Give the teachers a break
I watched Gov. Arnold Schwarzennegger’s State of the State address last week, and I could feel the hairs rising on the back of my neck, especially in regard to his plans for education. Having worked 35 years in the California public schools as a teacher and administrator, I’m shocked at the governor’s implication that student performance is lacking and that teachers are to blame. His remedy is to establish a system of rewards tied to student achievement. This is also known as “merit pay.” Yes, our rates of high school graduation are disappointing. Yes, we have too many schools that are not meeting their goals. Yes, we have many students leaving the system who lack employment skills. But is this the fault of the teachers?
The public may be uninformed about how much the quality of teaching has actually improved. When I started my career in the mid-’60s, things were very different. Similar to today, teachers had to have a degree and a credential, but unlike today, the old credential was for “life.” Nowadays, teaching credentials have a limited shelf life, requiring the holders to continually update their skills with further education. Additionally, it used to be that teachers were hired to work in areas out of their subject areas. As an example, my first job was to teach eighth-grade science even though I majored in social science. Today, this kind of mismatch is nearly impossible, and more and more teachers on “emergency credentials” are picking up required courses or being moved out the door. In recent years, further hurdles have been added, including the passing of a state basic skills test and district-required teacher tests to address the needs of non-native speakers. As part of continuing training, almost all districts now provide regular programs to familiarize teachers with new techniques and materials. School districts also include salary incentives linking extra college credits to higher pay. Additionally, teacher evaluation has changed with a definite upgrading of expectations and tools for dealing with inadequate teachers.
I’m glad that the California public school teachers are so much better prepared than they were in my day. Otherwise, they would be truly unfit to meet the unforeseen and enormous challenges of today’s California students. Our student population consists of unprecedented racial, ethnic, and language diversity. All teachers have had to learn how to better serve a huge (and rapidly growing) number of special-education students. Increasing family mobility puts more strains on schools to help students to catch up and adjust. Drugs and safety issues have left no district untouched. And most seriously, our classrooms are inhabited by large numbers of students who live in circumstances of poverty and a variety of deprivations that stand in the way of normal learning. Most other states and comparable countries do not have these same conditions influencing their schools at the same time.
If teachers are charged with making sure that “no child is left behind,” add to the equation the precipitous drop in per-student funding that we have felt, putting California near the bottom in comparison to all the other states. And have you noticed the sea of change in parent expectations in recent years? Most parents now assume that their kids (even the low performers) will go to college and are very impatient about things that get in the way. Yes, our teachers are asked to do much more, often with much less. As they reach even deeper into their shrinking stockpile of resources, they can only hope that they won’t be overwhelmed by yet another set of requirements coming down the pike.
It’s time to stop pretending that teachers are responsible for all of our learning shortfalls. They don’t determine the student profiles of their classrooms. They can’t be held responsible for poverty or learning handicaps or lousy parenting. They can’t do anything about the kids who come and go. They can’t do much to change the school’s educational resources. They simply can do the best they can to serve the public as it arrives.
If the governor is undeterred in his plan to institute “merit pay” in the school system, I’d ask that he apply the same logic to police departments. Let’s base police pay on “performance.” If crime goes up in the community, the police wages should be cut. Inversely, if crime is reduced, the police should receive “performance” raises. And how do we tell which cops are the responsible ones to be rewarded or punished? Gee, maybe the governor can answer that question.
Kent Rees is a retired school administrator from the Bay Area. He relocated to the Nevada City area last summer.
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