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Duncan: Stop Paying Teachers Like 'Interchangeable Widgets'

In a discussion this week on school funding and budget cuts, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan emphasized that even in tough economic times, schools should push for "transformational change," moving away from the current factory-like education model where teachers are "interchangeable widgets" who are not compensated for performance.

Duncan and Shawn McCollough, superintendent of the Nogales Unified School District in Arizona, were the featured panelists Wednesday in "Bang for the Buck in Schooling," sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit focused on public policy research. The two discussed the need for U.S. education leaders to make difficult school-budget choices at a time when per-pupil spending has stagnated, and in some parts of the country decreased, ending a 75-year upward trend, according to AEI.

McCollough, who currently serves as the superintendent in a predominately Hispanic, 6,200-student school district, has cut $7 million from his district's budget in the past two years without handing a single employee a pink slip.

Though Nogales is small in size, McCollough said the "creative and bold" budget choices made in his district can be emulated in others. McCollough explained how he redeployed central-office staff to positions working directly with students and families, which reduced his district's spending and helped improve student performance.

"It's not so much rocket science but more making tough decisions and being accountable for them," McCollough said, adding that local interests and politics are often barriers to making the "right" budget choices. "We don't need any more research on best practices. ... We need leaders on the front lines who are willing to do what's morally right from a fiscal perspective to put kids first," he said.

Duncan observed that class-size increases in districts strapped for resources are inevitable, prompting a New York City public school teacher in the audience to ask him whether he thinks teachers with larger classes should be paid more.

The secretary responded that he supports increasing compensation both for higher quality teachers and for those with more students. From a parent's perspective, he said, he would prefer to put his child in a class that had 26 students and an exceptional teacher rather than a class with 22 students and a mediocre one.

"I think our great teachers, we desperately underpay, undervalue. And so, pick a number: 80 grand, 100 grand, 120 grand. ... If you are a great teacher, whatever your class size is, you should be compensated in a very different way," Duncan said. "And if you take three or four more students, we shouldn't just pay you for being great, we should pay you more for taking those [additional] students."

U.S. school districts spend $8 billion annually in paying teachers based on credentials alone, said Duncan. He suggested using $2 to 4 billion of credential-based pay to compensate "extraordinary talent" instead.

McCollough chimed in, calling the current teacher pay-scale model "fundamentally flawed." He contended that "there should be far more autonomy at the local level to pay teachers what they deserve."

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