2000-04-01 / Columnists

School Scope

by Howard Schwach

I have written before on merit pay and will probably do so again as long as our mayor is ensconced in Gracie Mansion.

He seems to believe that teachers are making widgets or selling real estate rather than teaching children.

Summer school is usually a bucolic time with smaller classes and a more relaxed pace.

Not in New York City. In our city it becomes a political football, with the mayor as the quarterback and merit pay as the football itself.

First, you have to realize that this year is a new ballgame. In the past, high school kids went to summer school when they failed a regent’s test or two in order to make up that deficiency. Very few middle school or elementary school kids went to summer school. The summer was more a time for vacation, day camps and for surfing at Rockaway Beach.

Middle school and elementary school kids did not go to summer school because they did not have to. Under the misguided theory that you harmed the self-esteem of kids by holding them back, everybody got promoted no matter what.

I am not an apologist for that policy because I have been against it for the past 20 years. For most of those years I worked for a principal in a Far Rockaway intermediate school who was so strongly in favor of moving kids along that it became his mantra.

He was an immigrant who came to American as a young boy and who did not speak the language. He strongly believed that it would harm a child and ultimately cause that child to drop out of school if he or she were left back. He also often pointed out that the holdovers were usually the problem kids and that he didn’t want them in his school for another year.

His views were politically correct in those days, but they are no longer so.

At one time we had a "Gates Program" in our school. Those "gates" were at the third and seventh grades. Students who did not reach the right benchmarks (we call them "standards" today) were put into Gates classes until they could meet the benchmarks. The classes were smaller and they focused on reading and math. Many of the best teachers in the school were assigned to the Gates classes. It was a successful program, but Koch and Dinkins killed it in increments because there were too many minority kids in the program and political correctness therefore deemed it "racist."

The growth and demise of the Gates Program is instructive in relation to this summer. Good programs do not last. Successful programs often do not last. Political programs, such as the bilingual program and funded programs, often last forever.

Merit pay is the quintessential political program. It has no educational merit. In fact, it often serves to hide good educational practices from the classroom teachers it would serve best.

Let’s say, for example that the mayor holds his breath long enough and gets what he wants. He wants to pay summer school bonuses ranging from $500 to $4,000 for teachers whose classes do well in summer school.

This sounds rational and impressive until you begin to look at what it really means.

Let’s say that I am teaching literacy to 15 eighth grade students who need to pass the ELAS test in order to move on to high school. All of the students are in Level III and need to get to Level II in order to get promoted. Some are close others far from the target.

I will get my basic pay for the hours that I put in, but there is a range of bonuses from $500 to $4,000 if my kids do better than the kids in the classes on either side of my room. Those kids have roughly the same problems that my kids have and the their teachers are as experienced and determined to get the bonus as I am.

I awake one night with an epiphany. It comes to me in a bolt, the secret of how to teach these kids to pass the test.

I get up the next morning and try my idea with my class. It works perfectly and in five days my kids are passing all of the practice tests with ease. All of my kids will pass the test.

Meanwhile, the kids in the next two rooms are struggling along. Most of them will fail the test and get left back.

I have two choices. Do I continue to keep my secret method to myself, thereby guaranteeing that I will get the $4,000 bonus while the other teachers will get less? Or, do I immediately go to my colleagues and tell them the simple secret so that they can teach their kids to pass the test as well?

I am not going to tell you what I would do, because I am not sure.

As a long-time educator, dedicated to the education of students, I should go to my colleagues and tell them how to do it. Then, I should go to the district staff developers and show them how to do it so that they can spread the word to all the other teachers in the district.

That’s what I should do. Four grand is a lot of money, however, and I might just keep my method as my secret, take the money and run.

After all, if the mayor wants me to be paid likes a salesperson in a realty firm, why shouldn’t I act like one?

Education is supposed to be collegial, not competitive. Ideas that work are meant to be shared, not hidden. We are not salespeople, trying to outdo the salesperson at the next desk for commissions, prizes and for ego.

That is the main reason that merit pay will not serve education well.

There is a second reason, however. Merit pay will simply not work. There is no rationale way to judge one teacher against another, not by experience, not by student’s scores, not by any other rational factor.

In a real estate office, everybody is trying to sell the same basic properties to the same basic clientele. The one that sells the most homes or the most expensive homes or who makes the largest commission is usually the best salesperson (or, the luckiest).

Let’s say that there is a plan to give an extra bonus to the one real estate salesperson in the entire city who earns the highest commission during the month of April. Should the realtors in Rockaway be ranked against those in the Five Towns? Is there any way they can be judged fairly, one area against the other? We all know that location counts in the realty business and we should know that it counts in education as well.

Schools are very different places. Even within this district, teachers in mainland schools would have a decided advantage over those who teach in Rockaway schools.

It is much easier to take a student who is reading at the top of Level III and move that student to Level II than to take a student who is in Level IV and move that student to Level II.

It would be unfair to pay the teacher in the mainland school more than the teacher in the Rockaway school would simply because he or she had the good luck to be in a "better" school.

It is becoming clear that the system will not get the 17,000 teachers it needs for summer school. The job posting should have been done last month at the latest. Some sort of across-the-board bonus system should have been in place.

The chancellor is already saying that he might have to "scale down" the summer school program. That will guarantee that one of two things will happen: either more kids will be left back or social promotion will be allowed for those kids for whom there is no room at the inn. You can bet the mortgage that it will be the latter rather than the former.

This has become a political battle, so far from educational value that it probably does not belong in this school column. It is so typical of the way things work under a political system such as ours, that it bears repeating, however.

The problem is, no matter what the outcome, the kids will suffer.

 

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