By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Thinking about public pensions

The Boston Globe’s Todd Wallack reports today that investment losses suffered by government pension funds will force even more draconian cuts in local services than had already been anticipated.

Let me speak out of ignorance for a moment. It’s OK, because mainly I’m advocating that we start asking some tough questions. I have no answers.

Haven’t most private-sector businesses and non-profit organizations phased out pensions in favor of 401(k) and 403(b) accounts? Isn’t governmental employment the last redoubt of pensions?

I’m sure there’s nothing we can do about pensions owed to current retirees. But isn’t it time to take a hard look at whether we should keep paying a benefit to public employees that very few of us in the private sector enjoy? Lord knows I want to tear my hair out when I read about a former elected official receiving a big pension. Let them plan for their retirement like everyone else.

Obviously there are some special circumstances that need to be considered. There are good reasons to offer early-retirement incentives to police officers and firefighters, for instance — you don’t want 57-year-olds putting their health at risk every time they go out on a call.

But other than unusual cases like that, it’s time to get serious.

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Questions raised in the passive voice


  1. Rich

    Isn’t governmental employment the last redoubt of pensions?And not even government in general, but only state and local government.The classic gold-plated federal pension is a thing of the past for federal workers hired after around 1986.In 1986 the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) was essentially closed to new hires. That was the system where you did not pay in to SS and got a pension that was something like 80% of your high three years. For new hires that was replaced by the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) where you (a) paid into SS, (b) did get a token contributory pension, but (c) are expected to primarily finance your retirement via the Thrift Savings Program (which is a qualified plan that pretty much follows the same rules as a 401(k)).The states and municipalities should take a page from Uncle Sam and set some date after which new hires get 401(k)/403(b) plans and not pension.

  2. Rich

    Note that what I said applies to civilian federal employees (which includes civilian employees of the DOD). Actual military folks still get the defined benefit military pension.So it looks like the Feds have made the “public safety” vs. other workers distinction you were talking about.

  3. The Arranger

    One major difference between public employees and private-sector employees is eligibility for Social Security retirement benefits. Over the years, those who draw on Social Security are taking out far more than they would receive, even if a generous interest rate is factored in. You can’t take away government pensions without addressing the Social Security issue.Also, don’t forget that these employees do pay into the retirement fund; it’s no just a bennie. And while the plummeting stock market has hurt the pension funds, the employees do not reap the benefit of Wall Street bull markets — the pension return is a set rate, unlike a 401K plan.There’s a general trend out there saying that if the private sector doesn’t get something, the public sector shouldn’t either. That has to be balanced by a look at what the private sector gets in benefits and salary that a public employee doesn’t -=- profit-sharing, bonuses, incentive programs, in some cases free tuition for your kids… ;)Private sector guy married to a public sector gal

  4. Steve

    It seems to me that there’s a wide disparity in pension deals in government employment.Teachers, for example, receive lower salaries than private sector jobs they could get, but they get very good pensions.Career military pensions are even better – as a military contractor, I saw many “20-and-out” Majors who went from overseeing military contracts to getting lucrative jobs with contractors when they “retired” in their late-40s/early-50s, and they got their military pensions on top of that.From what I’ve seen, many Commonwealth bureaucrats seem to get paid on par with their peers in the private sector, and they get their sweet pension deals on top of that when they retire.State legislators don’t really earn much compared with comparable management jobs in industry, and in Mass. they really have full-time jobs, so maybe their pension deals are justifiable.Oh, and 57 doesn’t really seem that old to me (I’m almost there!), if you keep in shape. Policemen and Firefighters put their lives and health at risk every time they go out on a call, no matter what their age. There should be (and afaik, there is) a fitness requirement for those jobs. If a 57-year-old can pass it and still wants to be on the job, I say let them.

  5. mike_b1

    steve wrote: “Teachers, for example, receive lower salaries than private sector jobs they could get.”Do we know that? The median US teacher’s salary ranges from $39k to $43k, depending on grades taught. The median starting salary is low $30’s; the median after 20 years of teaching is the mid to high 50’s. That’s not out of line with many, many occupations, none else of which include up to 3 months summer vacation.And those who go into administration tend to be paid very well relative to almost every field except medicine and finance.

