While I completely agree that something needs to be done about our education system, some of Obama’s education reform platform might actually deepen some of the problems that already exist. For example, Obama wants merit pay for teachers, and while the idea of rewarding excellent teachers is a good one, I’m not sure this is the best or even a close to good solution. According to what I have seen and read, Obama’s idea is to pay teachers more if their students excel on standardized tests and to pay less well those teachers whose students don’t do well on these tests.
Apart from the enormous problems associated with standardized testing (many of which I’ve bemoaned in other blog posts), this policy will only deepen racial and social tensions. We already know that students in inner city schools and “poor” areas test poorly, and we already know that this is due to lack of attendance, lack of guidance at home (you do your homework, or no wii for you), and even student aggression (refusal to do homework, physically attacking teachers, etc.). None of these problems will be solved by withholding pay from the teachers who dare to work in these areas.
Instead, better teachers (or just smart ones) will flock to already successful school districts (i.e. those with high retention, high standardized test scores, and high success rates in college placement). Why wouldn’t they? They’ll earn more there. And while it’s nice to think that teachers teach for the love of teaching (and most of us do), it’s also true that there are mortgages to pay and our own children to put through college, etc. Money certainly matters; Obama has that part right.
Student performance is not based solely on teacher ability. Students can excel with mediocre teachers, and students can fail with excellent teachers. There are too many variables involved in producing good students. Are they required by their parent or guardian to do homework on a regular basis? Are they getting enough sleep? The right diet? Do they have parental support in terms of parents actively involved in their education (from attending school plays to reading to them at night as infants and toddlers; these are shown to improve student performance later on)? Have any learning disabilities been diagnosed and properly treated? Are they “happy”? And last but by no means least, are they even capable of excelling in school? Not everyone is clever, not everyone has the “brains” to do well in school (let alone on standardized tests, which some very intelligent people can do poorly on due to a range of factors).
This is not to say that there aren’t “bad” teachers aren’t out there, or teachers who just don’t pull their weight or know enough about their subject to teach it well. That’s all true, but this policy won’t “find” these teachers, much less weed them out. They’ll just go where affluent students are getting tutoring to fill in the gaps in the classroom, where test scores are high. Or they’ll settle for the pay they get, as they’ve been doing all along. Either way, students in struggling school districts lose out. No one is going to gamble that they can make a difference in schools where student and parent apathy and indifference outweigh anything a teacher might do or say. Teachers can’t and shouldn’t be expected to solve all the problems associated with educating students; there are too many of them that occur outside the classroom and the school.