Op-ed column: Taking back gains made by teachers simply unfair

It’s a shame that politicians have to apologize for statements they make that are true.
William Brown/Newscom
William Brown/Newscom

It’s a shame that politicians have to apologize for statements they make that are true.

Barack Obama took it on the chin for pointing out that tough economic times cause bitterness in working-class people, denying them hope and encouraging “antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.”

One can only wish that he would have gone further and pointed out two additional dynamics at play:

1) This attitude isn’t isolated to tough economic times, but is an ongoing characteristic disposition of a small segment of society; and

2) These attitudes are constantly and continually reinforced by a much-too-large segment of rabble-rousing media that somehow thrive on appealing to our more basic instincts of fear, envy, jealousy and mistrust.

Obama had it right, he just didn’t go far enough.

In honor of the coming budget votes for our schools, I thought I’d illustrate my point by referencing some of the current education issues that are the usual fodder of our small town (small time?) columnists and radio “personalities.”

The argument lately is that tenure should be based on student achievement on standardized tests. The real underlying (underhanded) argument is: Why should those teachers have tenure anyway?

The truth is that standardized tests don’t measure the abilities of a teacher as much as they measure the abilities of the students. Teaching is an art as much as a science and it’s difficult to evaluate the performance of a teacher on the basis of how different classes of students with different abilities perform on tests.

But the real counterpoint is this: Tenure is important because it ensures consistency and truth in our schools and it eliminates the possibility of denying people their jobs on the whim of an administrator or a school board that might be more concerned about getting a cheaper work force or hiring a cousin than they are with keeping good teachers in our schools.

Another point, often overlooked, is this: Granting tenure is based on a belief in the potential of a young teacher, not on his or her output in the most difficult years of their careers. That is the time to nurture young teachers who show an affinity and talent for teaching, not to measure them solely on their ability to get kids through tests.

Good administrators and observant colleagues are the best judges of who has the talent to become a good teacher. I believe in tenure as a way to keep our good teachers and to ensure academic freedom in our schools. And I strongly believe in not granting tenure to those who would be a detriment to education.

I don’t believe that tenure is some sort of deceptive, conspiratorial way to protect the jobs of unsatisfactory teachers. Nobody wants that, not even the teachers.

Merit pay

The argument is that we should pay the better teachers more.

The underlying argument is: Let’s find a way to punish those freeloaders who we don’t feel are very good.

Now, giving people more money sounds fine if we could precisely determine who the better teachers are and by what measure. That type of evaluation has not been developed yet, and there are so many variables that I don’t know that it can be done effectively. My feeling is that it would give us more competitive rather than better teachers.

It reminds me of the establishment of the initial programs for “gifted” students in our schools. Rather than accept a precise definition by percent of who was gifted, or (yikes!) by a standardized test, some parents began to lobby to get their kids into the gifted programs and to have the distinction of being labeled as gifted, and often the administration gave in to those demands. Soon, everyone was gifted, far beyond what would be statistically accurate.

Scrambling for merit pay would be akin to that, effectively making it meaningless. And, of course, it wouldn’t save money. Merit pay would be in addition to salaries already paid. If it came to be it wouldn’t be long before the columnists were writing about the outrage of paying people more money to do what they’re supposed to do in the first place!

Health care for retirees

This is my favorite one. Imagine the audacity of the Legislature passing a law that would prevent local school boards from decreasing the quality or amount of health care for our retired teachers! What an outrage! Shame on NYSUT for advocating for their senior members who earned their benefits.

We signed a contract with those teachers. They agreed to work for lower wages, teach our kids for 35 years and to do it with dedication, diligence and professionalism. We agreed to provide a pension and some type of health care depending on the local school district, and job security (see tenure). It was part of the package in lieu of cash. And now we want to deny them that? In case you haven’t noticed, the trend today is to find ways to provide more and better health care for our citizens, not to take it away.

Firing up the masses

So the next time you are reminded by your local shock-jock that your neighbor’s grass appears greener than yours, don’t throw turpentine on his lawn.

Ask him how he did it, and maybe how he could help you get a greener lawn.

And when he explains the hard work, expense, loving care, devotion and sacrifice he put into it, let’s pass that along to our self-appointed watchdog. But I doubt he’ll listen. Goodwill doesn’t sell as many newspapers, or pander to egos, or sell radio advertising. It’s more entertaining to fire up the “masses” (aren’t we the masses?), and have them load their school taxes in bags of $1 bills to deliver defiantly to boards of education. And to make sure they believe that somehow their neighbor doesn’t have the right to that green lawn, to that advantage, benefit, bonus or, maybe, to what they’ve earned.

Anthony Frank lives in Schenectady and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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