I was disappointed to read Rep. Brian Bolduc’s assertion that with regard to the teaching profession, “Merit-based pay has some merit, but unlike business performance, teaching performance is much more subjective. Judging good teaching is like judging good art or good music” in the April 2 article “Federal funds provoke House battle over teacher evaluation.” This belief, common among many in the teaching profession, cries out for a response.
The reluctance among many in the teaching profession and their unions to embrace objective performance measures and accountability for results has resulted in untold thousands of children across the country graduating from high schools lacking the core competencies necessary for success in our society. It is a disservice to our youth and an incredible waste of human capital and potential in our country.
“Judging good teaching like judging good art or good music” is on its face a convenient dodge for doing the hard work and accepting responsibility for outcomes in the classroom. Subjective measurements are just that: subjective. Former Massachusetts Senate President Thomas Birmingham refers to this system as one of “vague expectations and fuzzy standards.”
Establishing merit pay on a foundation of subjective measures is a recipe for failure and we have only to look at the number of underperforming schools in our country to realize that what we have been doing to date is not working. It is naive at best to posit that teacher performance can be measured consistently and objectively absent first having established clear and measurable performance standards based on a set of desired outcomes.
It is ironic that Augusta is wrestling with this issue so soon after the death of Jaime Escalante, an exceptional teacher, immortalized in the movie “Stand and Deliver,” who was successful in motivating inner-city students to perform at extraordinary and unexpected levels. Jaime Escalante reorganized the math department at Garfield High and graduated more Advanced Placement calculus students than all but three other public high schools in the country.
Jay Matthews notes in an article in The Washington Post that “Garfield offered the worst possible conditions for learning: 85 percent of the students were low-income, most of the parents were grade-school dropouts, faculty morale was bad, expectations were low.” In 1987, 26 percent of all Mexican-American students in the country who passed the AP calculus exams attended Garfield.
Of 109 Garfield calculus students that Matthews surveyed in 1987, only nine had even one parent with a college degree and only 35 had a parent with a high school diploma. Further, while the teachers union contract limited class size to 35, Escalante packed 50 or more into a classroom and still the students excelled.
Escalante found a way to transform his students into outstanding performers regardless of their economic background or their parents’ educational background or any of a myriad of other factors potentially affecting a student’s performance.
It is unfortunate that Bolduc and others who resist standardizing performance measures are reluctant to focus on realistic strategies to transform our educational system as opposed to conjuring up excuses as to why we can’t.
Joseph G. Lallande of Fort Fairfield is a retired business manager.