When the District 97 tax increase passed last spring, there was much talk about how the new board and newer administration were on the cusp of bringing about real change and that things like merit pay were just around the corner in Oak Park.

In fact, despite all the activity nationally, it’s been quiet on the local school reform front. When the teachers union took a pay freeze to garner support for the referendum, it also meant extending the teacher contract in its current form by one year to 2014. While that meant no pay raise for one year, it also meant no tinkering with the compensation and teacher review model for years to come.

Teachers who favor keeping the steps-and-ladders pay scale, which rewards longevity but not performance, should be chest-thumpingly proud.

So what’s a district that should be leading the school reform parade do?

Here are a few modest proposals (anti-school reformers, get ready to pile on, tell me I’m crazy and that I hate the kids, but here goes anyway).

First, in the grand Oak Park tradition, I’d form a committee of school board members, administrators, teachers union officials and teachers to begin studying the different types of merit-based compensation that are out there. Many states, cities and districts around the country have already run the experiments. Let’s see what’s working best. Publish the options and the pros and cons in the local paper. Have a community discussion. This would signal to the union and teachers that change is coming, and they can either get on the train or get run over. It would improve buy-in of whatever new compensation is implemented.

With all the new money raised by the tax increase, I’d carve out a modest sum — say $100,000 — to begin awarding small bonuses to the best teachers. Before we hear the howls of protest from the teachers union that such a modest step would violate the union contract, is unconstitutional, and violates the sacred principle that everybody, good and bad, has to make the same salary, I have a work-around: Let’s assume that each grade level at every school has a teacher who stands out (savvy parents figure this out pretty quickly and try to get their kids in with the high performers).

How about naming the high-performing teacher to be that grade’s “peer coach” and have her or him share best practices with their peer teachers on an informal basis. For that extra work, they get say $1,000 extra per year.

Another idea would be to change the model of school principals. Currently, the principal is an administrator. Problems are brought to her and she administrates them. This works out well for teachers who are lone rangers. They close the doors to their classrooms and are kings of their castles. No accountability. No collaboration.

Now what if the principal instead spent one hour of every day walking into classrooms. (This I’m sure is also illegal under some contract provision, but I’d do it anyway). The principal then becomes not some feared, remote figure behind a desk, but a coach who can see teaching situations in a classroom and talk informally to the teacher about what works and what doesn’t.

And, like aversion therapy, it would begin to break down the fear that teachers have about their superiors’ motives and competence. It would demystify the reviews when they come eventually because the principal would be, essentially, a master teacher who coaches teachers on effective teaching practices and classroom management.

There are other baby steps the district could take now to get ready for the 2014 contract. I’d like to hear your ideas (which can even be wackier than mine).

So tell me why I’m crazy, but let’s begin the discussion and coax the administration and board into movement on the most critical area of reform for our local schools in a generation.

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