Cynthia Tucker Haynes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist who has hooked up with Campbell Brown's reformster-pushing website. She has done much distinguished work throughout her career, but last week she demonstrated that she doesn't understand teaching and especially not teacher merit pay.
The title of the piece pretty well gives us the whole picture: "Excellent Teachers, Like My Mom, Deserve Better Pay. No Matter What Their Unions Say." Yes, grammar police, the title is a punctuation abomination (suggesting, among other things, that her mother is not actually a teacher), but we're going to skip past that.
Haynes follows the standard template for this sort of piece, opening with an anecdote about a Really Awesome Teacher (who is, in this case, the writer's mom). In her opinion, her mom should have gotten bonus pay for being more awesome than other teachers, but the school district didn't offer it. And now Haynes lays out a mistaken and self-destroying argument.
Indeed, few public school districts do because the concept remains so controversial among teachers’ organizations.
Not the whole truth. In fact, lots of school districts like the traditional teacher pay ladder because it makes budgeting for personnel costs so much easier. With a merit pay system, school districts have only two approaches available to budgeting (a process that begins over a year ahead of time in my neck of the woods).
#1) We don't know how much merit pay we'll be giving out next year yet, so we'll just leave the budget unfinished. The state should love that.
#2) We will budget a finite merit pay pool, which the teachers will then have to fight over in a zero sum teacher thunderdome. That should be great for school morale.
Haynes notes that merit-based pay systems require a means of linking teacher pay to student performance, which counts as an unexamined assumption, but let's slide on by for now. She asserts that finding such a linking system is contentious, but doesn't need to be. I think she thinks she goes on to explain why not-- but she doesn't. She says that Race to the Top required states to whip something up; she fails to examine whether or not the states whipped up anything that actually works.
She offers an NEA quote cautioning against a system that makes students a mechanism for earning pay instead of young human beings deserving of an education, and she says it's bunk, that of course the only purpose of schooling is to make an educated human being and so the only measure of a teacher is the product that pops out the end of that teacher's assembly line.
Since student learning should be the end product of teaching, why shouldn’t it be measured?
Ma'm, you asked, so I'll answer. Because it can't be. Because there's more to learning than answers on a single standardized test.
She makes the "everybody does it" argument, claiming that the corporate world is rife with performance evaluation and this particular argument is getting old. Does she want performance evaluations like the ones that earned banksters big fat bonuses for tanking the US economy, or does she mean that we should keep using stack ranking for teachers even as corporations like Microsoft are dropping it for being counterproductive?
She admits that her mother resisted the idea of merit pay, and at the very end of that paragraph drops this nugget:
spent several years teaching in segregated schools where Jim Crow
ruled, she wasn’t sure her white superiors would assess black teachers
She notes that her mother might have been right, that in fact the old state-led idea of merit pay was that black teachers merited less pay than their white counterparts. This elevates her piece to the level of crazy talk, because she shows that she knows the answer-- that a teacher pay system based on "merit" has, can, and will be twisted and tilted based on biases that have nothing to do with merit at all. I don't have to tell Haynes why her argument is bunk because she has the answer right there in what she wrote!
Oh, but no worries. Haynes says that "times have changed." It is not clear what she thinks has changed-- there's no more racism, or there's no more biases in schools, or there's now a magical method for evaluating teachers that is totally fair and impervious to any sort of tilting? All she references is that her mother now believes that teachers should be trained and selected more carefully, which she takes to mean that her mother now supports a merit pay system, but I'm not so sure.
I agree that teachers should have more control over preparation for and entrance to our profession, and that point seems to be lurking around the edges of this piece.
But Haynes never really proved anything that she set out to prove. Are unions single-handedly obstructing merit pay systems (and doing so in defiance of their own members)? The answer's way more complicated than that. Do we have a system for evaluating teachers accurately and fairly? Everything we've learned over the last decade says, "No, we don't" (look at this recent study from Houston for one example). Is there a way to finance such a system that would not be toxic for school districts? Nobody has proposed one yet.
Look-- there is huge support everywhere for the idea that good teachers should be rewarded more than poor teachers. But we don't have the first idea how to do it. It's like saying that everybody agrees that cancer should be wiped out or only good-tasting asparagus should be sold in stores or people should only marry partners that would be their perfect match. It's a great idea, but until anyone gets a clue about how to do it, it's just a fun discussion for 3 AM in your freshman dorm.
Haynes is a good writer, and I have no doubt that Brown is paying her well. She can do better than this.