Measure 60: Should we really run schools like a business?

By Jim Hiller of Beaverton, Oregon. Jim describes himself as "a left handed, progressive educator, with a panache for writing, reading, history and the movies!" Previously, he contributed "Bill Sizemore: Next time, talk to me first."

It’s popular among Republican circles to blabber that if schools operated more like businesses, then the schools would dramatically improve, or if not, shut down and everyone would be happy. Perhaps that’s the thought behind Oregon’s Measure 60, yet another one of Bill Sizemore’s wonderful ideas, funded by people who don’t even live in this state.

The intent of Measure 60 is to change the way that teachers are paid, from a seniority system, to one based totally on merit. How “merit” is decided is unclear, and apparently, the measure leaves it to the legislature or school boards to actually work out those pesky details (after all, it’s better to vote on something that’s not well-planned out, so people won’t attack it too much).

In fact, the measure seems to only talk about classroom teachers. What about the host of professionals that are not in the classroom? I worked as a Title I teacher, offering additional support to elementary students who were struggling in their subjects. How would I get paid? What about our school psychologist, who doesn’t actually teach? There are a host of professionals that work in a school (and I would be shocked to discover that Sizemore actually has set foot in a public school) that are not addressed by this measure.

Would the public support merit pay for other professionals? How about basing police salaries on the crime rate? If the crime rate goes up, their salaries go down. How about paying dentists based on the number of cavities their patients get? If a dentist is doing his job, then his patients wouldn’t have cavities, right? How about paying librarians for the number of books checked out?

I could debate the “merits” of merit pay (I’m sure no one has ever used that before), but that is not really what this measure is about. It’s basically yet another Sizemore attack on education that the faithful citizens of Oregon have to defend against, with their votes and their dollars. And that makes Sizemore giggle with glee! He’s for cutting government spending, but giggles when unions, charities, and senior citizens have to spend their hard earned money on advertising trying to defeat this ill-begotten idea.

But allow me to go back to my original point: Republicans would like schools to run like businesses. Okay, I’ll go for that. Let’s let schools run like businesses.

Let me see here. Since my school is now a business, I’ll consider myself the CEO of my classroom. Makes sense, right? I make all of the decisions for my classroom, and the kids learn as a direct result of my actions. Thus, I should get paid like a CEO, and use the process CEO’s use to figure out their salaries. Great!

So, I’ll go to the “Board of Directors” of my classroom to figure out how much moolah I can rake in. Since I’m the CEO, I probably had a hand in choosing some of the people sitting on this board. I’ve called up some of my closest teacher friends to sit on this board. They’ll understand what it’s like to be a CEO. For good measure, I’ll put a few parents from my classroom on this board too.

Then, the Board will have the responsibility to pick a “Compensation Specialist” to determine my salary. Of course, I’ll guide and advise the board on who to select, if not hand pick him or her. So, I’ll “recommend” my friend Julie, which the board gladly hires. Julie doesn’t bother to look at my teaching, or figure out if the students are learning (because there are so many factors that determine school success), but recommends that the Board grant me a salary of 12.8 million tax payer dollars (the current average of CEO salaries, according to Forbes). Sweet! Ka-ching! Nah, I didn’t think you’d go for it, and neither do I go for the fact that schools should be run like a business.

Sure, schools are in the business of education, but our products are people, and what a diverse product we have. The kids that walk through our doors come with a range of skills, abilities, talents and needs. Teachers are charged with providing excellent education to these souls. Not having to worry about how much they are going to get paid is the least we can do for them.

  • Joel H (unverified)

    Sizemore would do better to sink money into research into reliable testing of actual learning achievement and well roundedness, which isn't susceptible to "teaching to the test" -- as far as I know, there is at present no such thing.

