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Corporate Criticism of Teacher Pay Is Sheer Hypocrisy

Corporate leaders have repeatedly demanded that teachers be paid strictly on the basis of the performance of their students because that's how the "real world" works. Yet even when they miss their goals, top executives continue to receive fat paychecks, including generous bonuses. Curiously, this double standard is given short shrift in the debate over school reform.

In the summer and fall of 2007, the Securities and Exchange Commission sent letters to 350 corporations to gather information about how executive pay is determined. The SEC expected full cooperation in light of of public anger over the issue. But instead, it had to send second letters to a majority of the same companies because of the unsatisfactory replies it received. Their lackadaisical response raised some eyebrows at the time, but nothing much beyond that reaction. What has emerged since then, however, is a three-part pattern of hypocrisy about corporate remuneration that can no longer be ignored.

First, corporate leaders reluctantly admit there are unquantifiable elements that determine their individual compensation packages. This, of course, is precisely what teachers have maintained all along about teaching. But teachers are accused of making excuses when they argue that non-cognitive outcomes, for example, are not as easily measured as numeracy and literacy.

Second, the same corporate leaders claim that linking their remuneration to earnings and stock prices would force them to excessively focus on short-term results, which are bad for stockholders. But when teachers say that judging their effectiveness disproportionately on standardized test scores would be bad for students because this metric narrows the curriculum and turns classrooms into test preparation factories, their claim is met with utter disdain.

Third, corporate leaders finally play their trump card. They huff that they can be ultimately fired when they don't deliver, whereas public school teachers cannot because of union rules. What they don't admit, however, is that in the boardroom, symbiosis exists on a scale rarely seen elsewhere. As a result, it's the exception, rather than the rule, that ineffectiveness leads to dismissal.

Here's why: the pay of the CEO is set by the board of directors - usually the compensation committee. Although the directors are elected by the stockholders via proxies, most are not returned. Therefore, the board is chosen essentially by the CEO. Once directors are on the board, they don't leave. Why should they? They get handsome pay for sitting in meetings, generous insurance, and a comfortable pension. Moreover, they fly on private jets to luxury resorts to attend conferences. Even if a CEO is finally fired by the board, he/she can walk away in one year with more money than 50 teachers earn in a lifetime. It's not called a golden parachute for nothing. As Mel Brooks quipped in The History of the World, "It's good to be the king."

Stockholders, of course, are free to turn to the courts for a remedy, but the odds are stacked against them. Big business has deep pockets and wears down plaintiffs. Yet the same coddled executives are quick to attack teachers unions for trying to protect their members' right of due process. It's enough to make any fair-minded person sick.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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