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No matter how disillusioned we are with Barack Obama—no matter how disgruntled or disappointed we are with the job he’s done as president—none of us would be silly enough to suggest that if only we had paid the man, say, $1,000,000 a year instead of that measly $400,000, he would have done a better job, because, as everyone knows, the more you pay a person, the harder they work.
As absurd as that suggestion would be, a version of it is being used by anti-union propagandists and free-market fanatics to attack our public school teachers. They’re not only pretending that a bonus system rewarding teachers for raising standardized test scores is the way to fix what ails our education system, but conversely, they’re arguing that if the carrot doesn’t work, you revert to the stick. You fire teachers whose students don’t improve their test scores.
But a recent study by Vanderbilt University more or less put the kibosh to those simplistic theories. In the Vanderbilt study teachers were offered bonuses ranging from $5,000 to $15,000 if they succeeded in raising significantly the test scores of their students. The results? None of these highly motivated teachers qualified for the bonus. Why? Because, by and large, they were already teaching to the best of their ability.
Consider this analogy. A baseball manager says to a player coming up to bat, “Fred, if you get a hit, I’ll give you $10,000.” Fred responds, “Wow, an extra ten grand for getting a hit? In that case I’ll try really hard.” Or conversely, the manager shouts to the player, “If you don’t get a hit, Fred, I’m going to send you down to the minors.” A stunned Fred responds, “Sent down to the minors!? No way, Skip. I’m going to try really hard.”
Or this analogy: After experiencing a 10-percent rise in crime two years in a row, a city council decides to fire all the police. Or a hospital fires all the staff nutritionists because of an alarming increase in patient obesity. While these analogies (like all analogies) are flawed, they nonetheless serve to drive home the central point that hasty, tough-minded, and seemingly resolute solutions aren’t the way to solve problems.
At the risk of another analogy, think of a football coach who isn’t allowed to choose his own team. Random players are assigned to him. Not only has he no say as to who plays on his team, he isn’t even given the chance to mold them into a cohesive unit because he’s assigned brand new players every year. He’s given only one season to show what he can do. Yet his bosses warn him that if he doesn’t start winning, he’ll be fired.
If all this sounds like teachers are trying to weasel out of responsibility by making excuses, that’s not the case. Teachers aren’t suggesting they not be held accountable. What they’re saying is that we acknowledge the realities of the classroom, that we not gloss over the real problems, formidable as they may be, and pretend that the flaws in our education system are the fault of the teachers (or, as free-market fundamentalists would have us believe, the teachers’ union).
A teacher in the LAUSD told me the following. It was a bit startling to hear, but it made perverse sense. He said that if we ever reached the point where the emphasis of public education were placed entirely on standardized test performance—and if hard-working teachers could be summarily fired for not producing high enough scores—what we would soon encounter is widespread cheating.
And here’s the beauty of that widespread cheating. Nobody would object to it.
Students would be amenable to “tutoring,” parents would be pleased to see improved scores, politicians would gladly take credit for the results, school administrators would rejoice in any solution that got the Board of Education off their backs, and the companies that provide the tests would continue to rake in the cash. This being America, the Land of the Short-Term Solution, it would be your classic win-win outcome.
David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at email@example.com