Let’s Treat Teachers Like the Professionals They Are
Imagine you’re at work—or, if you’re reading this at work, look around. Are you a productive worker (again, if you’re reading this at work . . .)? Maybe you’re a veteran at your company, who’s so admired that you’re able to slack off a little. Or maybe you’re new to your job, eager to work hard, but you aren’t quite sure how to be one hundred percent productive. You probably don’t do your job perfectly every day.
Now imagine the results of your productivity for the past three years have been published in an internationally renowned newspaper, with your name attached so that everyone can identify you as either a hard worker or a slacker. How would that make you feel?
When Rigoberto Ruelas, a fifth-grade teacher in South Los Angeles, discovered that the LA Times had given him a low performance ranking, he committed suicide.
But teachers’ productivity is so much more important than my productivity, you might argue. They’re responsible for educating future generations. And aren’t most teachers bad at their jobs anyway?
Firstly, no, most teachers are not bad at their jobs. Secondly, if teachers’ roles in society are as important as you say they are, then why don’t we treat them like professionals?
If you think that teachers have it easy because they only have to work from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and have summer vacation, think again. All the teachers I know get to school by 7 a.m. and stay until five or six in the evening, either to coach or to tutor. When they go home, they grade papers and plan lessons, which is also how they spend a good portion of their coveted “vacations.” As a reward, they receive low salaries, little professional guidance, and—if they work in most charters—no union support, no one to take their side if administrators or parents get in their faces.
And now they have to deal with the issue of merit pay.
Theoretically, merit pay is a good idea: good teachers should be financially rewarded, while bad teachers should be fired. That’s how the system works in just about every other occupation in America. However, I’ve yet to see a merit pay plan that actually rewards teachers, instead of also punishing them.
Last year, all of the successful charter management organizations (CMOs) in Los Angeles banded together and received a Gates-Millennium grant, which they decided to put toward developing a merit pay plan for teachers. (Since then, one of the CMOs has gone under, and its students and teachers have merged with one of the other charters in the group.) The plan, as it was explained to my Green Dot colleagues in a 2010 meeting, looks like this:
In order for a teacher to receive a raise, the teacher must demonstrate improved test scores over a three-year period . . . and then also agree to become a mentor teacher and teach an 11-month school year. Teachers who decline to teach an extended school year, or who decline to make their mentorship abilities available, will not receive a salary increase. For the teachers who do concede to the extra month of teaching, they must then demonstrate consistent student achievement over the next few years before they will be considered for their next pay raise . . . which also comes with a condition: they must then consent to teach the lowest-achieving students in the school. And, as far as the CMOs presented the merit pay plan, that’s about where teachers will end up pay-wise, unless they decide to become administrators. And if they become administrators, they will no longer be in the classroom, where they’ve proved to be effective and are possibly needed most.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for good teachers receiving fiscal rewards. However, the problems with this system of merit pay are manifold. What about the teachers who are supporting families with their salaries? A pay raise every three years, with a definite ceiling after two payraises, is not going to cut it. Why should pay raises come with conditions beyond increasing student achievement? Teaching an 11-month school year, or agreeing to teach only the lowest-achieving students, could potentially make a teacher have to choose between what makes him or her happy and what makes him or her money. Adding an extra month to a teacher’s workload significantly decreases the amount of time the teacher needs to adequately prepare for the new school year—if you factor in summer professional development requirements, that extra month effectively robs that teacher of a summer vacation. Moreover, for the teacher who’s perfectly content teaching AP-level classes, the conditional pay raises mean that the teacher would have to either sacrifice teaching something he or she loved, or sacrifice the salary increase.
Finally, these pay raise conditions ultimately create tracking systems within schools. If one of the conditions of a salary increase is that teachers must then teach the “lowest-achieving students,” doesn’t that imply that all the lowest-achieving students will be lumped together? And while there are benefits of homogenous grouping, there are also potential behavioral and academic consequences—these students will never benefit from the peer tutoring of a classmate who understands the subject matter, and they will be less likely to encourage each other to succeed academically.
At some point along the way, the government and the media and the population-at-large decided a bunch of contradictory things: that teachers are the single most important influence on a child’s life outside of the family; that teachers should be responsible for parenting and counseling as well as educating; that teachers in low-income neighborhoods, simply through teaching, should be able to make up for generations of race and class issues that are still inextricably linked to education quality; and that teachers, if they cannot accomplish these things, are the bad guys. No one is willing to see things in shades of gray anymore, and no one, despite the fact that we all agree that students are the most important things, is willing to see that you won’t have good teachers if you don’t have a sustainable environment for those teachers.
And that includes not publishing their productivity results in internationally renowned newspapers.