Sunday, March 13, 2011

Pay Teachers More, But ...

I don't often read Nicholas Kristof's columns, but this one in today's NYT caught my eye.

Given the current climate on the subject of public employees, Kristof thinks teachers should not be demonized and that we should pay them more, in part to raise the prestige of the profession. Fifty years ago when women had few professional alternatives beyond teaching and nursing, America's classrooms were run by the best and brightest females in the land. Not so anymore. To wit:
... 47 percent of America’s kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers come from the bottom one-third of their college classes (as measured by SAT scores).
That's really unfortunate and I agree that we need to do something about it (please don't accuse me of demonizing teachers; I taught high school English for 13 years and come from a family of educators). For the most part, I don't disagree with the idea that some teachers should be paid more. But I think we should pay the best teachers more.

So Kristof he is correct that higher pay should be tied, in part, to superior performance. The best teachers should earn the most. I would add that school boards should also be allowed to pay more for hard-to-fill positions such as math and science. But the unions will fight those reforms tooth-and-nail precisely because of the outdated "factory model of compensation" Kristof speaks of. That attitude has got to change if education is ever to be reformed. But don't bet on it.

Is it really as hard to rate teacher performance as the unions would have us believe? I don't think so. Success in teaching is all relative.

In a poor district, for example, if a 6th grade teacher has a bunch of students who are reading at the 2nd grade level and s/he raises them to the 4th or 5th grade level by the end of the year, that is just as impressive as the AP teacher whose students get 4s and 5s on the test. 

No teacher should be penalized for teaching the dumb class. Success has to be quantified on that kind of scale, with frequent observations. I wouldn't even have a problem with cameras in the classroom, both from a professional development standpoint and as a tool for student discipline.

I evaluated teachers for several years. It's really not that hard to tell great educators from those who sleepwalk through their entire day.


  1. Terry, what's missing here is the link to the other end of the equation. Schools need to be able to fire under-performing teachers just as they need to be able to pay more for high performance. Until you have that both-ends dynamic (high pay for best performance, pursue opportunities elsewhere for under performance), you'll never get excellence. As long as union rules pertain, you'll always have organized (and tolerated) mediocrity.

  2. Absolutely, JP. Chronically underperforming teachers should be let go. Tenure is a vestige of what Kristof called that "factory model."
    The charter school featured in the 60 Minutes report last night has the authority to rid itself of bad teachers.

  3. My wife was a teacher in Connecticut. She knew who the good teachers were. She knew who the gifted ones were. And she knew who called it in and collected a paycheck as big as those who did a much better job. And the kids knew what my wife knew. They knew how good or bad their teachers were. Reminds me of that Leonard Cohen song, " Everybody Knows. "

    My wife was one of the ones everybody knew was an A plus. I admire her for maintaining her passion for the job while working alongside slackers who should have been let go, but were not. There has to be a way to separate the wheat from the chaff. It just can't go on as it has.