How much are teachers worth?

Posted March 20, 2009, at 10 p.m.

Tying teacher pay to job performance sounds like a fantastic idea, at first, which is why President Obama has started dropping it into his speeches. Teachers across the nation wince and cross their fingers.

Why? Take a look beyond the political theatrics for a little context.

You could fill an Olympic swimming pool with all the studies that prove lower class sizes result in higher student achievement. You would think that would translate to lots of new job openings for teachers.

Taxpayers seem more concerned about getting more for less, research be damned. So, school boards won’t cough up the coin to hire more personnel; communities would rather maintain status quo and keep taxpayers docile.

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So instead, we trend toward accountability. Thus, No Child Left Behind. Thus, the goofy idea of “merit pay” gains popular support.

It’s goofy because there’s no way to know objectively if you’re getting your money’s worth.

How do you quantify the value of a teacher? Test scores? Please. For starters, it is unfair to students to assault them with another battery of tests, this time directly affecting the livelihood of their teacher.

As a student, I wouldn’t want the pressure of knowing my performance has a direct impact on my teacher’s ability to support a family. As a teacher, I wouldn’t want students who didn’t like me deliberately tanking the test.

Even assuming kids always have the best intentions, testing is an imperfect measure of student achievement, let alone teacher achievement. There are too many variables, and the samples too small (particularly in rural schools) to permit a proper scientific measure of learning. Scores of one set of kids compared to another have far more to do with their collective educational experiences, including family support, than with anything I could do with them in one year.

Most importantly, testing as the penultimate measure of an educator’s worth ignores an obvious but overlooked truth: The most important thing you learn in school is not the content of any particular discipline. The most important thing you learn is how to learn. Try measuring that on a test.

If not test scores, what about evaluations? You might be asking, what do we pay principals for.

Not to monitor employees, apparently. Most teachers I know in various school districts are observed in class once or twice a year, at most, by their administration. On those occasions, a teacher can usually prepare his or her best lesson, not necessarily the one that best represents his or her typical job performance.

Principals probably have other methods of knowing which teachers are good and which are bad. But then, your next principal won’t necessarily agree with the current one.

You would need to come up with some legendary, magical teacher evaluation system in order to transcend good-ole-boy politics and inconsistent pedagogical philosophies in schools where the principal’s office has a revolving door.

Even then, such a system would require a massive investment of resources to free up administrative time. The last thing schools need is more middle management, especially when we can’t even bring ourselves to hire more teachers.

Right now we give teachers pay increases based on experience. As in most unionized workplaces, it’s how we reward longevity. If you want to pay for quality and not experience, you have to figure out what quality means, and how to measure it.

What is the price of finding the book that turns a kid on to reading? What does it cost to prevent or break up a fight at school? What would you pay to have a teacher discipline a bully instead of looking the other way? How much is it worth to have someone notice changes in a child’s behavior and intervene, thus preventing a suicide or a drug addiction? Or implement a new teaching technology, even if it means more headaches, because it might empower kids? What tax increase would you tolerate to have a gifted child find her passion?

I dare you to put a dollar figure on a teacher sharing a story that helps a few kids start to piece together what the world has in store for them.

Teachers — even the ones who leave immediately after school — do these things every day, even though they don’t show up in our paychecks.

We do them mainly because we are self-motivated to do the right thing. It’s hard for even the coldest, most grizzled veteran to ignore the overwhelming need we confront each day.

Yes, we have cushy schedules, summers off, health insurance, sick days galore, and job security. You won’t hear me complain about the benefits of a career in public education.

But when President Obama announces his support for “merit pay” for teachers, before you stand up and cheer, make sure you know exactly what “merit” really is.

Chuck McKay of Newport is a high school teacher and freelance writer.

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