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It's time to reward teachers based on talent, not seniority

May 29, 2010

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Nothing is studied more than education itself, and after goodness knows how many years worth of goodness knows how many evaluations, one consideration outweighs (by far) all others in determining the quality of your child's education: The quality of the teacher.

Curiously, that could be bad news for teachers. Or teachers' unions, to be more accurate.

Sniffing a potentially unpleasant change in the wind, the Washington County Teachers Association joined teachers' unions statewide in opposing Maryland's application for funding under a federal grant competition.

Educators opposing funding for education might seem to be an odd bird, but a little background will explain everything.

The Obama administration's Race to the Top directly challenges two sacred teacher-union tenants. It encourages charter schools and it attacks the well-established structure nationwide that rewards teacher longevity over teacher quality.

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Historically, teachers' jobs are locked in after so many years on the job, and if there must be layoffs, they are based on seniority rather than skill. Under this philosophy, there is no such thing as a "bad" teacher.

The Race to the Top is a relatively small, $4.3 billion grant program in which states compete head to head for funding. Those states that enact the most reforms emphasizing teacher quality and charter-school availability will win the cash. If Maryland is a winner, Washington County would stand to gain $2.8 million.

The rub is that unions effectively protect teachers as a group rather than teachers as individuals. Every teacher is sacred, so in the eyes of a union contract, there are no "tall poppies" that stand out from the group and are deserving of special status.

But this, according to Race to the Top, is not reality. Some teachers are indeed better than others. Some are much better. And better teachers have a very real effect on the quality of your child's education. So if the goal is to improve education, there is simply no way to treat all teachers as equals.

Race to the Top, therefore, emphasizes frequent teacher evaluations that are based largely on frequent student evaluations. In opposing Maryland's application, Washington County teachers voiced concern over all of the extra administrative chores all of these evaluations will involve.

There could be other problems, too. Testing became a nightmare under No Child Left Behind, with states creating the tests and then effectively training teachers to beat them. Race to the Top would avoid this trap by standardizing tests nationwide, but there always is the danger of teaching to the tests instead of, well, just teaching.

But the overall idea of judging and rewarding teachers based on talent is one that has been far too long in coming. It might be fitting that Race to the Top is kicking off with a competition for funding because competition is essentially what this new program is all about - teachers competing with other teachers to be the best they can be, and public schools competing with charter schools for the same reason.

This type of competition need not be a death match - it's just a way of keeping everyone on their toes, just as in the private sector there are employee incentives against becoming lethargic in the job.

Of course, as journalist Steven Brill writes, unions are the base of the Democratic Party and teachers' unions are the base of the base. That's why Race to the Top probably would have stood no chance under a Republican president.

It almost bristles with Republican ideas (charter schools and meritocracy), so had this not come from a Democratic administration, teachers might be going to the barricades in opposition on the assumption that they were about to be hosed.

But that hasn't really happened. Some unions have openly supported Race to the Top, while some (but certainly not all) of those that are against it seem to be tentative in their opposition.

Many teachers might have known for some time that this day would come, that showing up no longer would be enough to guarantee regular raises and a lifetime position. And the majority of teachers being well-qualified, there might be an unspoken resentment of the few who aren't.

Washington County Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan might be a bit too optimistic when she says that once teachers understand the program, "they'll jump on board."

But whether it's a jump, a hop or a slow, labored step, the teachers who view education as a public trust might be convinced that the time has come when the nation cannot afford - in economic or educational terms - to honor time served over talent when considering the men and women who have such a tremendous influence over our children.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or by e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com">timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video at http://www.herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 evenings at 6:30. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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