  • joel dan walls (unverified)

    Well, this is purely anecdotal, but when I have pressed GOP friends and acquaintances who favor the merit-pay-for-teachers idea--when I ask, "how will you determine whether a teacher is doing a good job or not?"--they have all fallen back on something along the lines of looking at how kids perform on tests. Aside from the rather significant question of whether this is a meaningful or relevant standard, I have these reactions:

    (1) If we want teachers to "teach to the test" to the detriment of teaching critical-thinking skills, then the merit-pay idea is great. (2) What about children (like my own) whose diagnosed learning disabilities make it really hard for them to perform on timed tests?

  • jakestreet (unverified)

    Reading your little essay here, I'm struck with profound sadness that you are actually in the profession of teaching our youth. I am sure, however, that your peers display the same inability to construct a coherent, logical argument.

  • LT (unverified)


    How would you evaluate teachers? Straight test scores? Whatever the principal thinks of them?

    Or some organized plan like what is being tried in Denver or Toledo?

    If test scores, how are PE teachers, librarians, special ed teachers evaluated?

    Anyone who can't answer those questions can't claim to care about how schools actually run.

    For the record, I was a substitute in over 60 schools in 2 counties over a period of 15 years. Terms like "the public schools" drive me nuts because there isn't much all those schools have in common except a building, students, staff.

    And for the record, I subbed in a Catholic school and it had more in common with a few rural schools I subbed in (well run, tight knit community, ability to know all the kids as individuals) than the rural schools had in common with larger schools.

    There is an old story about a version of Survivor where business executives are each placed in a school classroom with a statistically average classroom (so many kids of varying abilities, so many kids on free/reduced lunch, so many children of single parents, at least one child whose parents don't speak much English at home, one or two mainstreamed special ed kids, for instance) for a week. The winner gets to go back to their business life with the relatively quiet office.

    Sizemore proved years ago (when a TV show allowed high school kids to ask him questions directly) that he hasn't actually sat in on classes in schools directly affected by budget cuts.

    Folks, if that was 1998 when that happened, those kids are voters now.

    Sizemore, it was recently reported, makes a 6 figure income from the Nevada "nonprofit" running ballot measures for a living.

    He has no more clue about education than he does about successfully finding real work in the real world. Why should we believe him if he told us it is raining outside, much less about anything serious?

  • Jim (unverified)

    In response to Jakestreet... you know you haven't made a good point until someone attacks you and your peers personally. Score one for me. :)

  • (Show?)

    Your original point and central argument is a fallacy.

    The point should be, "Should every person who receives their income from Oregon taxpayers be required to produce value for taxpayer investment? and "Should that value be measurable and actionable?"

    People who receive their compensation from the public have a duty to return quality work for that compensation, and there is no group of people who are "above measurement" from their funders.


    Sizemore will have free rein to keep putting this half-baked stuff out there, and voters will continue to be susceptible to buy-in right up until the time that individuals and organizations that derive their livelihood from the taxpayers, decide to police themselves rather than holding themselves to be above such accountability.

  • mp97303 (unverified)

    Just because something is hard to define does not mean you shouldn't try and define it. To all of the teachers: I bet you can name the 5 best and 5 worst teachers in your schools, can't you? Should the five best be paid more than the five worst? If not, why not?

  • Hank (unverified)

    The problem, mp97303, is that everyone's answer to your hypothetical question is probably different. Wanna bet my five is different from yours?

  • (Show?)

    The problem, mp97303, is that everyone's answer to your hypothetical question is probably different.

    Or perhaps the actual problem is that educators do not believe that any answer is in order at all.

  • (Show?)

    I'd like to see this comment thread move away from namecalling and to something productive.

    Of course we should reward hard-working and high-quality professionals. The question is: How do you figure out who those people are?

    Let's hear some proposals for how to determine quality teaching: Should we measure student achievement against some universal standard? Or should we measure improvements over time? Should there be standards that account for specific situations (ESL, learning disabilities, etc.)? Should it be done exclusively through standardized testing? Or some method that measures creativity, leadership, and life skills? Should peer review be part of any measurement system?

    And then let's dig into the real question: Once you've figured out who's good and who's not, what do you do? Do you invest in improving poor performers? Or do you fire them? Or move them into easier environments? Should you move good performers into tougher environments? How will you keep wealthier districts from poaching all the best teachers?

