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Thursday, April 22, 2010 05:53 pm

Cloudy thinking from the Sunshine State


A good teacher feels accountable only to the child.

Illinois was demographically if not geographically a Southern state in its early years, and has long suffered from innovations in the civil realm imported from the land of molasses and mosquitoes. These include Black Codes and courthouse politics, but we would have had to add to that list if a proposed school reform bill in Florida became law. That plan – which was vetoed by Florida Gov. Charlie “Charles” Crist – would have eliminated tenure protection for new public school teachers; after a five-year break-in period, they would work on annual contracts. It also would have discarded automatic step raises based on seniority and degrees attained; pay would instead vary with the achievement of their students, as measured by test scores.

The principle of pay-for-work-done is not well-established in the public sector – just look at the General Assembly. In the case of schools the principle is especially misapplied. Only some of the educating of a child is done by teachers, but teachers would pay all the costs when the child fails to learn. The Economist probably doesn’t have many readers among legislators of the Sunshine State, but one of its bloggers helpfully explained one likely effect of their adventure into pedagogic policy.

Hey there, talented recent university graduate! I’d like to offer you a job in an extremely challenging and rewarding field….The mission is to train 18 to 25 children to correctly fill out the answers on a series of standardized tests. You have no control over which children will be assigned to you, and unlike other commission-based workers (door-to-door salesmen, say), you will be stuck with the ones you’re handed for the whole year.….The better you do, the more you earn! Of course the worse you do, the less you earn, but don’t focus on that – you’re a winner, you’ll do great. We can offer you a five-year contract to start. By “contract” I mean we’ll let you work for us, if things work out, but we can of course fire you at any time.

This sort of realignment of incentives reeks of the corporate workhouse. Teachers under such a regime would be reduced to the state to which the craftsman found himself more than a century ago, when skilled hands were replaced by machines. Rather than quality, quantity – as measured then by the shop clock, as measured in schools now by test scores – became the basis of compensation. As The Economist blogger put it, “We’re not going to improve America’s schools by first turning teaching into a factory job, and then paying the workers on a piecework basis.”

No one with a choice will work happily under such conditions, especially if he or she actually wants to teach. Under any plan to drive mediocre teachers toward a higher standard, mediocre teaching will quickly become the standard, for the simple reason that the best teachers will leave.

Lawmakers in other places might, we hope, be more alert to the several dubious assumptions that underlay the proposed new law. One is that teachers are the problem with public education. They are not, or rather they are not the only problem, or even the biggest problem. As paid agents of the state, they are merely the part of the problem that is most vulnerable to legislative action.

Just as confused is the notion that a more accountable teacher is a better teacher. This misunderstands the nature of good teaching. A good teacher feels accountable only to the child, but her employers expect that she be held accountable to the state, which expects from the child mainly obedience, and the child’s parents, whose expectations are seldom realistic, and whose indifference or incompetence in that role is probably the biggest single obstacle to learning. The Florida scheme not only would have pushed such paragons closer toward the door, it would have given them a kick on the way out.

To go from a misused tenure system that makes bad teachers un-fireable to a system in which good teachers enjoy no security; to go from holding teachers accountable to no performance measures to making them hostage to a bad one; to go from a compensation system that rewards teachers who know less than they ought to one that punishes those who try to know as much as they can — even by the risible standards of public school reform, this is a joke.

Yet some people in Illinois are not laughing. The Chicago Tribune, who ordinarily finds little to praise south of Chicago’s 22nd Street, has editorially mourned Gov. Crist’s veto (“Nobody should be cheering”) and praised Florida’s lawmakers (“You’re forcing real change. Let’s hope people in Illinois learn something”).

I share that hope — the “something” being that the way forward is not to turn teaching in a new form of industrial slavery. Rather than resort to perverse incentives to force poor teachers to do better, a real change would be to hire good teachers to begin with, then hand craftsmen back their tools and let them get on with their work.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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