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.

58 thoughts on “RESPONSIBILITY”

  • The whole point of merit pay isn't how good you can make the students in a nutshell, but how good you can relative to other teachers. Students, on average, with the worst teachers "know" about half a year of material, with good teachers, about a year and a half. There's still a clear difference in quality relative to other teachers, no matter how they manage to do it.

    Not really sure what's so tragic about trying to pick out those that do it better, no matter how they manage to do it. You have a skewed perspective because you're actually one of the teachers. Look at the alternative system we have now – teachers in higher education are chosen based on ability to write academic papers. Or in the younger grades, their ability to get hired and not fuck up for three years while they get tenure. Really, I've had a number of teachers who care a lot and put in a ton of effort, but I've had a bunch of teachers that just don't give a fuck, and really, shouldn't be teachers.

    If you're good and put in the effort, you'll do fine in a merit system. If you're one of the slackers, you'll get the axe, or a lower pay check. Really, grow some balls, come to grips with the fact that you live in a market economy, and welcome some accountability – because the rest of us not in the profession sure as hell would.

  • Ed,

    Great post as usual. Two further points, which come from years of growing up with a mother who teaches fourth grade at a low-income school:

    1) One thing that seems to be lost in all the current discussion is CLASS SIZES. Your average K-12 teacher has to spend a good chunk of his/her day keeping order and discipline, because, let's face it, many 5-18-year-olds aren't very well behaved. This is especially true in low-income schools, where problems at home (drugs, violence, absentee parents, etc.) sadly reflect on both the performance and behavior of many children. Naturally, keeping discipline in a large class is difficult; the larger the class, the harder. As states (including my arch-blue home state, California) cut hundreds of millions of dollars, lay off teachers, and suspend hiring, class sizes skyrocket–as they have been doing in many states even before the depression. I don't have any hard data, but I have lots of anecdotal evidence to back up this assertion: true, long-term school improvement will require hiring thousands, maybe millions, of new teachers to bring class sizes to an appropriate level.

    On a related point (1a, I suppose), schools also need to bolster support staff. My mom and her colleagues had to teach kids who spoke minimal English, or whose parents spoke none. Trying to do this while simultaneously catering to the students whose first language is English quickly devolves into a nasty juggling act. Support staff can help alleviate this burden, among others. It would be nice if low-income schools could, you know, have a librarian or two…

    2) Our Colleges of Education, by and large, are failing us. Too many programs get bogged down in Educational Theory, which is mostly bullshit, and fail to adequately teach more important things like lesson planning and classroom management (aka discipline). Again, I admit my evidence is anecdotal, but I've heard many, many stories of young teachers being torn to shreds by students for lack of adequate planning/management skills. You can't teach kids anything if you can't keep them still.

    I've read that many European countries don't have Colleges of Education on the American model. Instead, teachers get degrees in whichever field they're going to teach, and then (perhaps) a supplementary credential. Maybe we should emulate that approach.

  • Jordan,

    I'm generally a supporter of free markets. I'm also sane enough to know that primary education isn't a market, and that it doesn't function like one. The very concept of mandatory primary education is kinda, like, socialist and stuff. It's also a very nice import from socialism, one that (I believe) enhances markets.

    Merit pay sounds nice in theory, but how would you implement it? Test scores? Do you really think those are a reliable measure of a teacher's performance? Maybe to a degree, but I'm not sold. Also, what about teachers in low income schools, who may frankly be crippled by the deeper problems their students face. It's pretty hard to teach a student whose mother is a crack addict, whose father is in prison, whose family speaks no English, whose parents don't give a damn about them. Should teachers of such students be punished (or denied merit pay) for failing to be Edward James Olmos? I suppose one could argue that you could arrange it based on some intraschool performance, or by factoring in socioeconomic status, but that becomes awfully complicated. Moreover, even within a single school, quality of students can vary widely. My mom, for example, got consistently stuck with very difficult students, largely because of her reputation as the best disciplinarian in the school, and she did quite well with many of them–she also had to frequently work 60+ hours a week. I guarantee you, though, that her students' test scores did not improve as much as some of her less-challenged colleagues. Should she get less merit pay for that?

    I'm not entirely opposed to certain kinds of merit pay (especially the kind that attracts good teachers to low-income schools, who need more/better teachers almost across the board and need them more than wealthier schools!). I'm just trying to convey to you that the issue is far, far more complicated than anything that could feasibly be solved by this one stroke. Talk of "accountability" for teachers looks wonderful on paper; tell me in great detail how we could implement it.

    [Sorry for doubling up on long posts!]

  • Zeb,

    Regarding your second point, I couldn't agree more. As I went through my classes in college, they were very heavy on theory and everything seemed geared toward teaching in the best-case scenario. The repeated response to inquiries about discipline was that we'd work it out as we went along. Needless to say, that's not an answer that potential employers like to hear. My first full year in the classroom was spent teaching basic skills English to students who largely should have been in regular classrooms, special education, or juvenile detention facilities. Our classroom wasn't much better than a closet. I had learned nothing about discipline and since I was only a long-term substitute for the first half of the year, I had no mentor to guide me. By the time I became full-time and got a mentor, the damage had been done (not that she met with me more than twice anyway). My first year was also my last year teaching.
    I'm in New Jersey and the governor is destroying public education and forcing districts to make cuts everywhere. It sickens me to see so many good teachers kicked out, but it's a handy excuse for looking for other areas of employment. The thought of going back into the classroom full time brings on minor panic attacks.
    I don't believe merit pay is the answer at all. Among other things, it will bring the practice of schools trying to shuffle around their worst students to the level of individual teachers. There's enough politics at work already in the school. Concerns over merit pay would be one more thing for teachers to worry about and they've got more than enough to deal with already. Just as one example based on friends' experiences, it's not exactly fun trying to modify every lesson plan for the special restrictions of a half dozen students (each with a different plan) in each of seven classes, while trying to ensure that none of the students know other students have different versions of the work so that they don't make a fuss about how unfair it is or harass the student for his or her learning disabilities. It gets even better when it's a big project or a test.