  6. Old Weekly Retired Publisher

    Dan is 100% correct – except for the firefighters and police officers. For them it shouldn’t be an automatic retirement with a pension. It should be more like jobs in other sectors. Many teachers with years of service because of step grades are earning close to $100,0000. It is pathetic how much older teachers are paid, and how little starting teachers are paid. And if the older, retiring teachers are so good, why are school committees and administrators pleased to see a teacher retired and replaced with a low paying beginner? Rhetorical question, of course! If the government run social security is good enough for the non-public worker, it should be good enough for government workers. There are few places where one can work in the private sector and be paid a lifetime pension under age 66 based on 80% of their highest three years of compensation. The government is running the same was as Bethlehem Steel did before it ceased after 99 years of luxury. If we don’t want our cities and towns, state and federal government to be another General Motors ruined by greedy unions and lack of innovation, somehow we need to shape up and blogs like this and newspapers are going to help us bring the importance of this to light.

  7. Peter Porcupine

    DK – One omitted factor – public service employees do not often get Social Security, whereas a 401 (k) is on top of SS.As it happens, I was a Fed when the big switch happened. @ 1982, Reagan forced all Feds into SS, and you’d think the world was ending. Now, they can receive SS and a Federal benefit.Mass. is a non-contributory state – state/municipal workers don’t pay into SS, and rarely collect. If you work the 40 quarters necessary, you can collect both BUT since MA is non-contributory, you SS benefit is reduced by the amount of your MA pension to prevent stacking. Reagan wanted to force all public sector employees into SS to keep it solvent, and this penalty was enacted to make it financially difficult to remain a stand-alone system.Take Mr. Private Sector here. He and Mrs. Sector each earn $40,000. Both retire. Mr. Sector has SS of $30,000, and Mrs. Sector has a MA pension. While he lives, they have a household income of $60,000. Mr. Sector dies. Mr. Sector has a survivorship benefit of $25,000. However, since Mrs. Sector has a MA pension of $30,000 she gets bupkis. Household income goes from $60k to $30k, adn at a time when Mrs. Sector may find it hard to get a job, if she’s able to work at all. Had Mr. Sector’s survivorship benefit been $35,000, Mrs. Sector would have gotten $5,000, giving her an anual income of $35,000.I am acquainted with several widowed Mrs. Sectors on Cape. What flummoxes ME is that they gave their careers to a pension system and don’t understand how it works – this poverty spin is usually a surprise.Ah, but MA is one of 7 states who told Reagan to go fish instead of joining the other states in collecting both SS and pension money. Surely that makes it all worthwhile.

  8. calliman

    Old Retired TeacherAt Brookline high, where I used to teach, the salary scale – one of the better ones in the state – topped out at $80K.Also, Massachusetts teacher pay in a pretty high percentage – 13 % for me at the end.

