Merit Pay: A Start toward Making Sure Teachers Follow Their Job Descriptions

Posted: Sep 13, 2010 11:00 AM

Howls of protest are coming from Los Angeles teachers whose evaluations on their effectiveness in raising student test scores have been published in the Los Angeles Times.

But that is to be expected, for teachers are among the very few professions who feel that they can write their own job descriptions and evaluations. The statement of one teacher, that she was proud to have ranked “’less effective,’” because that showed that she chose to “’teach to the emotional and academic needs’” of her students was quite telling.

Since when did teachers’ bosses (the citizens) ask them to teach to students’ “emotional needs”? And how are “academic needs” apart from what students can demonstrate on tests: that they have acquired a body of knowledge and set of skills?

But teachers have rewritten their own job descriptions under the cloak of “professionalism.”

Furthermore, the emotional needs get mixed up with the “academic needs,” so that teaching becomes a part of manipulating students’ feelings under the cover of “critical thinking.” Not surprisingly, once they are led in a certain direction by emotional pressure, students’ opinions match those of their teachers, now known as “facilitators.”

I saw such arrogance displayed when I spent two long days with social studies teachers at the National Council for the Social Studies annual meeting in Atlanta last November. A theme repeated over and over was how to impart “social justice” lessons in the classroom while officially meeting state mandates. Not once did I hear anyone voice a concern with raising test scores or teaching history and civics objectively to students.

We are told that teachers work very hard, but what was expected of them as demonstrated in a workshop called “TCI strategies on the question, ‘How did change and conflict shape the American West?’” didn’t seem all that difficult.

Following the dominant mantra that the teacher should be “the guide on the side,” rather than the “sage on the stage,” the teacher conducting the demonstration hit the play button on the stereo so eleventh-grade students could listen to the song “Home on the Range” and then speculate in their little groups about the “feelings” of various victims and victimizers.

Another workshop was led by a “shadow senator” from the District of Columbia and an “activist.” They told teachers how to get K-12 students involved with lobbying and street protest for D.C. statehood. You can read my full report here.

But this is the kind of thing that teachers learn in education schools at the undergraduate and graduate level. It was displayed by an education professor from Clayton State University, who responded to a local test-altering scandal in an op-ed, in which she questioned the importance of knowing such things as the dates of the Civil War.

As I learned from perusing her and other education professors’ syllabi, teacher education students are expected not to know the subject matter they are teaching but to think and feel “deeply.” The class requirements consisted largely of journal entries, “response” papers, and “deep” discussions in the classroom.

What most of us would see as a topic for discussion over a couple of margaritas is the basis for certification and then the advanced degrees that catapult teachers into higher salary brackets. The other way to get a pay raise is to just stay on a job that is protected fiercely by the union. Nice work if you can get it.

Merit pay alone will not right a topsy-turvy system. As in politics, we need more citizen activism. There needs to be much more oversight of curricula. Teachers themselves should be tested on the subjects they teach, for studies show that their knowledge translates into student success. We should take advantage of technology—not the attention-inhibiting, expensive razzle-dazzle “learning” programs—but cameras in the classroom. In addition to being able to view classrooms on tape, citizens should be invited to sit in on classes and evaluate.

Teachers unions will object loudly, citing such concerns as privacy, the First Amendment, “professional standards,” etc. But other employees know that even their email correspondence on the job is subject to scrutiny by employers and that their raises are based on performance. Why should it be any different for teachers?