  • Ladies and gentlemen, Jordan is clearly a product of the American school system. As we can see, some people just cannot be reached. And is this really the fault of his or her teachers?

    Living proof that merit pay is unworkable.

  • Grumpygradstudent says:

    This is precisely why I'm interested in pre-k, after-school, and summer programs. In a nutshell, if kids have shitty parents, we need to get them into structured programs with competent adult mentors. (Now I just have to write a dissertation about that).

  • It’s interesting that Jordan discredits Ed’s perspective because he’s a teacher, which seems akin to discrediting the perspective of a geologist because he’s too close to the Young Earth issue. Who, then, counts as expert testimony – the everyday capitalist in the former, and the Bible-flaunting Christian in the latter?

    The inability to discern fact from fiction, trusted authority from irrelevant boogeyman, strikes me as one of the most dangerous forms of American stupidity. I’m certainly not suggesting that proper experts are beyond criticism and questioning, rather that discrediting relevant testimony on the basis of its very relevance is… idiotic.

    Perhaps a bit tangential, but for me, that’s what stood out most in Jordan’s response.
    (Sorry if this is posted twice, but my first submit didnt seem to work…)

  • HoosierPoli says:

    I really enjoy teaching, I have teaching experience, and I would put a bullet in my head before I took a job at an American public school.

  • Well, I agree with everything you said, especially the standardized test scores = merit pay thing. But. The Alabama teacher's union is one of the most powerful in the country, and during the past thirteen years my kids have had teachers who handed out worksheets and then sat at the computer the rest of the hour, teachers who regularly fell asleep (actually it was really sweet to see them gently wake her when a visitor showed up), teachers who yak on their cell phones all day, and on and on. (They have also had an approximately equal number of especially inspired, talented, and dedicated teachers.) A year with one of the "bad" ones is an eternity for a ten-year-old. And there is absolutely no way to dislodge these professional educators. The principals count themselves lucky if they succeed in bouncing them off to another school.

  • shouldbegradingpapers says:

    First, I am a teacher, 21 years of experience in public education, and damned good at my job. Most of what I have learned, I learned in the trenches. I will resist the desire to verbally castigate you and ask you some questions. I expect your answers to be specific. Your original post was frustratingly vague. Write your answers in complete sentences.
    1. Explain what you mean by "Students, on average, with the worst teachers "know" about half a year of material, with good teachers, about a year and a half." Where is your source documentation? Can you give me a concrete example in a specific area of the curriculum?
    2. What does the merit system look like for education? Remember, be specific. Can you give me specific examples of teacher merit pay in action, both here in the US and in other parts of the world?
    3. Why is Ed's position as a teacher a negation of his opinion? Other posters have made this point, and you need to clearly answer this question.
    4. Also, please state your profession and experience. Does your job pay you based on merit? Years of experience? Relationship with the boss? What provides you with your expertise in this area, and why does that trump Ed or others?
    5. Please give an actual number for your "number of teachers that care a lot" and the "bunch who don't give a fuck."
    6. Your final paragraph presents many problems. Again, how will we know if we will do well in any merit system if we do not know how it is organized? Challenging Ed, and I assume other educators, to "grow some balls" is simply childish and antagonistic. Refrain from such attacks. Finally, you discuss a market economy and accountability, yet you provide no evidence of having any true understanding of either concept. Before resubmitting this assignment, you need to research both and provide working definitions and sources.
    I look forward to your revisions.

  • Ed, another great post.

    For those of you who complain about the poor quality of teachers in the classroom, please remember one basic law of economics: You get what you pay for. If you pay crap wages, odds are that you're going to get a lot of crap teachers.

    Incidentally, teachers rarely come into the system with a guarantee of permanent employment. The trial period before they're tenured is generally at least 3 years — and in many school districts tenure doesn't exist. I know that here in Georgia the public school teachers in Cobb County are on 1-year contracts (there is no tenure, period), and I'm reasonably sure Cobb is not an anomaly nationwide.

  • I believe the "year and a half" point comes from a M. Gladwell piece in the New Yorker not too long ago. The source of far too much of my information generally. Ed – I think "uninterested" not "disinterested."

  • "You have a skewed perspective because you're actually one of the teachers"

    So what you're saying is that Ed isn't qualified to talk about how the tenure system works in the teaching profession because he works in that profession? And you, who does not work in that profession and has no fucking clue how it works behind the scenes are?

    This is what is wrong with this country, folks. Idiots who do not know what they are talking about declaring themselves experts and trying to impose law based on it.

    You will notice that pretty much everyone that advocates merit pay and lack of tenure for teachers has never taught a class in their lives. Funny that.

    Meanwhile, those same people are perfectly fine with pro athletes, who provide absolutely zero value to society save for entertainment, getting millions upon millions of dollars a year, while the teachers that actually ensure our society keeps working from generation to generation get paid almost nothing.

    For fuck's sake, please summon the meteors. We do not deserve to exist.

  • When I used to work at a bookstore that dealt in bulk used books for institutions, we gave teachers discounts because they were often paying out of their own pockets, with no hope for reimbursement. By February, our usual gang of teachers was suicidal. They had to deal with language barriers, abused children, illiterate high schoolers, violent troglodytes who threatened to rape them (and did slash their tires at the mall, assault them walking home, etc.)

    Worst in a way were the parents who would come in and complain: I don't want you giving my Donnie homework! Can't you let a kid be a kid? Besides, if you flunk him, he'll never get into a good school!