  9. Tony

    “Teachers, for example, receive lower salaries than private sector jobs they could get.”This has been a talking point for school advocates for years and years and years but I think the reality is quite different. You can see it with the median numbers a bit. And I would say that this is the norm when comparing most – if not all – public sector workers when compared to private sector workers. I mean, how many tolltakers could make $60K to $100K in the private sector? Like zero. Sticking with teachers, the nitty gritty comes down to education level and the private sector. A science teacher might be able to make better money in high tech or something. But most other teachers who have been in the system 10 years or more would be lucky to get 60 percent of what they are making now in the private sector, never mind with all the layoffs going on which will certainly depress wages in the near future [those of us in the private sector have been seeing wage freezes and layoffs for a bit now and it’s only going to get worse]. Yes, new teachers coming into the system start out low, at $35K to $40K, from what I’m seeing. But this is not the norm. That is why so many communities have offered early retirement options to get the older teachers who make a ton of money out and the newer ones in. It’s better to have two teachers making $40K than one making $80K no matter how great that teacher is. Lower class sizes is the only thing that seems to matter. This isn’t a personal attack on teachers. It’s just the reality of the situation. Example? In a town I know pretty well there is a high school “fine arts” teacher that makes $83K. When I saw this teacher’s salary on a list, I couldn’t believe it. But, it was true. I asked someone, What does this teacher do? They replied, Oh, they are the drama teacher. Now, most of us remember when the high school drama advisor was an English teacher who MIGHT have received a stipend to do three plays a year, not an $83K job. Now, drama is its own department. As an artist, I think that’s pretty cool. But, when you wonder where the money is going …So, after seeing this salary I thought, How can this be? Maybe this teacher has a Masters degree or something. So, I immediately requested the education level of all the teachers on the list and, sure enough, this teacher was a M-45, meaning they had a good education and were in the system a long time. But I seriously doubt this teacher would make that kind of money in the private or even the non-profit sector. There are other examples I can tell you from covering local cities and towns over the years – padded expense accounts, finance directors making six figures who claimed to be CPAs when they weren’t, school officials using their printers and postage to advocate for overrides, secretaries getting 9 percent raises, etc. The entire governmental employment system is simply a disaster. And then, all of these people will get a certain percentage of their monies in a pension system when they retire. So, it will bankrupt us all. It’s hard to find answers because the minute you say something critical, at least about education, you get roundly [and soundly] attacked because “you hate children.” I have seen that over the years when bringing up even the slightest critique or suggestion for a better way of doing things. In one town, I wrote an editorial criticizing a new $3K longevity bonus offered in a teacher contract. The next thing I know, I was nicknamed “Tony the Teacher Hater” … publicly! … All in good fun I guess. Once, I wrote an editorial suggesting that if school officials moved teachers from one HMO to another, they would save $750,000 annually and wouldn’t as big an override. The next week, they attacked me publicly with one official saying the cheaper HMO was “a Worcester-based plan.” The next week, I went through the cheaper HMO handbook and counted 46 doctors based in the town that subscribed to the plan – just a few less than the other plan. Did they take a little advice and start renegotiating with the union to save the money? No, they sent a massive override to the voters which was soundly defeated and then, I got blamed for telling readers the truth. So many sordid stories of arrogance, ignorance and incompetence by those people who spend our tax dollars I could write a book. Truly the fault lies with us, the people too concerned about labels, too easily silenced and pressured, to hold these people accountable on any level. No one wants to see the government or schools starved. As we are always reminded, the government is us … our children, and I have two, are our future. But, you know, when private sector workers have to start making personal cuts to make ends meet because of what is going on, government needs to adapt too. And that means living with less – just like we are doing. Teaching, even with 180 days working and continuing education, which most people do while working 250 days a year, is a difficult job. It’s a rewarding job and worthy or decent pay scales. Sometimes, there are days that I regret not going into teaching when I was seriously thinking about it. It’s a very important job. But, if you teach a private or religious school, you’re making a lot less than what public school teachers are making, without a pension or stellar benefit packages. Those teachers don’t seem to complain and seem to do it for the love of the job, not unlike public school teachers. That may be the model everyone has to move towards in order to ensure that cities and towns provide a quality education without bankrupting the public because the way things are going isn’t working and is unsustainable.

  10. Dan Kennedy

    Tony: Sadly, based on my experience with the public schools, it’s not you who hates children. It’s teachers who hate children.Fortunately, our daughter is going to Catholic school, where the teachers don’t hate children. And, as you say, they make less, with fewer benefits.

  11. NewsHound

    Tony is absolutely correct. If school systems are happy enough with $40K teachers then why in the world do they enter into contracts to pay twice that to the old, tired teachers when they can have enthusiastic, spirited younger teachers for less? Maybe new teachers should be paid a little more to attract talent, and older teachers’ pay be cut.Why are the contracts negotiated in private if everyone is so darn proud of the results? When teachers don’t get the contract they desire they put on their union drama in the community but continue to negotiate in private.Schools and government needs to face up to reality to properly serve the taxpaying public. No tricks like increasing fees as an alternative, or doing away with important services. Instead, cities and towns need to operate with lean proficiency the same as industry. While it is important to stick to basics, in particular with education, we, as taxpayers should expect innovation, exploration and inventiveness, and most especially with the educators who should be teaching something other than stagnation with a design to ruin our free enterprise society. Unions and this childish silliness in education must come to an end. We can see what has happened with the US auto manufacturers, and many, many other companies such as Polaroid, Wang Laboratories, Bethlehem Steel, Woolworth and many others. We should not want our cities, towns or the USA to be another casaulity.

