Telling it Like it Is

So after a nice break, including another successful round of regents and an end of a semester, it’s time to start bringing the heat once again. We’ve only got a few months left in our second year of teaching, and somebody has to tell you like it is from the view of a young educator in New York City.

In my years studying Political Science at Whitworth University, I stood strongly against the entrenched powers of government. It was a very simple thing: those in power were Republican, and I more firmly identified with Democrats, and as such I utilized my education to critique the stance of those in power. However, as a student of Political Science, my interests moved farther and farther away from ideological positions to the position of effective government. I don’t care about Republicans or Democrats; I care about a government that adheres to the principles of good government. In the case of the United States I care about a government that is responsive to the Constitution and the interests and will of the people. As such, my criticism now turns to our new administration. I guess I’m destined to always be part of the counter-culture, even when counter culture is the culture.

Today Barack Obama addressed Congress. He stood before the lawmaking body and eloquently laid out his plans for economic reform. Speaking without pause, without stumble, and with passion, Obama laid out his views on what our nation needs. This charisma and call for change helped Barack Obama to conduct what we might soon call the most effective campaign in history. However, it’s no longer campaign season. Barack Obama has shown himself to be an excellent politician. The question now is can he go beyond the political grandstanding of Congressional speeches and actually lead our nation towards an effective government?

One item that received thunderous applause during Obama’s speech concerned merit pay for teachers. I fear merit pay, not for the principle that it embodies, but for the group think that politicians so often fall into. When explained simply, it sounds pretty good. Pay teachers for their ability to perform in the classroom. Isn’t this the same as it is in the business world? This argument is why so many members of Teach for America and young teachers seem to support merit pay. Unfortunately, in the realm of education, performance isn’t so simple to gauge.

In education, no two situations are the same. First, teachers deal with humans and can not choose who they work with. A teacher may have a higher degree of LTA’s, a higher special ed population, or a group of students who have less skills than the teacher in another room. The argument goes that merit pay should be based on progress to account for that. How is this measured? Any individual who has been in education for a length of time knows that data can be manipulated in a number of ways to show growth or progress. The New York City department of education has given a glimpse into how they’d account for this.

Whether middle school teachers know it or not, they are now part of the added value system. Oh, and high school teachers, this is soon coming to a theater near you. In this system, each teacher receives a value for their performance in the classroom, much like merit pay. This performance is based primarily on two things: promotion rates (passing rates) and test performance. In an earlier article, I talked about how this now creates and incentive to cheat. Furthermore, this will hurt teachers depending on their situation. For example, we have a pre-AP class at our school with our top students. These students already have good work ethics and good skills. All of them passed the class. I have the “normal students”. They did not come in with as much work ethic or as many skills, and some of them failed this past semester. Based on this added value system, the other teacher would receive a higher value than me. However, if I were the teacher in that class, I’d have the same passing rate. So although my value is lower, it’s not a true reflection of what happened in the classroom.

In addition, there is a difference from school to school. Some schools, while they may have the same student populations, might differ in their resources. I come from a well equipped school. I have a smart board, senteo remotes, and an endless supply of office supplies. While this doesn’t make me a better teacher, it certainly makes it easier to do the things that the Department of Education has deemed “good teaching”.

Teaching should be a collaborative job, each person in the school working together for the common good of the students. Merit pay, if not instituted correctly, would make adversaries out of co-workers. They’d fight for the easier assignments and better classes that allow them to get more pay. While competition is good in the marketplaces, when teachers begin to compete against each other rather than collaborate, it’s the students who lose.

In his speech, Obama also mentioned that dropping out of high school is no longer an option. Once again, this sounds good, but upon further review, sometimes not graduating high school might be the best option for a student. We sometimes see graduating high school as a panacea. If a student gets a degree, then their life will be cured of its ills. In our current system, if you don’t graduate high school then society looks down upon you. However, high school may not be for everyone. I know that I just made Teach for America cringe.

That isn’t to say that every student isn’t capable of learning or advancing. I believe that every student has gifts and strengths that they can share with the world. Those gifts might not be in academia. I’ve watched as students struggle with the rigor of high school, leading to frustration and truancy. By the time I get these students as Juniors and Seniors, their habits are extremely difficult to break. Eventually, several midnight miracles happen and graduation rates increase. These students experienced little to no change by graduating high school.

For some of these students, a trade school or GED may have been a better track. For example, a student who was actually very gifted academically struggled with the emotional and social aspect of high school. As such, he acted out and experienced frustration with teachers and administrators. He dropped out of high school and got a GED. This student is now attending the University of Connecticut and doing very well. Another student struggled with academics in high school, and soon got mixed in with the wrong crowd and was arrested multiple times for dealing drugs. This student dropped out of high school and went into a culinary program. He is now staying out of trouble, and enjoying life learning a valuable skill.

These students may be exceptions rather than the rule, but, for them dropping out of high school was a positive option. Maybe instead of focusing on graduating every single student from high school our society needs to focus on positive alternatives to meet the needs and desires of students who may struggle in a high school setting.

I support Barack Obama, and am excited for what his presidency might bring. However, politics are over. The time has come for thoughtful reflection and effective government. With a solid majority in the legislature and four more years in office, Obama doesn’t need to campaign or play politics. We need open and honest discussion and reforms that meet their interest rather than sound good in Congressional speeches.

–John Harlow



Filed under John Harlow

2 responses to “Telling it Like it Is

  1. mastap

    Compelling arguments. There are certainly perverse incentives created by the introduction of merit pay. However, with the right checks in place, appropriate standards, and measurements I believe merit pay can be a very good thing for teachers and students. Just ask the lawyer on the verge of winning a big case, or the investment banker on the brink of a massive venture, or the athlete in a contract year, incentives oftentimes (and sometimes sadly) drive performance. Teachers want their students to succeed, but when you throw additional pay for those Saturday morning sessions, hours tirelessly planning outside of the classroom, and vigilance over student behavior, performance, and progress, more then just teachers win. The students will gain from a harder worker, and intrinsically and extrinsically driven teacher.

  2. jharlow07

    To be honest, I don’t want my co-workers to behave like those examples you gave. As a sports fan, you know what happens when an athlete is motivated by a contract year. The next year they don’t work as hard and consequently suck. The lawyer who wins a big case then takes a month off in the Bahamas. Investment bankers don’t even exist anymore because their drive for incentives broke the financial markets. I didn’t start teaching to make money. Teaching, more than any other profession, has the potential to create transformational change in a young persons life. That is why I teach. I don’t want people coming into teaching with the attitude that “If I’m good at this, I’ll become rich”. I want people intrinsically motivated who focus on the well being of their students.

    And for those things you mentioned with the extra hours, we already have a program for that called per session. So if you are calling for people to fix per session so that teachers actually get paid for the hours they work, I’m all for it. But that is not merit pay.

    There may be some form of merit pay that someday could work. But as I see it now our “objective” measures are broken. Beyond that, I feel that the unforeseen circumstances on the culture of educators would be far to detrimental to make merit pay worth it.

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