    But a lot of the teachers sucked. Some were stuck with rotten assigned curricula, but there were quite a few drunks, assgrabbing pigs, many who hated kids but wanted a secure job with summers off, and some were so stupid I corrected them in class. What is the solution to inexcusably bad teachers?

  • 'I would put a bullet in my head before I took a job at an American public school.'

    I can't argue with that logic. Some of the students must have world's worst attitude problems and only people who have a true intellectual involvement with and committment to America's future would battle against the odds to try to raise the consciousness of such a determinedly neurotic society.
    Real heroes, all of you.

  • Ed, as a teacher in a high school, I can tell you for certain that you're dead right about what you say here. I am constantly fighting against the idea that there's little to no support at home for the work that we do in the school, that it's not "cool" to be smart, and that students are not encouraged (at least, not outside the classroom) to think that what we're giving them has any relevance to their lives.

    So what keeps me in this job (that, admittedly, I love, despite its substantive drawbacks)? I'm not going to lie; a lot of it is fear. I'm terrified that, if we don't do SOMETHING about the way our culture seems to be moving, we are going to destroy ourselves. If we can sent out at least a few kids at every commencement who will think for themselves and question – loudly and in public – the popular assumptions, then we can take some hope.

  • I spent 3 years in the public schools in the area of music, which brings an extra set of problems with it in this arena of "performance based education." There are still some subjects that are not assessed in a way which would facilitate the evaluation of the merit of the teacher in question. Just to give you a hint as to what those subjects are: they aren't math and reading, and in about half the country they aren't science or social studies either. The consequences for these teachers could be far greater than just losing tenure, in many cases the consequences are the loss of the program(s) that high-stakes tests don't reach because resources have to be driven into reading and math, something that has been done in education since ancient Greek and Roman times.

    As a researcher in the area of education I can offer these facts:
    1. The average public school teacher is white, female, and below average intelligence.
    2. In contrast to #1, Schools of Education are having difficulty recruiting candidates of average to high intelligence because those candidates (historically a female population) have found other things to do. So we see major universities with education school admission GPAs as low as 2.0. I wonder why these smarter women are seeking other professions? (See Ed's post.)
    3. While the media can only try to interpret the publicly available scores and school success/failure reports, there is an unwieldy amount of research that illustrates the direct relationship between parental involvement and education level with student achievement and eventual education level. Granted, a teacher's ability to manage his or her classroom in terms of instruction and behavior plays a role too, but the relationship is not as strong.

    But it would be suicide to start pointing fingers at the parents. Believe it or not some wouldn't even care because the school is just someplace to send the kid so they can work or do drugs or sleep because they work the night shift. We are defining our public schools based on 1950s reality: the home is stable and if little Johnny or Susie doesn't succeed, they'll get the switch back home. Public education has transformed from a parent-teacher partnership for kids to a target-teacher high-stakes environment because the parents are gone (and the parents who are there are ALWAYS at parent-teacher conferences and their kids are doing average to great most of the time).

    All of these issues aside we are in an environment now where the hope of the public schools no longer rests in the hands of local advocacy or the local school board. We are dealing in dollars and cents and several states have demanded money back from school districts mid-year (I would provide an example that I am most familiar with, but I don't want to give up my location.) and so local school districts governed by Grandma, Aunt Bettie, and that fourth grade teacher that EVERYONE in your family has had FOREVER are forced to make the "Tough Choices"TM to get that $10 million back to the state. Because these decisions are so localized, sometimes the decisions are thoughtful and sometimes they are based on what the school board members heard on Glenn Beck the previous night. The same logic applies to decisions made at the state level, only here we see decisions made based on our current political climate and I predict that we will see the decline of education in the to-the-roots red states (if that was even possible…pick up the shovel I suppose). Cutting, cutting, and more cutting seems to be the order of the day in the Republican party right now, and education will not escape that philosophy.

  • Ed makes some really good points. I for one don't feel that concept of merit pay as it has been explained via Obama and Arne Duncan will work without some very flexible parameters. However, I do feel that there should be a way around this notion of tenure to fire a teacher if he or she is not performing. We all know this is a big problem. I personally know of a special ed high school history teacher who shows his class episodes of Breaking Bad! Seriously. I'm from Connecticut and work in the education field, though I am not a teacher or administrator. The fact of the matter is that our urban schools are bursting with poor disadvantaged children – the majority of who are not white – who are in need of so much more than the traditional public education. This is where the conflict arises. People who are more traditionalist say that society owes them an education and nothing more. Their home life is of little concern. Then there is the camp of the progressive types (like Arne Duncan) who strongly believe that unless these kids are cared for, which in many cases means fed, given medical attention, enrichment, etc. – and their parents are also given training, ESL classes, medical, etc. – via their "community school" then we fail as a society. What we have is a system that many perceive as failing miserably and is in need of some radical new ideas and changes to the status quo. Traditionalists say, "no way" that it isn't the responsibility of the teachers, but rather the parents. Meanwhile, we're fast producing an entire generation of semi-illiterates whose parents have virtually the same skill set. Something has got to give. Perhaps we all could use an attitude adjustment. Oh, and allowing teachers to pay into social security might not be a bad idea either.

  • Crazy for Urban Planning says:

    Very good post and discussion. I taught for a little bit in the Peace Corps and felt crazy by the end of it, I would not want to head back into a classroom. My mother is a Title I teacher who has to struggle within this system. Generally speaking, all of her kids are from impoverished backgrounds, many of them have issues with English being a second language, and because Title I is Federally administrated she gets pooed on at the end of every year with not having money to renew her one year contracts.

    I don't think any advocate for merit based pay can resolve the issues discussed above of children from disadvantaged backgrounds testing lower than white kids in the suburbs (the ones who aren't killing their brains with drugs). Education is a bugger of an issue for sure – but cutting teachers pay surely isn't going to help make it better.