    Sure, we should work on improving schools. These are all fair questions. But I sure as hell don't trust Bill Sizemore to know the answers to all these questions -- or even to have thought about them.

  • joel dan walls (unverified)

    Pat Ryan sez: Or perhaps the actual problem is that educators do not believe that any answer is in order at all.

    Insinuations of this sort indicate that the person posting them actually has no argument to make. If this is the Pat Ryan who occasionally writes for Blue Oregon, jeez louise, what a huge disappointment.

    I'm still awaiting anyone telling me what constitutes a valid, fair measure of teachers' "effectiveness". And once again, as I indicated before, if you start flogging kids' performance on standardized tests as a valid measure, I'm going to call bullshit. Until such time as those "effectiveness" measures (which Sizemore of course couldn't care less about) are proposed and carefully scrutinized, I will regard Measure 60 as just one more bit of Grover Norquist-inspired, union-busting, wingnut ideological garbage from Sizemore's Racketeering Inc.

  • andy (unverified)

    It isn't really that hard to tell good teachers from bad. Anyone who has ever gone to school knows the difference and I'm sure that most people who work in a school would know the difference.

    The problem is the union mentality that fixed on senority for some reason rather than on merit. I'm not even sure where that concept came from but it is a very stupid way to hand out compensation. Seniority has very little to do with performance in any field. You don't see professionals in any field that get compensated based on seniority rather than merit.

    The fact that the teachers demand such a silly system is one reason why they are treated with such little respect. It is a primary reason why people don't want to provide anymore funding for schools. We all know it is a silly system of providing compensation so why should we send more money to people who are so incapable of making good decisions?

  • joeldanwalls (unverified)

    It isn't really that hard to tell good teachers from bad. Anyone who has ever gone to school knows the difference and I'm sure that most people who work in a school would know the difference.

    Well, that's sure precise. I'm sure that the "anyone who has ever gone to school knows" method will also hold up extremely well in court the first time a teacher gets demoted or fired.

    The problem is the union mentality that fixed on senority for some reason rather than on merit.

    Thanks for another indication that this teacher "effectiveness" rigamarole is another bit of union-busting garbage.

    There's a reason, and a damn good reason, that public employees, whether unionized (like school teachers) or not, have "civil service protections", broadly speaking: it's all about protecting people from arbitrary and capricious hiring practices, and to see public employment as being treated as political patronage.

    And no, I'm neither a teacher nor (sad to say) a union member.

  • joeldanwalls (unverified)

    Aargh! I meant "KEEP public employment from being treated as political patronage".

  • Jiang (unverified)

    They are run like business; that's why it's all shuck and jive and bonuses for non-performance.

    How about "Can we do anything without fraud being the overwhelming technique of choice"?

  • (Show?)

    it's all about protecting people from arbitrary and capricious hiring practices

    For example, the teacher that gets fired for disciplining the superintendent's kid -- or giving an F to the star football player.

  • PDX Lawyer (unverified)


    This really just ties into your post about labor the other day. Beyond the main purpose of Sizemore's mission in life, namely money, there are two main themes at work here. The main gists of this ballot measure are a) to force the teacher union into spending a ton of money fighting this rather than putting that money into campaigns of Obama and Democrats down-ticket; and b) to engage in even more union-trashing such that erstwhile progressive Oregonians begin to question the bona fides of unions in general and the teacher union in particular.

    If it actually passes, hey, great, not only do conservatives get to push forward some ideological red meat for their base, but, even then, still, the anti-progressive forces actually get to do a and b all over again. If it doesn't pass, maybe they pick up (or retain) a seat or two they should lose because the Dem didn't have enough money to spend to get their candidate over the hump. Then they push for the same initiative via legislation with added seats or block progressive legislation.

    The conservatives have gotten smart. More and more the initiative process is being used to not only push specious legislation, but to also force money that would go to Dems to be spent elsewhere. It is time for progressives to fight back and start flooding the ballot with progressive initiatives (I can think of at least one that would have big business in a tizzy and that would be some very strict regulations for insurance companies).

