February 12, 2005

A Perfect World Without Merit

Justin Katz

Joseph Buffardi, of Cranston, believes that introducing the concept of merit to teachers' career advancement is a utopian idea:

In a perfect world, one could make a case for instituting merit pay for teachers. But this is not a perfect world.

As a public-school faculty member for over 30 years, I will grant that not all administrators are unscrupulous. However, give that kind of control and decision-making power to some administrators, and the door is open for favoritism, patronage, fraternization, discrimination, cronyism, political maneuvering, and manipulation by management -- causing on-the-job discord among teachers concerned with individual performance.

Buffardi glosses over two related considerations. The first is that public schools don't exist for the purpose of providing teachers with a harmonious workplace. We should all prefer teachers to be content with their lot, because professional satisfaction surely results in better teaching, but they aren't the first concern when it comes to education. The students are.

The second consideration is that the environment in which those students learn is ultimately the administrators' responsibility, and they are not unaccountable if their shenanigans affect the children's education. Perhaps some teachers are uncomfortable with such duties, but as a group, they have shown no fear of raising issues with the local community, and it is part of their job to make a case when they see things going awry.

Even if merit becomes a euphemism of favoritism, I'm not persuaded that rivalry, even a little bit of divisiveness, among teachers wouldn't ultimately benefit the students. The "healthy group dynamic" that Buffardi praises can manifest as mob groupthink. Moreover, his subsequent assertion that "it's no secret that an unscrupulous principal can hand-pick teachers and parents to form a rubber-stamp committee" casts doubt on the actual state of the "group dynamic."

Teachers wary of merit need insist only that such rewards be placed on top of reasonable union-negotiated raises. That Buffardi characterizes functional merit-based systems as the stuff of fantasy makes audible an interesting philosophical echo of the recent spelling bee fracas in Lincoln. There, administrators claimed to interpret "no child left behind" as synonymous with "no child gets ahead." Given that mentality in the public school system, opposition to merit pay sounds a bit like a "no teacher left behind" policy.

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It has always been silly to have teachers in a non-competitive system teaching children the skills necessary to live in a competitive world. How in the world could a system that seeks to remove "musical chairs" and "spelling B's" as being oppresive to the individual ever truly understand the benefits of competition?

Posted by: Jeff Miller at February 12, 2005 1:30 PM

Justin: I saw the same letter and attached my commentary about it on an earlier, related posting. You add some important additional perspectives. Don

Posted by: Donald B. Hawthorne at February 12, 2005 5:03 PM

Have either of you actually been in a classroom and tried to teach anything? You will quickly find out that there are students there that are bright and willing to do the work and listen in class. There are also students that just sit in class and do nothing. Then there are the kids that disrupt class, and reduce time to teach the good students. And finally there are the "mainstreamed" special ed kids that really have no buisness being in the same classroom as the other kids. Dealing with the last 2 classes of kids in the classroom leaves very little time to efectivly teach the rest. Add in the time you have to do various "administrative" things, like attendance, office visits, tardy students, and other things the office demands of the teacher, you end up with no time in a 50 minuite class to do anything. This leads to the bright kids getting turned off of learning.
I agree that there are good teachers and bad teachers. I think merit pay is not the right approach to better education. What would REALLY work is getting all the people that think they know how to teach (like politicians, "concerned" parents, the media, and anyone that hasnot EVER tried to teach, and teach for more that a week) out of the picture. Then stop this mainstreaming nonsence. Life is not fair, get over it. Some people just are not as smart as other people. So put the smart kids in with other smart kids, the middle of the roaders in with like kids, and the lower ability kids in their group. The lessons could then be tailored to the needs of the kids in that learning group, instead of a scattershot attempt to teach all at the same level. This is how it was in the school I grew up in, and it worked out fine for everyone. But can you imagine the screems from the parents of the bottom group? This is why it went away, and why you now have a teacher teaching and babysitting the dumest kids in their class rather than EDUCATING kids of like educational needs.
Teachers can teach, but the way the system is now they are not allowed to. This is why they burn out. And yes, some teachers are paid very well, but most are not. The ones that do get paid well earn it by working in the lousiest districts, with gangs, fights and drugs running rampant. Would you want to go to work every day, knowing that someone WILL get mad at something you have done/said, that no one cares about what you are doing, a decent chance of having to step in and stop a fight once a week, hate mail and phone calls for giving a kid that has done NO work a failing grade and on and on? I would bet not. Like I said, come out and actually put you but in the classroom, and then talk to me.

Posted by: ron at February 13, 2005 12:08 PM

Okay, Ron, I've taught for more than a week, so may I be confident that you won't dismiss my opinion out of hand?

Look, I agree with you that the erasure of distinct tracks according to aptitude hurts all of the students, as well as the teacher. But that's irrelevant to the point at hand, and this whole notion that people who have never taught must be gotten "out of the picture" is simply ridiculous bravado. (I wonder how many teachers take this same view of their schools' administrators.)

I know first hand that teaching is not easy, but a whole lot of things aren't easy. The education industry is no different than any other, in that it takes not only an array of professionals working in their own capacity, but also the involvement of any and all "concerned" parents and community members. The teacher is not the god of the classroom. The teacher is not there to teach in spite of the principal, or the parents, or the community... or the students. The teacher is there to teach in accord with the roles of others within the school and within the society.

Posted by: Justin Katz at February 13, 2005 6:58 PM

why do some teachers do not go to class but give high grades to the student at the end of the semester?and why do some teachers seldom go to class and only give high grades to those they knew personally?..why do they do not look on the students performance?..

Posted by: ken at September 11, 2005 1:47 AM

why do some teachers do not go to class but give high grades to the student at the end of the semester?and why do some teachers seldom go to class and only give high grades to those they knew personally?..why do they do not look on the students performance?..

Posted by: ken at September 11, 2005 1:47 AM