  • If you are paid based on the learning ability of your students, you will only work where you can get the better students. Nobody will work for poor/minority school districts. The troubled or stupid students in good schools will be weeded out and dumped on the newest teacher. Everyone will teach towards the test. Cheating will be rampant. Intelligent but underachieving kids will suffer as well as the poor. The teen years are horribly tough and even good kids from good homes have times when their grades suffer because of emotional issues.

    If free market fetishists want a true free market, then the teachers must be able to pick their students and weed out the problems. If you build house and you're not allowed to pick the quality of the wood and the owner refuses to pay for the substandard house, you're going to find another business.

    I wasn't taught any discipline techniques in education classes–they said that they didn't have a "bag of tricks." The simple truth is that most of them had never taught in public schools, or had run back to academia after a brief exposure. They didn't know how to teach it.

    All the new teachers I worked with were intelligent. Some of us were very intelligent. Everyone forgets that they saw schools from the perspective of a child, and as an adult they "remember" their teachers as stupid and incomeptent, usually because the teacher forced the child to do work he didn't want to do and curbed his freedom. My upper class students all asssumed I didn't have a college degree, because to them and their parents, teachers were low-paid losers who couldn't succeed at a real job.

    It's all just natter anyway. The goal of reforming education is the privitization of education. If we're stupid enough to pay more for health care than the rest of the world and get less, we're certainly stupid enough to pay for more education and get less. Except the privately educated wealthy, of course–the ones telling the world that teachers are stupid and lazy, and must have pay based on merit. The poor will, of course, be dumped into sub-standard for-profit charter "acadamies," but nobody cares what happens to them anyway.

  • Unsurprisingly, I completely agree with Ed on this. I know that here in DC, the city has had to fire teachers who were literally showing up with a newspaper and ignoring the children they're supposed to be educating, or much worse, however, there are plenty of good teachers out there who struggle to do their jobs and burn out very quickly because they get no support from anyone- the parents, the govt, etc. Oh, and shitty salaries on top of the whole exhausting equation.

    I've done a little teaching, but mine was the "total cake walk" variety– i.e volunteer teaching little Sri Lankan kids who reeeeally want to learn. Sure, a few could be boisterous and/or difficult thanks to less than ideal parents or home environment, but almost all my kids came from a place where they were pushed to learn, and repeatedly told by their parents or grandparents that their education would help lift their whole family out of poverty. And the thing that always got me was the way they showed up to school on-time and looking like they'd just come out of a box– bright, fresh uniforms, neatly braided or combed hair– and all this from people who have no washing machines and sometimes no access to a faucet. Humbling stuff.

  • I am currently in grad school working toward a teaching license. This will be my second career. Your statement about receiving "meh" pay while working 60+ hours per week while being an at will employee? That fits my former career in the business world to a T. That was before I was laid off more than a year ago and have been unable to find work since, despite having a college degree and 10 years of experience.

    I chose to pursue education as a new career because I care deeply about children and want to make a difference. I am well aware of the challenges this career entails. These don't bother or deter me. My concerns are with the issues you discuss in this post. The state I live in has very high standards and requirements for teaching certification, and basically no job security in return. There was just an announcement today of over 500 teacher layoffs in a nearby district. These losses will result in class size of 45 students or more, in a mostly impoverished district with extremely poor test performance. How are the teachers supposed to function in such an environment? And what of all the new teachers that will struggle to even find work?

    We hear so much about teacher shortages, but no solutions for filling those shortages.

  • This is one of the best discussions I've seen on education online. Amazing.

    "we gave teachers discounts because they were often paying out of their own pockets, with no hope for reimbursement. "

    This is absolutely, 100% true, and more widespread than many imagine. Fortunately, many booksellers (even B&N, Borders) give 20% discounts to teachers, but it still seems a bit wrong, in my mind, that already underpaid teachers should have to buy their school materials–and it's not just books, by the way–from their own money. Of course, the ones who don't care do not do this, and instead have very little to work with. My mom was able to use all my old children's books to build a nice, in-class library for her students, but many teachers had no such reserve. She frequently had to buy pencils, paper, etc. for them.

    Many also went hungry, which is a pretty hard way to learn. California has a school meal program for low-income families, but it's far from perfect. I don't know what other states do; can anyone inform us on that?

    I'm sorry to see my family's experience repeated for so many others [Susan of Texas, Eric, etc.], and in so many different states. We need to understand that a Ph.D in Education does NOT qualify you to train future teachers on very much… and certainly not on such crucially important things as classroom management. If you haven't been in the trenches, you shouldn't be training teachers.

    I think Mrs. Chili and Prudence both spoke to something much deeper, and significantly harder to address. We can always (in theory) pump more money into schools, hire more/better teachers, or reform teacher education.

    What we can't touch by policy is the horrible anti-intellectualism and cultural complacency millions of Americans exhibit toward learning, education, thought, etc.

    Why do people think the Chinese, Indians, and various Asian and European countries are leaving us in the dust in primary education? I would bet money that it has something to do with stories like that of Prudence, and with the relative undervaluing of education in the US. They view it as a means to better themselves and their families; we view it as daycare and job training. Why invest resources, when our students are just going to be passed along and, in best case scenarios, shuffled into, through, and out of college (a whole new can of worms containing massive problems of its own) with minimal effort–and into a cubical.

    The ones who don't get that wonderful option… well, see displaced Capitalist's comment above. The millions of students failed by our education system get to work in a different kind of cubicle.

  • I can't write much because I'm a teacher and in the middle of my day, but my buddy just forwarded this blog to me, and I follow her lead on anything in the cultural arena, so I made the time to read this one as I was reshuffling papers and clearing transparencies.

