Jennifer Hemmingsen recently penned two articles for the Cedar Rapids Gazette on education policy. One focused on what she called “merit pay” and a second focused more broadly on increased education spending. I welcome Hemmingsen (and others) entering the discussion on how we might improve education in Iowa. A central goal of the Governor’s recent Iowa Education Summit was to elevate improving education as a statewide policy issue. Based on the dramatic increase in media coverage and interactions occurring all across Iowa, I’d say the summit achieved this goal.

I applaud Hemmingsen for tackling these two contentious and complex policy issues. Having the courage to engage in meaningful and honest conversation is one of our first steps toward the improvement we need. However, in education we have an old maxim Hemmingsen should heed as she wades into these thorny discussions: “Do your homework.”

Educator compensation and school funding are complex issues that deserve more than a drive-by and myopic analysis. It would serve us all well to step up our game in how we discuss these important topics. As a state level public servant, I absolutely welcome an open critique of my positions and policy directions – but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that critics at least take the time to genuinely understand the issues and policy positions.

We have to raise our debate beyond pitifully unsophisticated advocacy for status quo “step and lane” pay systems or simple “cash-for-test-scores” schemes that have a poor track record of success. I’ve written on this topic previously and have called for a more sophisticated discussion on educator compensation in practically every public appearance I’ve made. Clearly my message isn’t getting through to the media who continue to frame the debate in an overly-simplistic (and generally non-productive) manner around “merit pay.”

Being more strategic about how we compensate educators must be part of the discussion when we talk about any meaningful and lasting policy change. The simple reason: it’s where the money is. Of the over $4 billion dollars we spend on public education in Iowa, the vast majority of that goes into salary and benefits and most of this money is spent in ways that are either poorly aligned with, or outright counter to, the goals we’d like to see schools achieve.

One small example: Imagine if we were more strategic in how we used the estimated $75,000,000 Iowa spends annually on incentivizing educators to chase and obtain advanced degrees. These advanced degrees have a terrible empirical record of correlation with improved teaching, yet we dump more cash into them year after year and have done so for nearly a century. What an incredible waste.

We have near universal agreement that we need to be increasing teacher collaboration time, creating meaningful teacher leadership roles, creating extended day and year programs for students who need it, and paying more for hard to fill areas like math, science and special education. We should be thinking about how we get these approaches to be part of our base funding model. Instead we use one time money, create pilots that eventually dry up and go away, or fund them with stand-alone appropriations that become easy targets as soon as budgets get tight. We have to start thinking about how we can better use the money that’s already in the system in smarter ways.

We need a “Dr. Phil” moment on this issue. We have a history of starting some of these innovative approaches in compensating educators in strategic ways but then fund them with one time money. When the cash dries up or funding gets tight, the innovation folds and becomes something “we tried once.” As Dr. Phil asks, “How’s that working for you?”

Framing the debate around “merit pay” (as a term that instantly inflames) and surfacing all the same old tired arguments gets us nowhere. We should be talking about the much more sophisticated (and useful) idea of “strategic compensation” which asks schools to align their resources with the goals they would like to accomplish. This is bigger than a “cash-for-test-scores” discussion.

Hemmingsen also makes the case that no real education reform will happen without an infusion of cash. But I’d argue that beating the drum of “give us more money and leave us alone” hasn’t produced results and is now falling on deaf ears. I’ll stand up and advocate for more cash for schools with anyone, but we must come with a better plan on how new money will move the system toward better results. Asking for more money to continue to do things that are ineffective is an irresponsible waste of finite public resources.

The fact is we have increased PreK-12 spending dramatically across this country over the past 30 years and have little to show for it in terms of increased student learning. We can make “the ask” for increased education spending, but let’s also come forward with a plan for how those resources will be used in smarter ways than they have been.

We just make the same problems we currently have in education more expensive with a “dump more cash on it” approach. So while “show me the money” may be fun to say, “show me the plan and I’ll show you the money” is a more pragmatic approach that might actually lead to improved schools. Building this plan is exactly the work we are engaged in as a state right now.

Again, I commend Hemmingsen taking on these important issues and appreciate her coverage of education. These are absolutely the things we should be talking about in the larger context of education reform. But repeating the same tired arguments about “merit pay” or yelling for more cash to do more of the same doesn’t move our discussion forward. Both discussions on compensation and on education spending are fast ways to get reactions from people – but we need to stop trying to inflame meaningless and worn-out debates and start trying to build pragmatic solutions.

Jason Glass
Des Moines, IA