  12. NewsHound

    Dan:1000000% correct. Yes, I have friends who are teachers and devoted more interest in union contracts than the children. The children were merely the means, but actually they’d rather have a school without the students. And, yes, too, my daughter went to Catholic high school, loved it, did well, made great friendships with nuns, received high marks in religious class and has never been Roman Catholic. We paid the full tuition which was less than the cost per pupil in our local high school setting aside the cost for special education for “special” students with unique learning disabilities.

  13. MeTheSheeple

    I thought this story should have been killed until it was done right — not leading the paper.It’s appalling.The basic premise is that pensions have lost plenty of value (like everyone else’s investments) during the stock premise. Among the facts we’re given is how underfunded the capitol city, and namesake of the Boston Globe, had its pension system 35 months ago. Three-year-old data to illustrate a story on a trend that didn’t really get strong until a few months ago?Let’s see, the only inkling of what actually happened is attributed to “an estimate” … That’s followed by”Jan. 1″”Jan. 1.”January 2006″It’s a pretty good bet that few pension funds are loving their returns over the last few months. How hard is it to pick up the phone and get the last monthly statement?True, you can look at, for example, the state teacher retirement plan and realize the regular newsletter hasn’t come out in a year. Boston’s Retirement Board doesn’t offer statements, even annual reports. The Essex Retirement Board has no information online. But that state page has a broken link but talks about a position paper from a group of state retirement plan administrators, which includes this:”In a brief addressing the effects on public pensions of the recent market declines, the Center forRetirement Research at Boston College confirmed this result, stating:'[B]ecause [pension plan] sponsors have a buffer – the ability to smooth asset values over fiveyears – they will not be forced to raise contributions just as state and local tax revenuesplummet in the midst of a serious recession. … [S]ome poorly funded plans may be forced toincrease their contributions, but others may be able to avoid a hike.'”If only Boston College’s experts weren’t outside the scope of the Boston Globe’s coverage area, they’d have such good experts at hand …Why did this story run in the shape it was in? Why did I pay money to get enraged at the utter lack of worthwhile information in the story, which has absolutely no evidence to back up its central premise?

  14. Mike from Norwell

    Dan, think you missed the real point (and eyeopener) in the article: the link to the downloadable spreadsheet showing the various funding percentages of the systems around the state. they don’t exactly state what the funding percentage actually represents; however, it is common in the private sector when referencing funding percentages to compare liabilities on benefits earned to date v. assets (not future benefits promised). If that is the case, the numbers shown in that spreadsheet are incredibly frightening (and don’t even reflect the 2008 market downturn). In the private sector after the Pension Protection Act, if a plan’s funding percentage dips below 60%, all accruals are automatically frozen (no more benefits accrued) until funding is increased. Out of roughly 100 systems, under 10 are 90% or above (again, before the market correction!).What a time bomb ticking.

  15. MeTheSheeple

    Oh, and those people in Boston — so far from the Boston Globe — posted a link to two research papers. One’s just on defined benefit plans, and includes interesting numbers in the first sentence:”IntroductionEquity assets in retirement plans dropped in value by about $4 trillion between October 9, 2007 and October 9, 2008. The decline was divided equally between defined benefit and 401(k)/Individual RetirementAccounts (IRAs).”Ooh, let’s look at that again. $4 trillion loss divided by 300 million Americans puts us at something like $13,000 for every man, woman and child in the country … all of whom have their own income (layoffs), expenses (higher prices), savings and investments (stock market) problems.Imagine a story: “In just the last year, $XXX million evaporated from the Boston retirement system — so much money that every resident would have to pay $x,xxx each to make up the difference.”

