Posted in Rants on April 21st, 2010 by Ed

Florida, in a fit of apparent jealous rage over the recent attention lavished upon the educational system in Texas, has tried to one-up their brazenly ignorant friend to the west. Because we are so fond of making "tough choices" in this society (especially in the South) the Sunshine State decided that it was about time to try to knock those fat-cat bankers and real estate speculators a peg.

Oh, sorry. I misread something. Replace "bankers and real estate speculators" with "public school teachers." Enough of their high-on-the-hog living, it's time to take away tenure (making them at-will employees, sort of like gas station cashiers but with your kids for 7 hours per day) and make their pay merit based. Bad standardized test scores = lower salary. Brilliant. I'm sure it will save trillions.

Fortunately Charlie Crist vetoed this train wreck of a bill, but regardless I think it is worth talking about why teachers have tenure and why tying salaries to student performance is ludicrous.

First, regarding compensation, let's be honest: nobody gets into teaching to get rich. Very few of us are make big bucks by private sector standards even at the post-secondary level. So the salaries aren't too big of a deal even though Florida's are already $5000 below the national average. Florida teachers are doing better than a lot of people these days. That said, people teach for the same reason one becomes a civil servant – job security.

We already have a teacher shortage in this country, and people simply aren't going to do this job without the possibility of tenure. The reasons are not complex. The job kinda sucks. It's rewarding at times but often it's just hard and time consuming. Granted, it's not "hard" compared to jobs that subject one to hazardous conditions or manual labor, but it's not easy. It takes over our lives. When we're not in front of a classroom we're at home grading and formulating lesson plans. In my case, it requires most of my time to handle three classes, and K-12 teachers teach a hell of a lot more than I do. And they are also burdened with surrogate parenting some or all of their students, depending on the location of the school. So teachers accept the 12 hour days and the salaries that range from good to "meh" to pretty bad in exchange for some job security. I can't imagine who's going to line up for 12 hour days, "meh" salaries, and at-will employment. If that's going to be your job description, why would anyone choose to deal with 150 asshole kids every day to get it?

Don't misunderstand me, I don't believe that there would suddenly be no teachers without tenure. The job would be considerably less appealing, though, and only the current Recession-era lack of alternatives would keep talented people from pursuing other opportunities.

Then there's the merit pay issue. Holy crap is this a stupid idea.

It's an appealing concept on the surface – no performance, no pay – usually generating the most enthusiasm among people whose salaries are in no way dependent on their performance (like state legislators, for example). Imagine, however, that at age 10 my parents sent me to a world-famous coach to train me as a tennis player. I have absolutely no talent whatsoever for tennis. A really good coach could maximize whatever meager skills I have, but I would still suck at the end. And I would suck even more if during non-practice hours my parents fed me nothing but Twinkies, beat me, and deprived me of sleep. That would substantially limit what the coach could get out of me, no?

No one wants to admit this within or outside of the profession, but there really are substantial limits to what we can do for students. There are a lot of students who can be "reached" and a good teacher can and should reach them, improving their performance and making them love learning. But let's be honest – not all of the baby turtles are going to make it back to the ocean. This is particularly true given that the influence teachers have over students is limited. With sufficiently terrible parenting, some students aren't going to learn no matter what. We get students for an hour or two per day. If they go home to eight hours of video games/TV, homes that have no reading material in them, parents who haven't (and possibly can't) read a book in their lives, and parent-child learning that consists mostly of how to lie to a parole officer, commit credit card fraud, or tend to a meth lab, what does society expect us to do? If a kid is deluged with young Earth creationism, Glenn Beck, and the collected works of the Michigan Militia, what I ask him to read isn't going to matter.

I think most semi-conscious people realize both of these things but punishing public servants is a hobby for a growing segment of this country. Our attitudes toward one another are so bitter and so mean-spirited that public support for an idea like eliminating tenure boils down to "I don't have job security, so fuck you. You shouldn't have any either." It is entirely independent, in other words, of the rational consideration of why tenure exists and what role it plays in the profession. And while it is both tempting and convenient to blame our continuing slide into mass stupidity on teachers, the reality is that you are teaching your kids more than any state employee ever can. If your kid is one of the many who qualify as totally ignorant and disinterested in becoming less ignorant, look in the mirror. In a society that exalts anti-intellectualism and every variety of denialism and hostility toward science, teachers are trying to bail the water out of a sinking ship; at best we can manage to keep it afloat, and it's not realistic to expect us to make it go full speed ahead.