  • mp97303 (unverified)

    Do they still use the Iowa Test of Basic Skills assessment today? I know they did back in the 70-80's when I was in school. That test seemed like a reasonable skills test. Why don't we test all students on day one each year and then on the last day to see how they performed. That should certainly give some idea of how much was learned during the year.

    I don't know what has happened in education in the past 20 years, but it sure seemed to work well when I was there.

    Also, if you want to know who the best and worst teachers are in any school, try asking the members of NHS. They could easily tell you.

  • joe hill (unverified)

    It is useless on so many levels to deal with the "andys" and the "pat ryans" here. They exhibit what Thomas Aquinas, not normally one of my favorite guys, called "invincible ignorance."

    Their genre of post (sadly, it's an entire brand of deliberate know-nothingness now that encrusts the blogosphere with wearisome regularity whenever the subject of teacherdom is raised) demonstrates not only that they know nothing (e.g. no one is 'above measurement' and 'anyone who has gone to school knows the difference' between good teachers and bad etc. etc.) but also, and far more wretched, that they cling with religious ferocity to their ignorance. I'm betting that talismanic ignorance (or rather, to name it more exactly, the reflexive emotional refusal to recognize the earned expertise of others when it flies in the face of ones childlike belief in market structures and the efficacy of 'business' fetishism) will be the very last commodity pried out of their cold dead hands, as Charlton Heston used to say about something else that was dangerous too.

    After all, let's just admit it. All those graduate schools and big libraries at places like Harvard and Brown and well, you know, where the "elites" go to fill out their resumes, they are all just so much fancy wasted pseudo-intellectual gobbledygook factories, apparently. All those articles in the journals are wasted space. All those graduate degrees are simple fraud.

    You see, teaching, learning and education are all common sense really. Anyone who went to school can do it. Let's just measure the best ones and kick the other ones out and things will get better naturally.

    It just stands to reason!

    By they way, please don't show this to Sarah Palin, for obvious reasons . . .

  • (Show?)

    So here we are. Same exact position as the start of the post.

    Even though I took great care to cotradict the "like a business" meme and direct my suggestions toward the overarching concept of responsibility to provide qwuality service for money earned (Isn't that just basic morality and fairness?), Jole Hill Joel Dan and the others continue to attack arguments not made.

    And not one M 60 opponent has seen fit to endorse the basic idea of the usefulness of metrics----I'm left to understand that my original POV was dead on:

    Educators are above the rest of us in that they need submit to no oversight from their employers and anyone who suggests that they do, is an ignorant, anti-intellectual fool.

    Keep that critical thinking and fact based reasoning coming kids. This type of thinking is precisely the sort of muddled self-serving crap that you despise in the right wingers that you routinlely excoriate.

  • joel dan walls (unverified)

    Do they still use the Iowa Test of Basic Skills assessment today? I know they did back in the 70-80's when I was in school. That test seemed like a reasonable skills test. Why don't we test all students on day one each year and then on the last day to see how they performed. That should certainly give some idea of how much was learned during the year.

    Putting aside the question of whether this test "give[s] some idea of how much was learned", how exactly would this provide any sort of measurement of a teacher's performance?

    I had a child who missed about 30% of school days one year owing to a variety of illnesses. Needless to say, had she been subjected to a battery of tests at the end of that year as a putative measure of "how much was learned", she would have done poorly. Should such a score then reflect on her teacher?

    What about the kid who tests badly owing to learning disabilities (like the child of mine just mentioned), or because she's freaked out on account of her parents' hellish fight that morning, or whose blood sugar is crashing on account of undiagnosed diabetes or just because her parents are unemployed and their food stamps for the month have run out? Do you have a screen all worked out so none of those kids' results are adjudged against the teacher's performance?

    Maybe there are ways to fairly and objectively decide if a teacher is performing well. But nobody has mentioned any such standards yet here.