  16. NewsHound

    Important not to misunderstand cycles in the stock market. Certainly we are in a horrible economic downturn and many corporations will be earning less and could be reducing dividends. Thus, the value of those investments is reduced. However, there may be more reduction in price based on fear than actual reduction in value.Value is what an investment is actually worth. Price, as in the last bid on the stock market, is what an investor pays at that moment. The stock market is a horrible distraction to investing, as absurd as that might sound.When things get better economically, the prices of stocks, and the value as well, will increase. At least that is what has happened every time in a downturn. Some companies and stocks and industries will not recover, simply because too many were playing the Greater Fool Theory in which whatever price someone pays today there is a fool who will pay more later.Without a lot of pain and adjustment and people pitching in to help rather than hurt America and our local governments, this down cycle will end and we will be the better for it because our society will operate more prudently, efficiently, and frugally.If cities and towns keep trying to invent ways to extract more money from citizens rather than become inventive, more local businesses will fail, more will become unemployed, and we will enter into a spiral that if not caught could be a nasty crash landing. In the Great Depression stocks hit a bottom at 90% down from the the top and it took more than 20 years for the Dow to reach its high of 1929.Part of what we are experiencing is a bubble, too, where some stocks were overinflated. Oil at $147 was the needle that broke the bubble. High prices have been the ruin of much in our civilization, and reckless management of government with higher taxes instead of innovation and efficiency will make this down cycle last longer, for sure.

  17. An Astute Observer

    Haven’t most private-sector businesses and non-profit organizations phased out pensions in favor of 401(k) and 403(b) accounts? Isn’t governmental employment the last redoubt of pensions?Dan, you are starting to sound like a Republican~!Do you really want to put an end to the hackerama?

  18. Pink Granite

    Dan -I appreciate that you write you are “speaking out of ignorance”. And I understand that this is your blog, not a piece for the Guardian or some other publication. But I’m surprised at how cavalier you are on this topic.I won’t go over the facts that “The Arranger” and “Peter Porcupine” spelled out. But I would urge you to read their comments carefully.State employees pay state taxes and federal taxes on their income. They also make ongoing contributions to their own state pension plans. (The percentage has been adjusted so that more recent hires pay a higher percentage into the pension system.) State employees now have the opportunity to participate in 457 plans, which is a deferred compensation plan akin to a 401K. They can also participate in other private investments such as IRAs. When you write: “Let them plan for their retirement like everyone else.” that’s exactly what they are doing within the legal limits of the state and federal governments.Please keep in mind when you write: “I’m sure there’s nothing we can do about pensions owed to current retirees.” that the average pension for state retirees is about $22,000 annually. All state retirees worked in good faith for many years, knowing what the formulas were for their retirement pensions. Their retirement was considered and understood to be part of their overall compensation package. In many instances that meant earning less during their working years as a trade off, if you will, for the pension benefits.- Lee

  19. Dan Kennedy

    Lee: Implicit in my questions are the idea that the entire system ought to be changed so that it resembles what we have in the private sector. We can start by having public employees participate in Social Security, and move on from there.

  20. NewsHound

    Dan – you’re absolutely correct. One system for all. Easier to understand, fair to all.

  21. Sean Roche

    Shall we call it the Media Nation Race to the Bottom?In tough times, everybody carps about bringing equality to the public sector. But, does it really help society-at-large to adopt the raggedy-ass safety net that we’ve got in our defined-contribution/employer-provided-health-care world? What will be left once a part-time WalMart employee’s benefits set the standard for the rest of us?And, Dan, the vast majority of public school teachers don’t hate children. (Nor do all Catholic school teachers love children.) That was just unnecessary.

  22. Dan Kennedy

    Sean: Don’t get me going about the public school teachers in my town. I may never stop.

  23. Sean Roche

    Dan,I look forward to a well-sourced, well-documented article or essay that avoids sweeping generalities in favor of well-grounded conclusions.

  24. NewsHound

    There is a book published about two years ago: “Nickle and Dimed” On Not Getting By In America.The people who work at WalMart are the true philanthropists. Public servants who take more than their share are the inverse. Of course we don’t all want to be like the disadvantaged WalMart employees. And certainly we want to be enthusiastic about being motivated in our society to do better than the average WalMart worker, but the public sector is exploiting our civilization. Further, we don’t want our public educators downgraded to WalMart crisis type living style, but exploitation will ruin our cities and towns.