    I have a classroom of students in front of me as I type who have parents who have never read or can't read a book, some who are being taught the practice of credit card fraud, and others who hold drugs in their backpacks on the corner after school. And I can say with certainty that EVERY ONE OF THEM has the potential to score proficient or advanced on their upcoming state tests. In fact, according to my data this school year, 76% of them are already scoring proficient or advanced on the California Standards Test, which is more rigorous than any other state in the Nation.

    I teach at a charter school that believes every student can succeed and that it is our responsibility to make that happen. It starts with teachers and school leadership, and it sure as hell helps to know that my paycheck might be a little higher once those scores are published.

    In short, merit pay is a good thing and I feel like it treats me like a professional and not a civil servant.

    In addition, I worked in a public school for 5 years, and out of the 75 teachers on staff, I can only think of 1 out of a dozen tenured teachers who was even close to an acceptable educator.

    Public education needs tremendous reform and merit based pay is a good start.

    Ok, back to grading papers and yelling at naughty children ;)

  • Entomologista says:

    Speaking of the school lunch program, I was recently talking to a conservative who told me he hated that kids got to eat for free using his tax dollars. I shit you not.

  • I haven't rad the other comments yet, but have to say that Jordan in the first comment has it totally wrong.

    Merit pay sounds like a great ides, but it's impossible to implement it. Ed is right about sealing with kids whose preparedness and ability to learn is an uncontrolled variable.

    Which only make what I'm going to say that much worse.

    The fundamental problem s that there is no good way to measure performance. Every supervisor – and I did this for over 20 years – ends up making judgment calls. Some of us are diligent and try to be fair and accurate. others are pricks and don't give a shit. everyone is going to have favorite and anti-favorites, whether they know it or not.

    Then you're boss and the HR Dept get involved, and over-ride your ratings. You might have to defend your rankings to your peers, vis-a-vis their staff, who are doing non-comparable jobs. There might be a forced ranking system. I've experienced all of these things.

    Bottom line – in the real world there is no way to make this work. People might think it works, but they are wrong. It is an administrative fiction.


  • I think Ed summed it up best: about 90% of the objections to public education by FOX brainwashed redneck scabs is of the " well- I'm – fucked- but- I'm- going-to- support- fucking-you-over-too" variety. The conservatives in the upper tiers of the class system have a different agenda alltogether, which is that anything that doesn't directly benefit them needs to be done away with. I was fortunate enough to attend public school in the 1970s and 80s before Ronnie Raygun and the GOP started their crusade to dismantle the public education system. It's a classic neocon, capitalist tactic, perfected over the last 35 years: break the system and then claim it doesn't work.

  • Leyla, if everyone student is capable of doing well on tests and your administration and fellow teachers believe anyone can succeed and it's your responsibility to ensure they do succeed, why did only 76% of them do so? That's a "D." Will your pay suffer if your students are part of the unacceptable 24%? Does that mean you're a bad teacher if your students are not successful?

  • Don't charter schools select for kids (or kids with home environments) that value education enough that they want to separate themselves from the difficult environment of the usual public schools?

    Are civil servant and professional mutually exclusive categories? I understand (which is to say, I just looked it up) that in California, it's all still on the public dime.

    I will say that anecdotally (my mom resumed her teaching career almost 20 years ago), the private and magnet schools in Connecticut used to pay less than public schools, presumably because the work conditions were less difficult.

    From a similar body of anecdote, one thing my mother constantly complains about, and which is also evident from my kids' experiences a state away, is the unholy load of make-work bullshit that "accountability" ends up being. Extra documentation, designing lesson plans around everyone's best guess on what the testing material will be, and tons of time wasted teaching kids test-taking skills.

  • Great, Ed just revealed that he's actually selfish, or at least believes most teachers are selfish.

    I'm not saying this argument is fallacious, in fact, my knee-jerk is that you're right. But frankly, the country is broke, flat out considering bankruptcy, needs to make changes that will test quote "social cohesion" broke… If we don't cut some things now, we're not going to have anything left, we can't afford to live like we used to…

  • Susan- Firstly 76% in a C, secondly Leyla stated that everyone is capable of scoring, 76% already are, and she intends to get the rest doing such over the course of the year. Reading comprehension.

  • Ok, so you want Florida's legislator to stop the bank-bail-outs and de-fund the wars and/or the Pentagon in order to keep paying their teacher's tenure?

  • "Ok, so you want Florida's legislator to stop the bank-bail-outs and de-fund the wars and/or the Pentagon in order to keep paying their teacher's tenure?"


    Yes I would like to see the corporate handouts (which are pure, lovely socialism, by the way) go to education.

    Yes I would like to see some of the hundreds of billions of dollars used to support our Empire overseas put into educating our children, providing them with food, and helping aid poor families so that their kids can get educated.\

    This isn't a capitalism vs. socialism thing. This is a decent society vs. an indecent society.

    "But frankly, the country is broke, flat out considering bankruptcy, needs to make changes that will test quote "social cohesion" broke… If we don't cut some things now, we're not going to have anything left, we can't afford to live like we used to…"

    No, we're not broke. No, we're not in imminent danger of collapse. Yes, we have so fiscal problems that need to be addressed. But the money spent on education in this country is a pittance compared to our military budget and other entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare, etc.). Why don't we reform those much larger chunks of our budget first? [We could start by raising the retirement age! Also, closing down many of our overseas military bases]

  • Susan; Yes, Florida, U.S. State. Definitely. But my point was, you argued about something the Federal Government did wrong as if Florida had any say in it. Unfortunately they don't have the ability to do what you were talking about. The details of Florida's plan, cause and effect wise are topical, and relate solely to Florida. But, as a State of the Federal government, they are hugely effected by our poor economy.

    und zeb.
    Corporate hand-outs were not only socialism but I don't think they were intended to 'fix' the economy, those banks would have gone bankrupt and been restructured most likely without issue. Same with the other companies, I feel as though the bail-outs were so that the government could get some stock in private industry. Similarly, the health-care bill is said to intend to set a foundation in place for us to change to a single-payer system in the future.

