BY JOEL L. SHAIN Individuals decide to become teachers so they can make a difference in a child's life. Their incentive is not the money. Theirs is not the greed of a Gordon Gekko rogue investment banker. Rather, they desire a decent salary, benefits and the opportunity to advance. An educated professional deserves that much.
Teaching our children is a profession requiring academic preparation and continuous learning. It is not a business. Kids are not pieces of steel to be turned into identical cars. Neither are teachers single units. They are members of a team headed by a principal-coach, dedicated to improving the student as a whole person. Math, English, Science, Art, Music, Gym teachers, all must work together to make each student smarter, more curious, and a better citizen - in the end, a person designed to benefit our society as a whole.
Against this backdrop comes the hue and cry of "our schools are failing." And whom do they blame? The teachers of course, the logical scapegoats of the simple-minded. Their proferred solutions: merit pay -- ostensibly to reward good teachers and, punish bad teachers. Although a good sound bite, it makes no sense, and if effectuated will cause untold harm to a public school system that has been the backbone of our country.
The reality is that our public schools are not failing. They are doing quite well, despite being underfunded by a state government unwilling to accept its constitutional responsibility to provide a thorough and efficient system of free public schools to all children, urban and suburban; in spite of an unfair, antiquated tax scheme which seeks to fund education based on the worth of real property within a school district; and in spite of a governor who takes pride in demeaning the teaching profession and its representatives. This same governor slashed school aid by $820 million and lost $400 million of federal grant money because of a personal vendetta against that same union.
The answer is not to attack teachers and their representatives, but to support and encourage them. Teachers, present and future, must know that government recognizes the nobility and challenges of their profession and rewards them fairly.
But merit pay or pay for performance is not the solution. Not only does it foster fear and anxiety, but there are too many uncontrollable variables and pitfalls. Who decides who gets what? Is the criteria objective, i.e., standardized test, or subjective, i.e., a principal's evaluation, or a little bit of both? Do we look to short-term or long-term goals? What happens to the team concept? How are specialists, i.e., art, music and gym teahcers, graded? What about those who teach our special needs students? The work of a professional teacher is complex, multifaceted and not easily rewarded through a merit pay approach.
The use of test scores to evaluate teachers makes no sense. Not only would it encourage teachers to feature test taking skills over learning, but it is an unreliable measure. Teachers, unlike lawyers who take cases on contingency, cannot pick their clients. It is often the luck of the draw which students are assigned to a class. Also, most factors, such as parental guidance, mentors, fellow teachers, specialists and administrators and, of course, sociological and economic issues, are outside a teacher's control.
However, other types of financial incentives, such as paying accomplished teachers more to work in high poverty districts or in scarce fields like math and science, are good options. But, to focus on merit pay as a sole cure-all to improve education is misguided zealotry. If educational excellence is the goal, you don't cut, lose, and impede funding for public education and then propose merit pay as a panacea.
When some long forgotten non-educator tied educating kids to running a business, merit pay was brought to the fore. Pay for performance (merit pay) determined quantitatively, is used in business to reward short-term gains, e.g., investment banks, insurance and real estate companies. (Think Lehman Brothers, AIG, housing bubble!). In contrast, the work of a professional teacher of children is complex, multifaceted and not easily summarized by simple quantitative measures.
What is needed to improve our educational system is not a kneejerk quick fix unworkable proposal like merit pay, but a long-term, well-thought out approach to encourage bright, energetic, caring folks to become teachers, by rewarding them with decent pay and providing them with advanced educational programs to make them better. Government should become a cheerleader for this noble profession, not try to tear it down.
Joel L. Shain is an attorney and Democratic County Committeeman from Somerset.
Unfortunately the people in power -specifically Governor "I'm Going To Disneyworld!" Christie - promote the opposite polices that Mr. Shain is writing about.
In fact, as soon as Governor Christie finishes eating all that fudge he bought on Main Street at Disneyworld during his Snowmaggedon 2010 trip, he'll be back to teacher bashing.
It's hard to bash teachers when you have Disneyworld fudge in your mouth - especially the peanut butter variety.