  25. Bill H.

    Dan, in addition to a discussion about public employee pensions, this post has also engendered some interesting comments, including yours, about public school teachers. I’ll say right up front that I have been a public school teacher for 40 years. I started teaching sixth grade and now I teach on the college level–and I’ve taught in every grade in between. I love the profession and if I were again twenty-two years old, I wouldn’t hesitate to reenter it. I believe that it’s blessed work.Perceptions are important, and it’s clear from your post and some of the others that public school teachers are held in low esteem. Based on my experience, here, and in no particular order, are just a couple of my perceptions:1) My guess is that the public school teachers in your town don’t “hate kids.” In fact, I bet that many of them love kids, and would love yours if they were in the system. My further guess is that your opinion derives from some negative–perhaps extremely negative–encounter with a teacher(s) or administrator(s). If so, I’m sorry that that experience has turned you off on public schools. There are losers in every profession, but teaching is not a profession of losers who hate kids.2) I think that teaching is like managing the Red Sox. Everybody has played baseball and everybody has been to school, so almost everybody thinks that they could do both as well as the people who do it for a living. That is not true, as attested by the fact that just over thirty percent of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years. Some of them are very talented people, either lured away by higher paying jobs or driven away by disillusion. Some of the less talented are just plain fired. A couple of your posters on this subject have suggested that they could do better. By all means, they should try. 3) Teachers’ compensation, pension benefits, etc., have been acquired over the years through collective bargaining, which also takes place in the private sector. If, indeed, reform is needed in determining what constitutes fair wages and benefits in the twenty-first century, then that should be part of a much larger discussion of issues such as health care, later retirement age, etc. That should happen sooner rather than later. Anyway, Dan, teachers in your town don’t hate kids.

  26. Dan Kennedy

    Bill H: I have had two kids in our public school system, and we pulled both of them out. As I said, don’t get me going or I’ll never stop.

  27. NewsHound

    The public school departments are operating like General Motors. Of course there are good teachers, many of whom wouldn’t do otherwise by their sheer nature. For them, it hardly has anything to do with compensation so long as they can do well enough. For others though, that is not the case and they have as a collective unit made themselves look like the auto workers union putting the Big Three into serious danger.Tenure is something that needs to go. it is outdated.Teachers’ contracts should be negotiated in open session. A public employees total compensation should be publicly posted in every community in some easy to obtain format without making a case through the Freedom of Information Act – or maybe Non-Freedom of Information. Educators, and administrators are more to blame for this, welcome parents to the school for some events and usually an open house. But, it wouldn’t take a whole lot of creative thought for good public relations to invite the taxpayers and citizens of the town – meaning those that are not necessarily parents, to demonstrate the school, the education that is being provided, and to meet with the staff on at least an annual basis. Public relations in most public education stinks horribly. Beyond that, we have to wonder about the exposure to our children – whether they be our own biological children or in general, the children of our municipality. I have seen propaganda type newsletters mailed to every home in town at taxpayer’s expense attempting to lobby voters for an override. What is so shameful is that the superintendent of schools and the principal write in such a manner one wonders if they could pass the test to get out of high school – at salaries close to $200,000 a year and Doctor in front of their name.

