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Letter to the Editor

June 06, 2010

Teachers should be a significant part of the discussion when it comes to improve public education



To the editor:

This is in response to the two-part series on Race to the Top and to Tim Rowland's recent column on merit pay for teachers.

First, let's get this straight: teachers' unions are teachers. They are not some vague, self-interested, third-party. Teachers unions are composed of and led by teachers; their members are teachers.

So, why don't teachers support merit pay or evaluations by students' test scores, which are what Race to the Top and Maryland's recently passed legislation promote? Because teachers know firsthand of the many, many factors beyond our control in the educational process. We know that we have no control over the personal lives of students and their families, we have no control over attendance, we have no control over the competency or fair-mindedness of the principals under whom we work, and we have no control over the students' cognitive abilities, medical or mental health issues that impact their ability to learn on any particular day or in general.

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I've been teaching for 13 years, including at a magnet school in a large urban district and for the past eight years in an alternative public middle/high school in Frederick, Md. The latter is a school for students with significant behavioral difficulties that preclude their current success in regular schools. But they represent students that all teachers have in their classrooms to a greater or lesser degree. Many have significant turmoil in their family lives; a higher rate of truancy and transiency than the average student; some experience traumatic stress and yet are still living in the situations which caused it; some have drug or alcohol problems or live with those who struggle with addictions; some have involvement with the Department of Juvenile Services and have experienced one or more incarceration by high school; some have made one poor choice after another for undetermined reasons. I try my best every day to teach them, not because my paycheck depends on it or because their test scores will determine how I'm evaluated. I work hard every day because I believe education is truly a ticket to a brighter future; because I care about these kids and want them to know it; and because I want to help each one of them find a more successful path in life. Paying me by their test scores won't improve my performance. There is no financial incentive that would make me work harder.

Merit pay and evaluations based on student test scores will drive teachers away from schools such as mine and other hard-to-serve populations. Yet these are the schools and the students who need the best and most dedicated teachers. That is a glossed-over facet of Race to the Top that will hurt the neediest schools.

I want Mr. Rowland and the general public to be clear that teachers are evaluated regularly. (I just received mine last week.) Furthermore, steps are in all teacher contracts for addressing underperforming or poorly performing teachers.

Teaching is a skill and an art that takes years of ongoing reflection and training to develop. Yet we as a society expect good teachers to pop up fully formed. Evaluating teachers on test scores, as our new state legislation does and Race to the Top requires, is no more appropriate than designating a whole school to be failing because one small subset of a population did not make the gains expected on one standardized test (that's right, ONE), as No Child Left Behind does. As a society, we have come to hold a skewed all-or-nothing view of success in education and of meaningful reform in education.

Our culture frequently belittles teaching (how many times have I heard "those who can, do; those who can't, teach"), thereby discouraging the best and brightest from going into the profession unless they truly see it as a personal calling. The anti-teacher rhetoric is now increasing in frequency and vehemence, even from the Obama administration that was supported in large part by teachers like me. Sadly, the Obama administration is basing its education reform policies on the limited model of Chicago, where he and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have their sole experience, rather than looking at states like Maryland that clearly are already doing something right. Maryland has been ranked No. 1 in education for two consecutive years. Why aren't we the model for other states?

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