  • joel dan walls (unverified)

    Sorry Mr Ryan, but you are the person muddling things here. You are confusing the idea of standards for teachers, which ought to entail objective measurements, with a MORAL claim about how employees owe their employers a fair day's work. The moral claim tells us absolutely NOTHING about performance standards.

  • rural resident (unverified)

    Conservatives believe that schools should be "run like businesses." A couple of words. Bear Stearns. Lehman Brothers. AIG. General Motors.

    That said, the philosophical basis for most of these attempts is rooted in the early 20th century “Scientific Management” movement which sought to maximize efficiency and effectiveness at minimum cost. Those are nice goals, but social institutions aren’t as amenable to an assembly line mentality. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to be efficient and effective at the same time, but simplistic approaches (such as using only test scores) won’t get the job done.

    Schools have many and varied goals (only some of which involve learning subject matter). We can relate performance to compensation fairly easily in factories. The inputs are carefully controlled and performance differences can be ascribed to the knowledge and skill of those transforming those inputs into outputs. It works in some other situations (like sales) because there is an objective measure of performance (dollars and/or units of sales).

    That’s not the case in a school, where individual teachers have fairly small slices of time to spend with each student, and where outside influences can overwhelm even the best teaching. Imagine how frustrated assembly-line workers making, say, refrigerators would be if the inputs were free to transform themselves into other goods (freezers, dishwashers, lawn mowers, etc.).

    However, even if merit pay were based only on test scores (a fairly simplistic approach to begin with, given the wide range of experiences brought to the testing situation by students), the idea that the only worthwhile output in a school is students' scores on a multiple-choice test is so patently idiotic it is unworthy of comment. Some of the most valuable things teachers do may not show up for years. I’ve never heard anyone suggest that we should go back to someone’s students 5, 10 or 20 years later to measure the effect of teaching someone HOW to learn or planting a seed that blooms and leads to great achievements. That’s “too hard to do.” We want simplicity and instant gratification.

    "Merit pay" (and, in practice, it is seldom related ONLY to merit) is generally a zero-sum game because there's only so much money allocated to any one school or district and it is most likely to be split amongst those who are adjudged to be "meritorious." That's pretty much the definition of a zero-sum game.

    If there is a limited pool of money for teacher raises (as, of course, there would be), then there is also a real risk of creating a type of unhealthy competition within a teaching staff. Given competitive awards, I certainly wouldn't share any information with other teachers that might lead to their receiving an award. If the school district or state is foolish enough to structure a system that rewards the diabolically creative, and promotes communications barriers, they shouldn't penalize people who game that system. Unfortunately, it's the kids who will get hurt in the long run.

    I’m not in love with the current system, either, having seen too many poor administrators up close. Any school administrator can take the best teachers and find a way to make them look like bums, or manipulate the system to make dull, unmotivated teachers look like stars. And, too often, they do.

  • mp97303 (unverified)

    I am beginning to agree w/ Pat Ryan. Teachers don't want it and won't allow it.

  • (Show?)

    Actually teachers are not CEOs. They are one of the last bastions of a labor system known in the 19th century as "inside contracting." In that system, factory owners contracted with skilled master artisans (say iron-puddlers) who organized the labor of subordinates, including apprentices and raw laborers. The owners had no control of the labor process. The saying went that "the manager's brain is under the workman's cap" because the workers were the ones with the actual knowledge of the production process. Scientific management in its early years was in the first place about getting the managers that knowledge, and then in the second place about redividing the work so that only managers had a full view of the production process. Most industrial labor went from being divided between skilled workers and unskilled laborers, to being "semi-skilled" routinized repetitive tasks, symbolized by the assembly line. This both dumbed down skilled labor and upgraded unskilled labor.

    Classrooms are a bit different and odd, because students are both workers and products. Teaching to the test is a bit like the move to assembly lines, you get standardized products -- but at some cost to higher level skills about "learning how to learn" and critical and creative thinking and work related to the individuality of the students.

    <h2>I will have to come back to this later because I have to pick up my kid at school :->. Her Portland public school teachers have been great so far, btw.</h2>
guest column

connect with blueoregon