"Simple," I replied, "Everybody you talk to spent twelve years in schools and feels that this extensive experience has made them an expert."
It's true, in a way. If somebody spent twelve years in a hospital, they would know a considerable amount more about the practice of medicine related to their condition and the operating conditions of medical institutions, and anybody who's spent even a little time in prison can tell you exactly what's wrong with it. It's a human thing that we have where we induce the general from the specific and believe firmly in it.
We all think we know because we were there. And since we know because we were there, we are all justified in offering our opinions.
In the first of an occasional series on credulant and cuphinious fixes to public education, let's look at one of these great plans: Merit Pay
Occasionally, some well intentioned person will explain to me that, really, if good teachers were paid more then more highly capable people would want to become teachers and everything would be better.
Good teachers should be paid more? Cool. I'm a good teacher and I already top out the salary schedule, so I'm on board... or not.
You see, let's say it works and all the good teachers are paid a salary competitive with the private sector and all the loser teachers are told that they suck and they can stay and earn minimum wage to babysit or they can get out. Let's just say it happens. Let's say we can develop a metric that is fair and objective and acceptable to all parties involved while still being politically palatable. Let's say that it gets implemented. Guess what? Now we're fucked.
Why? You've just greatly expanded the cost of public education and we can have all the merit pay in the world on paper but I doubt if Joe Tea Patriot or Bob Libertarian or Billy-Jack Blue Dog are going to be willing to foot the bill. If the average teacher pay were $110,000, the cost of public education, which is already the plurality of most state budgets, would be overwhelming. In California where we have somewhere in the neighborhood of 8,000,000 school-age children and 300,000 teachers, this would imply a $2,100,000,000.00 increase in school funding to simply stay where we are.
My guess? Even if we did this and told people it would only cost them $140 per household in California (we have a lot of households), people would still tell the schools that we could find the money by cutting waste and abuse.
Oh yeah, another thing: I like money as much as the next guy, but the last thing I want is to have the money in teaching be enough to entice people to enter the profession for the paycheck. If one is going to get into teaching, it should be for love of teaching and love of society -- not for love of money. We earn enough to stay firmly in the middle class and we have benefits and summers off (save for professional development, classes, summer school, in-service days, classroom preparations, planning, and meetings) and, frankly, that's really all we need.
My district is implementing a merit pay system, by the way. It's called The College Ready Promise and is funded in part by the Gates Foundation. It has some innovative elements and I'm certainly willing to give it a go, but I know (and they know, too. Gates Foundation money is a deep well, but it will run dry) that in the end the money won't be there to make it work. I'll keep you all posted on its progress, though, and maybe there will be a sudden and profound upswell of people who shout a million voices at once, "Raise my taxes so that we can have better schools," and the money will flow in to make merit pay a reality and buy public schools enough toilet paper and handsoap, too. Here's wishing.
Oh -- here's a book I haven't read on the subject. If somebody's read it (or is willing to cough up the money to buy it and read it) I'd love to know what it says.