    Cutting the military budget could do as much harm as cutting education if you think about it. Bases are economies of their own hiring civilians, and keeping military personal busy, who spend money locally. Your "Empire Overseas" statement is a little bit weird, I don't know how to respond to that…

    But yeah, I disagree with you, the country is in very imminent danger. A credit reporting agency rated the U.S. as poor and added a statement, which I paraphrased already, it was something like; to stabalize the country's debt, cuts are needed that would be so drastic that they could adversely affect social cohesion. Which might mean cutting the military budget, AS WELL as education, significantly. It's unfortunate (perhaps not the right word) but actually, we are at that point now.

  • What's in a name? says:

    While Florida's legislature can do very little on its own to overturn what amounts to socialism for the rich and maintenance of empire abroad on a federal level, proposing asinine reforms like this certainly will not help.

    Also, as soon as passing scores on increasingly-arbitrary, perpetually-biased standardized tests translate to applicable knowledge and mean something outside of the circle of public education and its would-be reformers, maybe the point Leyla raised would amount to a hill of beans. Such results come with relative ease when the whole premise is to teach-the-test. As mentioned before, these assessments are great indicators for the level of test-taking ability, not so much teacher proficiency.

    As a future public educator in the humanities, meeting standards is secondary to equipping students with the problem-solving, higher-order and critical thinking skills necessary for the preservation and improvement of society. Its unfortunate state and federal legislators, multiple departments of education and stalwart teacher unions feel differently.

  • True, state legislatures can do nothing about the military budget (I was replying more to Tim's mock suggestions than anything about Florida in particular). But many of them, including California's, have asinine legislation in effect that helps widen the rich/poor gap and provides handouts for the wealthy and for corporations. For example, think of the elimination of the estate tax in most states.

  • Zeb; I was mocking something susan said earlier, you must not have read the whole string… That's cool tho'. Removing the estate tax doesn't widen the rich poor gap. That actually helps. The majority of people are middle to lower class, so supposed 95 people die leaving 30,000 to their families, and 5 people die leaving 3,000,000 one year. Taxes are 40% for the poor, and 50% for the rich. 95 people are left with 18,000 dollars, and 5 people are left 1.5 million. For the 95 people that 12,000 dollars would make a lot of difference in their lives, and a HUGE difference overall. For those 5 people, who are probably already well established due to their family, they likely are less sore over the tax. And especially since an estate tax is so personal, it's hard to deal with having your family's property taken away, especially when it could be considered meager. The states that did that don't just lower their budget they almost always find a way to make up the deficit (sometimes making more) by taxing another action. One that is less personal is preferable. More of a passive tax, like sales, or on cigarettes/alcohol etc, are best for the whole of society. Taxes on vice diminish it. Good stuff in my books.

    Washington state used to do what cali does with car licensing, they'd prorate the license fee to the value of your car. Someone passed an initiative that makes it 35 dollars flat, and removed many fees, . The result is that more people properly license their cars, that is poor people, who now get less tickets and are more easily able to keep their cars. Rich people could pay the huge expense anyway, they weren't complaining about getting robbed when they were already paying for a new mercedes. Poor people who had cars that were 'out of their reach' were FUCKED in that system.

    Also, Standardized tests are not fatally flawed. The military hasn't had mix ups with the ASVAB, for example, and the Bar exam produces plenty of good lawyers. Doctors take standardized tests, it's common… They may have biased outputs but the test itself doesn't judge persons for this or that personal factor, lose 5 points if your religion is Islam… Just the answers one puts… AND when you do education on such a grand scale you have to de-humanize it a bit. It's up to individuals in the system to keep it sane. It's really hard to micromanage a school system that deals with SOOO many students.

    You can't just throw money at these problems, LA Unified is proof of that. Their budget is huge, and their output has gotten worse and worse, but the budget keeps growing. Real solutions are very personal… Case by case, individual by individual. As they say, Rome wasn't built in a day. Shite schools in India turn out better prepared students than some of the fanciest schools in America. It's not because of regulation or social justice programs it's cultural, the individuals understand what their doing and why. This is what I feel should be cultivated in American schools..

  • @Tim: Find a state standardized test designed to test for NCLB purposes that has been pilot tested. Go ahead. Additionally this problem cannot be covered by statements like "you can't just throw money at these problems." Do you have an understanding of how education funding works? The federal government doesn't just throw a bag of money that absorbs into the school district through osmosis. Throwing more money at "the problem" (you could define that better as well) could work if it was allocated correctly. You might want to go read up on how education funding operates and restate where problems exist and how to solve them. Reading your last paragraph in the last post was like watching an episode of Glenn Beck: painful and overgeneralized. And what does "shite" mean? Shitty? Also, you used "their" incorrectly. If you can't even use homophones correctly, how can I trust your grand statements about social justice and culture in our schools? Also, have you been to a shitty school in India? Which individual school or schools in America are worse than this school you've visited? What data do you have to back up your huge general statement? Do yourself a favor and stop talking. You sound like an idiot (read: Glenn Beck/Fox News parrot). You are doing a disservice to conservatives who can actually think for themselves.

  • What's in a name? says:

    You are correct instating that standardized testing is not inherently fallible. However, debate over its usage in public education has occurred since it was implement. Even with those contentions it was largely viewed as a fairly benign instrument until NCLB tied it to funding.

    The problem with your ASVAB point is that it is not applicable to the context at hand: it is an aptitude test (with admitted baseline scores), it is voluntary, and individuals prepare specifically for it. Whereas year-end educational assessments are pass/fail, it is mandatory (aside from the percentage of students with disabilities the district can exclude), and as mentioned before teaching-to-the-test should be frowned upon and does not constitute true education. The bar is absolutely necessary to ensure those practicing law meet or exceed minimum standards, however, again it is voluntary and extensively prepped for. While it is nitpicking, the phrase "the Bar exam produces plenty of good lawyers" is incorrect, the years of education culminating in a J.D. instills the knowledge necessary to eventually become a competent attorney. Those courses seldom include the forms of standardized testing we are discussing.

