Last week President Obama waded into politically dangerous water when he suggested that schoolteachers should submit to merit pay evaluations. In other words, let’s figure out who the best teachers are and pay them more.
These are politically dangerous waters because teachers unions across the country both supported Obama and hate the idea of merit pay.
I hope he wins this one, because while teachers should earn more, they shouldn’t get it until they’re willing to prove they deserve it.
As a young teacher I discovered a hard truth first hand; a bad teacher could earn the most while the good teacher could earn the least. Seniority, not quality drives pay.
I was the youngest of three teachers in my department. I taught elective courses, so students could choose them or not. I worked hard to build my program while the other two teachers, near retirement, let their programs languish. Kids fled their classes for mine.
One of those department colleagues was the worst teacher I’ve even known. I’ll call him Bob. Bob bragged about how little he worked, read the newspaper while students did rote bookwork, and used 30 years of banked leave days to take one day off a week. He delighted in disciplining students and was an unapologetic racist.
Bob bragged he had 30 years experience. Our principal once whispered to me, “No, Bob’s got 1 year experience, 30 times.” But those 30 years meant Bob was at the top of the pay scale. I was at the bottom, making $15,000 less a year.
Though my classes overflowed, our department’s student count declined as kids fled Bob’s classes, sometimes for other departments. With our department’s numbers down the superintendent was eventually forced to eliminate one teacher to close a budget shortfall. I had the least seniority, so I had to go, and Bob would take over my classes.
It didn’t matter that I was making a difference in kids’ lives. The program I built at low pay would be handed to a tenured teacher who did little work at high pay.
The superintendent invited me to go with him to the statehouse to lobby the legislature to pass a stalled school-funding bill. “If that bill passes,” he said, “we’ll have the money to keep you.”
I tracked down my representative in the marbled-lined hallways. He confided that he supported the funding bill, but couldn’t say so publicly. Republicans and Democrats were playing chicken with legislation (and peoples lives), each daring the other to go first. He hoped the bill would pass, but couldn’t promise anything.
Disgusted and heartsick, I walked out the side doors of the statehouse and looked up at the ISTA building across the street, the offices of the Indiana State Teachers Association. This was the union whose rules mandated that Bob earn more than me and that he stay and I go.
The legislative logjam broke and I kept my job. Still it was a powerful lesson.
I’ll say it again; Teachers should be paid more. It will add prestige to the position, draw more talent to the profession, and will reward the majority of teachers who are doing a good job. But it shouldn’t happen until teachers agree to partially set aside seniority and submit themselves to merit pay evaluations
Teachers argue that merit pay would be subject to politics and favoritism. Well, welcome to the real world. That’s what most Americans in most companies live with. It would be imperfect, but at least it would be imperfect in pursuit of excellence, instead of the current system, which is imperfect in pursuit of a failed concept - that seniority equals quality.
A staggering irony I can’t quit pondering: those who spend their entire careers making value judgments and grading others refuse to be judged and graded themselves.
Nearly fifteen years after that brush with job loss, I faced the utter stupidity of seniority-only pay concepts again, not because I was too young, but this time, because I was too old.
A month after my 40th birthday, wanting to teach closer to home, I called about a job opening in a Hamilton County school. The principal told me bluntly, “You’re too old. I can’t hire you. You’re too high on the pay scale. I can hire someone right out of college for far less.”
Maybe a prospective young candidate would have been better than me, but there was no way to know, because seniority settled the issue before anyone was interviewed.
Can Obama convince the unions it’s time to change? I’m not optimistic.