Heaping Insults on America’s Teachers

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Common Dreams

Heaping Insults on America’s Teachers

When Joe Torre left as manager of the New York Yankees following the 2007 season, it was not without rancor. According to reports, Torre felt that, after years of faithful and productive service, he had been grossly disrespected by Yankee management. Torre turned down a one-year $5 million salary offer, which, while a large chunk of change in the real world, was a hefty $2.5 million less than he’d made the previous season.

But it wasn’t simply the cut in pay that rankled Torre. Rather, it was the insidious suggestion that Torre hadn’t properly applied himself—hadn’t tried hard enough to win games—during the previous three disappointing seasons. To Torre, evidence of that suggestion was demonstrated by the incentive bonuses the Yankees offered.

Per the new offer, Torre would earn a cash bonus if the team won the division, another cash bonus if they won the pennant, and a substantially larger bonus if they went all the way and won the World Series. But instead of being energized or intrigued by the bonuses, Torre was insulted. He took the bonus tie-in to mean the Yanks didn’t think he’d been “putting out” for his $7.5 million, and to a proud man like Torre, that was anathema.

Something similar is going on with America’s public school teachers. Some well-meaning education reformers have suggested that one way to raise the country’s test scores is by offering teachers merit pay in the form of a “performance bonus.” Whenever their students’ test scores rose, they’d be given a pile of cash. Like the Torre situation, the two premises were: (1) that the more money offered, the harder they would work, and (2) that the harder they worked, the better the demonstrable results.

While any public school teacher could tell you that a teacher’s dedication and a classroom’s test results don’t necessarily correlate, it took a respected “merit pay” study by Vanderbilt University to confirm it. The Vanderbilt study showed that by offering middle-school math teachers cash bonuses (some as high as $15,000), there were no significant improvements in test scores.

Again, any teacher could have predicted the results. Money has little to do with it. Most teachers can rattle off the problems automatically: classroom discipline is lacking, students are tardy, students are absent, students refuse to do their homework, parents do little to support their kids’ academic progress, administrators are nothing but highly paid buck-passers, and the standardized state tests (which have ZERO bearing on a kids’ report cards or their opportunity to promote to the next grade) are arbitrary and flawed.

And it’s not as if teachers aren’t looking for solutions. Indeed, teachers are driving themselves crazy trying to come up with new ways, innovative ways, of improving their students’ performance—not just on the standardized state tests, but on everyday learning.

But with all the hysterical criticism being leveled against them, teachers are freaking out, they’re having nervous breakdowns, they’re leaving the profession in droves, looking for shelter. While the job never paid that much to begin with, at least it was gratifying in the sense that teaching was a “valued” profession, because teachers were perceived as the “custodians” of the next generation of America’s leaders. It was a very respectable job.

But that’s all been spoiled by Republican hate-mongers intent on ruining the teachers unions (which give generously to Democratic candidates) and are willing to do so by destroying the reputation of the teachers themselves. Still, the very notion that offering a teacher a pile of cash could make a night-and-day difference in test results just shows how naïve and misguided these reformers are. It’s ludicrous.

Think about it. What’s a teacher going to do for a $5,000 bonus? Is she going to say to her boss, “Wait a minute! Did I hear you right? Did you just say five grand?! Whoa!” Is she then going to tell her class, “Listen up, kids. Starting now, I’m going to teach you little buggers the right way, the EFFECTIVE way. Starting today, I’m going to teach the living crap out of every one of you!! Why? Because it means an extra five grand!”

Putting this whole thing in terms of cash not only ignores the fundamental problems facing America’s schools, it attempts to disgrace a noble profession. The school teacher has been an American icon for more than 300 years, going all the way back to the colonial one-room schoolhouse. To see Republican hate-mongers arrogantly destroy that icon is almost too much to bear.

David Macaray

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

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