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Up Front

The Siberian Salary Scale

Back in the days of the U.S.S.R., the Kremlin set impossibly high quotas for shoe factory workers. To get the numbers, the workers just made smaller shoes—which nobody could wear!

In a new report from the Economic Policy Institute, researcher Richard Rothstein and his economist colleagues warn that merit pay for teachers may also come with unintended consequences.

Formulaic pay plans—like rewarding stockbrokers for sales or teachers for test scores—are often effective; whatever is measured usually increases. But at the same time, other equally important targets are set aside.

Stockbrokers stop working together. Truck drivers ignore health regulations. And, in education, of course, what’s not tested often isn’t taught.

That doesn’t mean that alternative compensation is always a bad idea. Take a look at Portland, Maine, where the local Association’s salary plan rewards educators for mentoring new colleagues, attending workshops, writing new curriculum, and completing classroom research.

“[The salary system] is about student learning. It has made better teachers,” says one Portland educator.

So the problem isn’t innovative salary schedules— it’s narrowly conceived merit pay plans. They should be avoided, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor John Heywood suggests, when “productivity has many dimensions and is hard to measure, and where teamwork is important.”

Sound like education to you?

The iPod Professor

File this one under news from the end of the world: In a recent study, university students who downloaded a podcast lecture scored significantly higher on a content exam than kids who actually attended the same lecture.

The difference may be that those students could replay the difficult parts and take better notes, said researchers at the State University of New York in Fredonia. And while their findings might not really signal an education apocalypse, the study’s authors suggest that podcasts should be considered a good teaching tool.

“I think these kids are programmed differently than 20 years ago,” SUNY psychologist Dani McKinney told New Scientist magazine.

Many teachers would agree; since Apple launched its free iTunes U, it has already received and shared more than 100,000 lectures. One effective practice, some professors say, is to pre-record a lecture, require students to listen to it beforehand, and then move on to more stimulating discussion during class.

The Flight of the Teachers

Not only are Black students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, less likely to have White classmates since the district ended its busing system, they’re also less likely to have the best teachers.

A study published in the Journal of Labor Economics found that, as student populations shifted, top teachers of all ethnicities left much more often than “average” teachers. To define teacher quality, researchers looked at years of experience, scores on licensure exams, and student improvement on test scores.

It’s not a surprise—it has happened elsewhere, and it certainly doesn’t help the kids. But it’s also not the teachers’ fault, says Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. “When racial demographics change significantly ... what’s needed is better professional development to help [teachers] adjust.”

The World’s Most Relaxing Room

No, it’s not your classroom! But take a few tips from the British scientists who opened “the world’s most relaxing room” at the University of Hertford-shire late last year. The scientists combined a glade-like green light, artificial blue skies, the scent of lavender, and a soothing soundtrack of a solo female vocalist and Tibetan singing bowl.

Need a laugh?

Pick up your colleague Phillip Done’s new book, Close Encounters of the Third-Grade Kind: Thoughts on Teacherhood. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll wish he taught in the room next door. In conversation with his niece: “’Uncle Phil, why did you decide to teach elementary?’” Answer: “‘They can’t drive yet. I wanted to find a parking space.’” (Center Street, 2009.)


You might not have a magic pill, but you can help prevent swine flu in your schools.

In August, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “H1N1 [will] be an issue this school year,” but stressed that outbreaks can’t be allowed to derail student learning.

That means schools must stop H1N1 by educating students on basic hygiene and flu prevention, and by monitoring cases of H1N1. Duncan said he’d also like to see schools use the Internet and other virtual technologies to make sure sick students can stay home without falling behind.

“The bottom line is, no matter what happens, we need to make sure students keep learning,” he said.

Duncan asked parents and school staff to play an active role in preventing the spread of H1N1. For parents, that means keeping sick kids home until at least 24 hours after their fevers break. Administrators should have a plan to isolate students and staff who fall ill during the school day until they can be dismissed.

For more information, go to NEA’s Health Information Network at


Seeing pink, seeing red

As the school year gets underway, a few of your colleagues are still missing—the thousands of education support professionals who were laid off months ago.

More than 500 Clark County, Nevada, support professionals got pink slips this past summer, including 200-plus food-service workers, as did hundreds in districts from Los Angeles and Tucson, Arizona, to Rochester, Minnesota.

“Our people took the total brunt of it and I believe that’s by design,” says Bo Yealy, president of the Clark County Education Support Employees Association. Yealy, who led her members to rallies outside and mediation inside, has serious questions about administrators’ motives.

Lay-offs were likely a strategic move toward privatization—and at what price for students? she asks. With employees either let go or forced into roles they are unprepared for, says Yealy, “It says to me, as a parent, that [the district] has no regard for the children.”

