Education Matters, Sandra Nichols, Teachers are professionals

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CALIFORNIA SCHOOLS AND PUBLIC EDUCATION—ESSAYS • NEWS • RESEARCH • RESOURCES
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August. 25, 2009

Stimulus funds fail to save schools — Letters to the President

Sandra Nichols
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  "If teachers were paid based on students' progress on standardized tests, teachers would flock to schools drawing from well-educated families in affluent communities. They would shy away from the rigorous job of teaching the underprivileged even more than happens now."

Teacher bashing has become so commonplace that it hardly generates comment, but I'm beginning to take it personally. Even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan seems to think that teachers need to come a long way, baby, before being welcome in the professionals' club.

In a recently published education column, Alan Pagano, the retired superintendent of Santa Cruz City Schools, wrote about teachers having "long lamented the reluctance by much of the public to view teaching as a profession on par with other professions," mentioning doctors and lawyers as examples. The context of this comment was advocacy that teachers be judged by the progress their students make, apparently on the high-stakes testing that has swept into our public schools and spread like crabgrass.

Doctors are perfect for comparison with teachers in terms of being judged by the results. Consider. What if doctors were judged based on how many of their patients died? How many doctors would choose gerontology? Oncology? As a matter of fact, any doctor might reconsider their choice of profession. No matter how professional they are, eventually the patient dies.

Lawyers also make for a fine comparison with teachers. Lawyers are often judged by their rate of success, but there's a big difference. Generally, lawyers decline to serve clients with weak cases. Public school teachers cannot decline to serve a student. It's "come one, come all" in public schools.

The words "merit pay" did not appear in Mr. Pagano's column, but seem lurking between the lines. Consider increasing pay for teachers whose students gain the most on standardized tests and freezing or reducing pay for teachers whose students only show progress not revealed through test scores. How about a truant student who starts coming to school every day, on time and ready to learn because of the way he is treated by his teacher! Or a gang-involved youth who connects with a teacher, becomes inspired, and visualizes a career in law enforcement. These teachers may go completely unrecognized for their successes.

Teachers are professionals and should be treated as such. A teacher's education goes far beyond four years of college. Many teachers have master's degrees. Some have doctorate's. These degrees should be their ticket to the professionals' club. However, the pay has become so dismal for the skills required, the importance of the job, and the work performed that teaching can't compete with other professions.

There are reasons — not good ones — why teachers are paid so poorly. First, there are so many teachers that the cost of paying them well would break the bank, if it weren't already broken. Additionally, there is that long-standing tradition that teaching is women's work. Furthermore, as public servants, they forego the opportunity for top salaries unless they give up on teaching and become administrators.

If teachers were paid based on students' progress on standardized tests, teachers would flock to schools drawing from well-educated families in affluent communities. They would shy away from the rigorous job of teaching the underprivileged even more than happens now. Any discussion of merit pay should take this into account.

The most demanding teaching jobs in America are in schools with disadvantaged students from poor families in economically challenged communities. Teachers in these schools are the ones who deserve merit pay. Only by recognizing this paradigm and committing the necessary resources will the playing field be leveled to allow public schools to accomplish their mission of equal opportunities for all comers.

Sandra is a board trustee for the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties, California, and a recently retired 31-year public school teacher. Her opinions are her own.

© Sandra Nichols 2001 - 2009

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