    Few if any here are arguing that an exponential increase amount in the amount of funding is necessary to meet desired goals. However, hundreds of schools systems across the country are woefully underfunded and have been for decades, measures which decrease the amount even further while raising standards even higher is hardly the way to proceed.

  • Pining for the days of :
    "The home is stable and if little Johnny or Susie doesn't succeed, they'll get the switch back home."

    I realize this isn't popular and doesn't really speak to Ed's post, but it's related and sadly, endemic.

    The entire problem of poor performance/low scores/teacher failure/loss of tenure is strongly linked to bad parenting, IMO

    There will always be good and bad teachers, that has never changed. The part of the equation that is missing here is ANY TYPE of student bad behavior = punishment/accountability in the school systems or in the home. We've gotten so far away from raising kids with a system of accountability at home or in school, that it's nearly disappeared altogether in most public school systems. This is the single reason why private schools and/or religious institutional schools perform better. They're actually allowed to punish students. In public schools they're just sent to a different room or sent home. Teachers (by law) cannot punish or even touch a child. And parents have not been schooled (or have forgotten) how to raise children so the cycle repeats about every 18 years or sooner.

    A general lack of parental discipline in society overall has led to more prisons being built instead of more schools being built. Is little Johnny being bad? So what? Just wait long enough and he'll be 18 and we'll be rid of him. Meanwhile, send him to school and make him the teacher's problem. Eventually, that teacher will tire of him and all of his compatriots and simply quit. And then that school's performance will suffer and they'll get less funding. Or the overall poor performance of their class will ensure that the teacher will not get tenure/awards. It doesn't take a genius to figure out why so many teachers have given up and do a half-ass job at teaching. The raw material they're given to work with is practically worthless.

    I see a snowball that starts with the parents at the core. Others see a quagmire that starts with Government.

  • Merit bases pay is beginning to sound better and better. Rather than starting with the teaching profession though I recommend we begin with our legislatures. Not balancing the budget? Ohhhh, that pay decrease is going to suck. Can't actually pass effective laws? Yep, another 10% off of your paycheck. In fact, let's just start them at zero and they have to earn their money based on the legislation that they pass. "Piece-work for politicians", or "all politicians left behind." Granted: they would all end up in the pockets of powerful lobbies, but please explain how that is different from what we currently have.

  • shouldbegradingpapers says:

    Hard to let go of a thread that is so central to my existence. Even if no one reads this, I'll feel better.
    Tim, shut your pie hole. You sound like a Boortz fair tax fanatic. There are problems with your estate tax argument, but one huge problem with complicated tax issues that separate the wealthy from the rest of us is the ability to hire experts who negate many of the tax burdens.
    BUT I'm not an expert on taxes; regardless, I do not trust Boortz.
    I digress. Your opinions on education have been addressed nicely: funding and testing. If you are honestly interested in education, research these and understand them.
    My main need is to reach far back in the comments and address Leyla.
    Exactly who states that CA assessment is the most rigorous in the nation? CA, itself?
    GA's public shcools have the same percentage or higher passing its state-mandated assessments. You boldy overstate the ability of charter schools to teach better than public schools. And I have experience here. I could go into great detail about techniques and strategies used by successful charters, but ALL OF THESE can, and often are, apply to the public school setting. Charters are not the holy grail.

  • shouldbegradingpapers says:


    "but ALL OF THESE can, and often do, apply to the public school setting."


  • What's in a name: I see your point. But, yeah, I really don't think the schools are the core of the problem for the failing students. NCLB, to me, was really an unnecessary reform. I still believe we as a society need to focus on the issues more socially, keeping kids from feeling disenfranchised and teaching them the merits of completing school, accessing and working towards goals, etc. This of course needs to be very individual. Hire more counselors, maybe, for struggling districts.

    I'm not a fair tax fanatic. Estate Taxes really only help widened the rich poor gap. It's an inefficient tax to administer. You could set it up so that you only taxed estates valued at over 200k or something, but that would require a lot of bureaucracy which is expensive to maintain for something that doesn't occur very often, because those are only 5% of the population.

    That allegory from Washington, was meant to be compared to estate taxes, not to Income. Everybody there supported it, it was "Populist". Wealthier people didn't mind pocketing a few extra dollars, and poorer people were able to get their cars licensed finally and stop getting pulled over. It worked GREAT in WA.

  • Sorry, Tim, if I accused you unfairly of being a Boortz freak, but I just spent several hours having my ear bent by one.

    I spent a little time researching the estate tax, and I wouldn't accept sweeping, grand statements like "Estate Taxes really only help widened the rich poor gap," but I do agree that it seems ineffecient to administer and costly to collect. It also can be double or triple taxing. But the fact is that these taxes mostly apply to people inheriting at least a million somolians! I don't know if your figure is correct of 5%, but it is not most of us.

    Okay, we agree that students need to understand the value of knowledge…not just school. Plenty of people have learned much never taught them in school, but they had some kind of motivation.

    Americans, you and I, all have strong opinions about schools and teachers BECAUSE WE ALL SPENT SO MANY YEARS INSIDE THOSE INSTITUTIONS! But that doesn't make us experts. My HS chemistry teacher was the biggest douche-canoe, a Burt-Reynolds-wannabe who never prepared, didn't understand the material, and just used the teaching position as a stepping stone to administration. Amazingly, as an administrator, he was an even bigger douche-canoe!

