step increases for years of service — there is even mention of them in an 1895 Boston school contract.

In the mid-20th century, continuing education was added as a consideration, and contracts in Boston and elsewhere began also giving financial incentives for higher learning.

Today, while teacher experience and education levels are still held in high regard, student performance is also viewed as an indicator of teacher ability. But unions have balked at tying teacher pay to evaluations, in part because some union members fear subjective reviews, ageism, and use of the evaluation process to drive out teachers.

Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, said the analysis comes at pivotal time for the school system.

“One of the big issues is how to restructure existing resources so it has more of an impact on student performance,’’ he said.

Beth Daley can be reached at bdaley@globe.com.