What if individual soldiers in Iraq were penalized financially because things went so badly there for such a long time? What if doctors were financially penalized for patients who smoked, got lung cancer, and did not recover? Florida Senate Bill 6 uses the same logic to punish teachers. This bill proposes that pay increases for teachers be tied to student improvement on standardized tests. The problem with this proposal lies simply within its structure, as standardized tests themselves are an unachievable bar for each and every student to meet: basically, they are simply not fair.
Senate Bill 6 which Governor Crist vetoed, was a legal way to implement a policy that makes teachers the scapegoat for the many problems in education. Blaming educators for poor test scores is akin to blaming police for the crime rates in certain, less than savory, neighborhoods. There are problems and much room for improvement in police work, medicine, and education, but to blame the teacher, the individual who has the most contact with the student, is as effective and justifiable as blaming the individual foot solider when a battle or military campaign goes wrong.
If we applied the same proposal to medicine, it would seem that fewer doctors would take on the more challenging cases as opposed to those instances which could be resolved quickly and easily. There would be fewer doctors to treat the more elderly infirmed patients than the younger and healthier ones.
I was a dean of students at a high school in Queens, New York that had seven full time deans, along with two teachers who supervised 11 security guards. Two police officers were also assigned to the school by a thoughtful precinct commander to help keep order and to become familiar with some of the local criminal element during their formative years. It took all of our efforts, along with the hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars, just to maintain order let alone begin instruction. Was this our fault? Should the staff have been penalized for the poor results of the students at this school on standardized exams? As the position was not exactly my dream job, I left the school more hastily than had first been intended, but if my pay increases had been tied to better student performance, I would have left the position even more quickly than I did.
It is not fair to blame educators for the failure of too many students to learn. It is not fair to blame educators for the lack of real adult supervision or even presence in the lives of children. It takes real adults to make sure that students at all levels of instruction are ready to learn and capable of doing the hard work it takes to acquire a quality education.
In a generational trickle-down fashion, educational failure is often passed on from one era to the next. During the 1960s, Francis Keppel served as the US Commissioner of Education and testified before Congress that without societal intervention at the level of the school, many children were destined to repeat the educational and cultural failures of their parents. The problems Keppel saw back then are even worse today. The out of wedlock birth rate has soared along with divorce rates. Many children are raised in fragmented and sub-standard units that should not even be called families.
Teaching is a more difficult job than those who voted for this bill in the Florida Senate could ever possibly comprehend. Teachers are faced with students who have not been disciplined, and much classroom instructional time is spent dealing with recalcitrant pupils and students who are at the school only to disrupt all attempts at instruction. Consider what it would be like to attempt to impart values and learning to violent students like those who set a child on fire along with another one who caused the near death of a girl by stomping her head after beating her senseless. School disciplinary procedures and policies were meant to deal with mischief and are inadequate for the type of violence and attitudes that permeate schools in particular and society in general.
Teachers also have to deal with students who now have ubiquitous gadgetry that takes time away from studying and the necessary concentration it takes to learn the skills which are vital for gainful employment and constructive citizenship. Computers that can be so helpful in aiding the research of serious students are often a diversion and serve as a waste of time in terms of educational value. The same is true with television. There is much in the way of educational programming on television, but so much of the rest contributes to waste the time of students who years ago would have been reading instead of watching “junk TV.”
This is not to say that there are no problems with tenure and the retention of unsatisfactory staff in Florida and elsewhere. Writer Steven Brill described “rubber rooms,” in New York City where some teachers who have been accused of incompetence and worse spend their days away from children at the Board of Education headquarters doing nothing but receiving full pay. Some of these teachers should have been quickly dismissed based on Brill’s description of their offenses and incompetence. These problems with the amount of effort and time it takes to rid the system of unable educators need to be addressed but not in the radical way chosen by the authors of Florida Senate Bill 6.
There is a possible way for some of these politicians to prove that they believe in this “merit pay,“ system of reward and punishment. Why not subject themselves to the same regulations? Let’s measure student performance and improvement at those schools and districts that these politicians deem inadequate. We can link the compensation of these politicians to the improvement or lack of achievement in these schools. In this manner they would show that they are willing to be evaluated using the same standards they now propose for teachers.
Nat Trayger Ed.D (Doctor of Education)