  28. NewsHound

    There’s an interesting article in Newsweek, page 42 of Dec. 15 issue titled “Bill Gates Goes to School.”Interestingly, and refreshingly, Bill Gates is never heard talking about qualified teachers. Instead, it is effective teachers. Yet, our school systems focus on qualifications, and set, in some cases, enormous pay scales on the so-called, ineffective, qualifications.The article says that Gates called President-elect Obama last week and “reports back cheerily that Obama ‘said all the right things’ about including big money for education in the stimulus package and making fundamental school reform (not the fake kind pushed by teachers unions) a priority.”The article also reports, “Before the school bell rings, a quick read on the economy from the man who, at last count, still had a larger net worth than the GDP of 120 of the world’s 180 countries. “We’re going to have a heck of a recession,” he says, and he has no clue about its duration or depth. He’s worried about a “negative feedback cycle” with lower production and unemployment feeding off each other. He laments that exports have fallen sharply over the last three months even though American goods are cheap. And he sees the auto bailout as nothing less than a shakedown by Chicken Little executives, noting that the British public wasted $16 billion bailing out Leyland before it died, anyway.”At the same time, Gates doesn’t buy that the tech revolution is winding down.”It’s the longer-term outlook he’s worried about. He sees that social inequities at home and abroad are harmful not just morally but economically, which explains his obsession with confronting the high-school dropout rate. Over time, he explains, a less equal world hurts everyone.”Betraying his own professional background, Gates shakes his head in dismay at the idea of secondary schools and colleges trying to function at all without simple software that offers them basic statistical information about how students and teachers are performing over time (for-profit colleges are an exception). Everyone in education knows why: unions have simply prevented teachers from being judged, even in part, on whether their students improve during the course of the year. It’s no surprise that Gates is a believer in merit pay and incentive pay and has little use for teachers colleges as presently constituted because there’s no evidence that having a master’s degree improves teacher performance. You never hear Gates or his people talk about highly qualified teachers, only highly effective ones.”

  29. Bill H.

    NewsHound, you bring up valid arguments, many of which I at least partially agree with. I’m going to close my end of the discussion by making just two brief points. I admire Bill Gates for his extraordinary generosity and his concern for those on the underside of life. However:1) The fact that he has a higher GDP than 120 of the world’s 180 countries does not qualify him as an expert on teaching. In my view, if you haven’t been in front of a classroom for an extended period of time, you’re not an expert, no matter how wealthy you are.2) Gates has a healthy respect for efficiency, as anybody should. But if Gates, or anybody else in the private sector, has an inefficient, recalcitrant employee, he fires him, end of problem. If a teacher in a class of 30 students has a similar problem, or in many cases multiple problems, no such option is available. Classroom teachers are the solution of last resort; the problems stop–and stay–there. So before we get all enthusiastic about judging teachers, let’s set some parameters that take into account socio-economic background, family situation, court involvement, etc. If somebody can find a fair, objective way to judge the performance of classroom teachers, I’m all for it. But that will not be as easy as it sounds.

  30. Dan Kennedy

    Malcolm Gladwell has a great story on the difficulty of measuring teacher effectiveness in the current New Yorker.

  31. Bill H.

    Dan, excellent article. I would love to work in a situation like the one envisioned here, and I know lots of others who would also. Two quick and unrelated observations:1) Effective teacher evaluation depends upon effective administrators, the Dan Shonkas of the ed. world. They’re not so easy to find either.2) I think that teaching is already changing in one interesting way. When I started in 1969, most teachers intended to make it a life long career; they were in for the duration. I no longer think that is the case. Many young teachers now figure to stay in the profession for just a few years and then move on. That might not be a bad thing, if the right people are hired.

  32. NewsHound

    I fully agree that the wealth accumulated by Bill Gates is substantially a worthless reminder and I shouldn’t have even picked up that portion of the article. The mere fact that he is wealthy because he and opportunity met at the perfect time has nothing to do with any new ideas except that we pretty much know that he is bright, honest, observant and experienced in the business world.And, coming up with a solution that efficiently and fairly culls out the ineffective educators, and utilizing innovative technology to provide better education at less cost is an extraordinary challenge.But, like the challenges we face on global warming, renewable sources of energy, affordable delivery of health care, and better health care, the effectiveness and efficiency of education, too, will benefit society with the opportunity of better solutions. We need to be alert to observe the problems, attempt to find solutions and execute an improved system.

  33. Mike from Norwell

    Dan, great discussions here about public pensions. However, noone here is responding to the real problem: these plans are horribly underfunded (and that is before the market correction). Suggest you download that Excel spreadsheet on the Globe site to see for yourself.In the private sector under the Pension Protection Act of 2006, if the funding percentage dips below 60%, all future benefit accruals are cut off until funding improves. Look at that spreadsheet closely: the vast majority of the plans are below 100% funding (which doesn’t mean that future benefits are funded, just that what people have earned to date actually have sufficient assets to pay what they’ve earned).That is the time bomb I referenced originally. I really don’t care about the particulars of the pension features or equity; the problem is that the money isn’t there to pay these benefits right now.

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