2005-06-03 / Columnists

School Scope

Mer-it-oc-ra-cy
By Norman Scott


“Did you see the article about raising salaries of good teachers to $150,000? It sounds like a good idea.” My wife and I were driving to a restaurant in Jackson Heights.

She was referring to Matt Miller’s recent op-ed piece in the NY Times where he proposed a “grand bargain” that would “raise salaries for teachers in poor schools by 50 percent” if the unions would “abandon their lock-step pay scale so that we could raise the top half of performers (and those in shortage fields like math and science) another 50 percent…. [and] make it much easier to fire the worst teachers, who are blighting the lives of countless kids.”

“Ahhh! Another grand merit pay scheme,” I said. “And another just-get-rid-of-the bad-teachers solution to the educational problem.

“Well, what’s wrong with paying good teachers more?” she said. My wife works in a hospital. Where are the editorials to get rid of the worst doctors, who actually end up killing people?

“Exactly who gets merit pay in the hospital,” I asked? “Do doctors who cure more patients get more money?”

“No, obviously not. Merit pay must be based on a bottom line – something that can be measured.”

“I bet if a hospital really tried it could come up with a cure rate. I wonder how doctors would react to proposals that based their pay not on the number of patients they saw but on how many recovered from illness?”

“Not very well I imagine,” she said.

Merit and differential pay (“combat pay” for working in tough neighborhoods) – the LA Times reports that 64% in California feel that teachers should be paid based on merit rather than seniority – have become the latest educational-cure scheme. I often wonder how merit/differential pay would be applied to firemen and police. Walking a beat in Brownsville is worth more than one on Manhattan’s upper east side. More money for more arrests or the number of summonses (think there would be a slight increase in city revenue?) Pay firemen based on the number of people they save or how fast they can climb a ladder.

I switched to a new line of questioning. “What makes a good teacher?”

“You would have to measure how their kids performed,” my wife said.

“Performed on what? One test a year? Two? Or even three? What about how they grew intellectually? Or modified their behavior in positive ways?”

“You would have to take those factors into account. Their poverty level. Their home life. Did they do their homework? etc.”

“So to make merit pay that goes beyond measurement by a few tests really fair we would have to give each child a ‘degree of learning difficulty’ number. We would also have to factor in the number of kids in the class. Probably a lot more factors too, like the kind of support given the teacher from administrators (don’t assume all teachers are created equal when it comes to getting the assistance of administrators) and the kind of support given schools by the region (don’t assume all schools are created equal when it comes to regional support).”

We arrived at the restaurant having had enough food for thought for the evening. But there’s a lot more red meat to a discussion of merit pay than meets the eye. (This restaurant serves mostly chicken.) Let’s go back to Miller’s op-ed piece.

“Researchers agree that one of the best things government can do to help poor children is raise teacher quality. Yet poor schools today attract the bottom third of the college class. Why? Compare a typical urban district with its affluent suburbs nearby. When the suburbs (1) pay more, (2) have better working conditions and (3) serve easier-to-teach kids who bring fewer problems to school, it’s no surprise that the best teachers gravitate to the best suburban schools.”

I do not accept the thesis that the “best” have gravitated to the suburbs. Miller says it himself –the job is not as difficult in the suburbs. Many have gravitated there not just for the money but because they got frustrated and tired of swimming upstream in the maze of bureaucracy in urban schools (a significant factor ignored by Miller.) Would they have stayed for more money? Maybe. But I would also bet that even if they could earn more in tough-to-teach schools, many would still prefer the easier-to-teach suburbs.

How do suburbs know they are getting the “best?” Miller’s definition of the best turns out to be “those who perform,” though he never defines exactly what he means by “perform.” US DOE Secretary Margaret Spellings’ definition is – teachers who make real progress closing the achievement gap in the most challenging classrooms. How do the suburbs know the teachers – the “best” as Miller says – they are hiring have gotten results? Do teachers have to show reading score results to demonstrate they have made “real progress”? Do suburbs hire teachers based on previous performance? Do they pay teachers based on performance? In fact, most suburbs with successful schools use the dreaded pay-by-seniority system.

If money is the bottom line for teachers why aren’t more private and parochial school teachers, who often make much less than NYC school teachers, flocking to the public schools? They are stopped by two factors: 1) Working conditions in many public schools are not acceptable to them. Parochial school teachers who have made the move will tell you this all the time – conditions are so much tougher in NYC schools. 2) The need to be officially licensed- that is what is often meant by “qualified”. But we know the elite private schools have almost no “qualified” teachers by this standard, yet people pay up to $25,000 a year to entrust their kids to these teachers. Both these factors reinforce the fact that money alone will not draw teachers.

Miller talks only about redressing the pay issue while ignoring the other two factors he mentions – working conditions and hard-to-teach kids. What about reducing class size, a key working condition (suburban class sizes are usually 20-25% lower than the city) or addressing the problems harder-to-teach kids bring to school? His solution is to throw money at teachers with the expectation that it will attract high quality “super” teachers who l will get “results” even if they have 40 in a class or are teaching kids with enormous problems.

Miller goes on, “The top performing half of teachers (and the shortage specialties) would average $90,000. The best teachers would earn up to $150,000…. This isn’t to diminish the many great teachers who work their hearts out for poor kids in trying conditions. But it’s these teachers who’ve told me with passion how mediocre many of their colleagues are. We’re essentially relying on missionaries to staff schools in poor neighborhoods.”

Phew! There’s a lot of meat to chew on in this statement. When you discuss paying teachers in shortage areas more money, generally this means math. Now why people who teach trigonometry are considered more valuable than people who teach American history is beyond me. (Why does everyone other than math majors have to take trigonometry at all?) Consider the state of general knowledge (or ignorance) in this country regarding American political institutions and the oft-repeated statement that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Is it more important to have an educated citizenry or to know higher-level math? Yet math is given much higher priority – school success is measured by it – than social studies. Why aren’t schools measured by the ability of their kids to use a map to find their way home, a much more important practical skill that is barely taught anymore? Miller wants to pay math teachers more than social studies teachers because of supply and demand. I wonder exactly how much more money it will take to get top-notch math people to leave other jobs and go teach in East New York?

Let’s talk about how great teachers tell Miller with such passion just “how mediocre many of their colleagues are.” How does Miller know they are great? Did he see them teach? When I used to talk about education to non-educators they used to say, “you must be a great teacher” because I talked with passion and interest and genuine feelings for the kids. But I knew the truth – there were days and parts of days and even years when I was great (not all that often), average-to-good, or even mediocre.

How do these “passionate” teachers know so many of their colleagues are mediocre? When do they get to see them teach? Many teachers judge others based on what is heard in the halls or comments made in the teacher rooms. Or the opinions of administrators. There’s no question there are some teachers who are consistently mediocre, though that has a lot to do with attitude towards the kids. I have worked with teachers with terrible attitudes who did a very solid job of teaching and teachers who had wonderful feelings towards the kids who couldn’t teach their way out of a paper bag. I wonder if parents could chose, would they pick a mean teacher who could teach or a nice teacher who couldn’t?

I also saw teachers who were exceptional early in their careers but the flame grew so dim by the end of their careers, they were burned out hulks. A teaching career is a marathon (an increasingly longer marathon that many teachers will never complete due to Tier 4 pensions), not a sprint and I would ask Miller to talk to these “passionate” teachers in 20 years, if he can find them.

I had made all these arguments to my wife by the time we reached the restaurant and had a lot more to say but we were sitting down to eat with a bunch of friends. “Did I convince you?” I said. “Maybe,” she said. “Can we please just eat now?”

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