A Military Uniform: Size Small

At least six school districts—from Atlanta to Las Vegas—are talking to the U.S. Marines about opening public military academies, adding to a growing number of schools where every student dons a uniform, takes military classes, and joins the JROTC. The districts could get millions of dollars from the military, as well as a new strategy to prevent dropouts. But some parents and educators fear it looks too much like a pipeline to the battlefield. Ten-hut!

Charters Go Union

It’s a rare combination, maybe even the first in the country: A cyber charter school with unionized employees. But it likely won’t be the last.

Last spring, in a bid for greater job security, the faculty of the PA Learners Online school voted overwhelmingly to join the Pennsylvania State Education Association. “We wanted to make sure we had somebody to speak for us,” says English teacher Carol Mintus.

With that, they joined an elite group. While there are 4,600 charter schools in America, few have been unionized until recently. Now a handful of charters from Los Angeles to New York can claim that special status. And, as President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan continue to push aggressively for more charters, it’s likely they may grow more common.

“Charters are not inherently anti-union,” Duncan said, according to the New York Times. Nor are unions anti-innovation—the claim of some anti-union charter proponents. “When you have teachers who feel safe and secure, you have teachers who are free to do what’s best for their kids,” Mintus points out.


Imagine being able to speak to your elected representative in Washington, D.C., about the education issues that matter to you—without ever having to leave your home.

The National Education Association is partnering with state affiliates to sponsor the first round of “Back-to-School” Legislative Tele-town Halls.

Several are scheduled this month and will feature congressional lawmakers on the phone taking questions from hundreds of educators and citizens concerned about our public schools.

This is your chance to find out what your representative in Congress is doing about reducing class sizes, improving pay for educators, charter schools, professional development … and all the other issues that impact children, educators, and public education.

To find out when the “Back-to-School” Legislative Tele-town halls are taking place, which elected leaders will be featured, and how you can get involved, visit


Ring, ring! Cheater calling!

More than a third of teenagers with cell phones admit to using them to cheat—a shocking, but not entirely surprising finding from a recent Common Sense Media poll. “I could spend entire class periods just policing cell phones,” says Arizona high school teacher Kristy Dunn Speer. “I have to choose between being a cell phone cop and actually teaching a lesson.”

He Must Have Read the CliffsNotes

When NEA Today asked Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to recommend a book for teachers, he chose Herb Kohl’s classic 36 Children. Kohl might say Duncan should read it again before rewriting the No Child Left Behind law.

“Recently I asked a number of elementary students what they were learning about, and the reactions were consistently, ‘We are learning how to do good on the tests,’” Kohl wrote, in an open letter to Duncan, published in the journal Rethinking Schools. “Add to this the elimination of physical education in order to clear more time to torture students with mechanical drilling and shallow questioning, and it is no wonder that many American students are lethargic when it comes to ideas and actions.”

Question and Answer


It’s not unusual to see Arthur and his pals from public television taking on serious topics. “Basically, we always aim to tell a great story that will be meaningful to kids,” says WGBH Executive Producer Jacqui Deegan. This time, it’s cancer. Look for the episode premiering October 19 and airing every day that week.

Also, check out the many resources for educators provided by Arthur and his partners at the Lance Armstrong Foundation at “We know that one in four adults diagnosed with cancer have children under the age of 18. Raise the issue and start a dialogue,” encourages Deegan, who also happily helped Arthur answer the following questions:

Hello Arthur! We hear your lunch lady recently found out she has cancer. Can you tell us how it made you feel when you heard that she’s sick?

Well, at first I was really worried. But I talked to my mom and dad who said they understood how I could be worried, and they were so glad I told them. Together we thought of ways we could help Mrs. MacGrady and, as a family, we made lots of chicken soup. (Dad’s special recipe!) DW and I brought it over to Mrs. MacGrady and she really liked it. DW insisted on wearing a mask because she was afraid to catch the cancer. Well, DW was confused; you can’t catch cancer.

And then you had a visit from bicyclist Lance Armstrong! What did he teach you about cancer and recovery? 

Lance told us that it was okay to be worried and that being a good friend would really help Mrs. MacGrady. He reminded us that there are a lot of different ways to be a good friend. You can visit, laugh together, help out with light chores, even organize a bike rally. And it’s important to talk about how you feel with your family and teachers. (I learned that my dog, Pal, is a great listener, too!)

Arthur, what would you like educators to know about talking with children about cancer?

I’d like them to know that kids can have all different kinds of reactions when someone they know and love gets sick. So kids need to be reminded that they can talk about their feelings and worries with their parents and teachers. And most kids will feel so much better, knowing that there are things they can do to really help! 

illustrations: © 2009 WGBH /Cookie Jar Entertainment Inc. Underlying TM/© Marc Brown.

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