    But private schools and charter schools and catholic schools and schools that accept vouchers also have these losers. As adults we tend to remember the useless teachers, yet here we all sit, typing and debating and disagreeing, all evidence of higher cognitive skills which I would guess most of us learned in public schools.

    And as an experienced HS teacher, I can tell you that many people don't have miserable high school experiences because the teachers or institutions are poor; they are too immature or spoiled to appreciate the opportunities that are available.

  • Not a teacher. I was taught a couple o' things way back in the day though. Had the option of gearing my studies towards teaching at one stage. Now feel I missed the boat a bit. Not because of pay/ conditions/ etc. Just because all my teacher friends can now construct the everlasting fuck out of a compound sentence, and then use it to knee-cap my pissweak arguments. Bastards.

    To those of you who ARE teachers,

    Thank you. You probably don't hear that anywhere near enough.

    (you'd probably also prefer that thanks in cash form, but…)

  • It's amazing how many of you fight eagerly to defend Ed's pile of shit. He is, by and large, an interesting writer, this post, in my opinion, excepted.

    As for discounting his opinion because he's a teacher… the entire fucking thing I wrote before that line addresses why his opinion is wrong, and that line merely addresses why I think he might have something of a biased stake in the matter.

    Every other profession has some measure of accountability. It may not be merit pay, but if you do stupid shit you will be fired. Tenure means you can actively got give a fuck, and still retain a job. It's great that people who teach love it, could make more money elsewhere, whatever. But having anything without any accountability (outside molesting children or throwing them off a roof), is fairly fucking stupid.

    The information source that a few of you are bitching about, was this. "Eric Hanushek, a Stanford economist, found that while the top 5 percent of teachers were able to impart a year and a half’s worth of learning to students in one school year, as judged by standardized tests, the weakest 5 percent advanced their students only half a year of material each year."

    Some teachers are so fucking bad, they only manage to do half of the job they're supposed to. Some are so fucking good, they do 50% more. First half should be fired, second half should get a cookie. Why is that such a fucking landmine? Because it's hard to figure things out? That's a fucking copout because the alternative solution, doing nothing, clearly leaves tons of shitty teachers in place.

  • I'd like someone to suggest an accountability measure which takes into account all of the complex pieces that come into play when considering success in education.

    The hard truth (as I mentioned in my previous comment) is that we aren't dealing with the cream of the crop in the first place. Students that are studying to be teachers now are from a much different demographic than teachers who have been in the field for 25 years. We can't force the highly intelligent women to move from their chosen professions back to teaching. We have to figure out how to make our situation better, not say "I want the perfect teacher or nothing!"

    Also, depending on the representative demographics of their classroom, excellent teachers may only be able to get through half a year's worth of information because that is the speed at which the students can handle that information. In other scenarios one teacher may not be able to get through all the information because of the learning needs of their students, while the teacher next door received all of the honor students due to the practice of homogeneous classroom setup (i.e. one teacher in a grade level team gets the honors students, one gets the average ones, one gets the lower performing ones) and so was able to get through a year and a half to two years worth of information.

    How we label "BAD TEACHERS" is based on what we've heard in the media but it doesn't take into account all of the pieces of the puzzle. I am a proponent of accountability measures, but they have to be pilot tested on several different samples and they may not be generalizable across the entire United States. I still believe in tenure for teachers because most states require teachers to teach for 3-5 years before they are offered tenure, and that is the amount of time that research shows is required for a teacher to exhibit their abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. I think we also have to keep in mind that tenure for public school teachers has a different definition than tenure for university professors. You are not immune from firing if you are a tenured public school teacher. At the least you are just free from being fired for no provided reason.

    It's a landmine because we don't know the qualitative elements behind those statistics. Are the teachers bad? Are the students little shit-stains? Are the parents absent? Present? Overbearing? Is there lack of funding? Lack of administrative support? Lack of professional development? We don't ever hear these things. All we ever hear is "Kids perform bad on test, teacher must be bad, fire teacher." Education in our country is so much more complex than that.

  • I second Amanda's points. Here in Oakland CA, the flatlands schools in the poor neighborhoods get the feebs and burned-out husks, while the hills schools get the crackerjacks. There are reasons why this is so; the district doesn't do it to punish the students. But the Dance of the Lemons, as we parents call it, means that crappy schools tend to stay crappy, while good schools tend to stay good – unless acted on by an outside force. Firing the 'bad' teachers is not the outside force that we need here.

  • Aaron Schroeder says:


    To fire one-half of teachers for not fulfilling curriculum requirements and incentivize the other half for fulfilling those requirements seems like an awfully imprudent criterion for teacher merit pay. It simply encourages the 'lower half' to teach through the curriculum, regardless of whether students are learning anything. If you really want teaching to be a market as other professions are markets, you have to pay attention to what sorts of behaviors you're incentivizing. And this is the real problem with merit pay for teachers: no one knows how to quantify what "good teaching" really amounts to, and so no one knows what sort of behaviors we ought to incentivize. I mean, is it getting students into college? Is it higher scores on some arbitrary state examination? Is it completing the district's curriculum? Or is it talking to a student whose parents are alcohol addicts? Or giving students advice about college? It's hard to see what sort of measure will be able to account for these sorts of variables, despite their being integral to a teacher being an excellent one. One notes further that you haven't suggested such a comprehensive measure, either.

    This is simply to reinforce Ed's original point, of course, that picking out a criterion or set of criteria against which student learning might be assessed is a near-impossible task, given the many, MANY factors involved in learning. And if you want to absent parents from responsibility, then it's going to be in the state's best interest to just raise the kids, already. Walden II anyone?

    Or perhaps you have more useful suggestions that you just haven't mentioned yet.

  • Aw, this was a really great publish. In theory I’d like to write like this also – taking time and real work to create a fantastic article… but what can I say… I procrastinate alot and by no means appear to get something performed.

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