Cynthia Tucker: Excellent Teachers, Like My Mom, Deserve Better Pay. No Matter What Their Unions Say
Reflecting on the past, I have always been quick and confident in my response to the commonly asked question: Who was your favorite teacher? The answer is undoubtedly my mother. She was not only my favorite teacher inside the classroom, but also outside of it.
Outside of the classroom, my mother could be quite demanding. She would limit my television-watching time, send me to my room to complete my homework, and even provide me with a list of college-bound reading materials when I entered ninth grade. However, she did offer me a reprieve from washing dishes after dinner if I chose to read a book instead. This clever tactic significantly increased my chances of completing the reading list.
Inside the classroom, my mother taught me 10th-grade English and held high expectations for my academic performance. She held the same expectations for all of her students throughout her 40-year career teaching English and history at various levels of education. She was always armed with a stack of papers to grade, whether she was at the dentist’s office or the hair salon. Multiple-choice tests were not her preferred method of evaluation because she wanted her students to develop strong writing skills.
She dedicated herself to making Shakespeare’s works accessible to her students, and she worked hard to help us understand the intricacies of irony in O. Henry’s "Gift of the Magi" and find humor in his "Ransom of Red Chief."
In my subjective opinion, she was an excellent instructor who deserved to be recognized with merit pay – a higher salary than her peers who did not perform at the same level. Unfortunately, her school district did not offer such rewards.
In fact, very few public school districts provide merit pay due to its controversial nature among teachers’ organizations. Implementing a fair system of merit pay, which would link teacher compensation to student performance, remains a contentious issue.
President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative aimed to incentivize states to adopt teacher evaluation and pay-for-performance plans. While states were given the freedom to create their own evaluation systems, the president envisioned that student performance would be a crucial component. Traditionally, school districts reward teachers with additional training or advanced degrees, but few incorporate student performance in their compensation plans.
Unfortunately, teacher accountability appears to be losing ground in the face of a relentless opposition campaign by teachers’ organizations. The re-write of the No Child Left Behind law, now known as the Every Child Achieves Act, is likely to loosen federal regulations that promote accountability plans based on student performance.
Bill Raabe, an official from the National Education Association, voiced concerns about systems that view students as mere contributors to teacher compensation instead of individuals deserving of a high-quality education. However, it seems illogical to separate the two. Since student learning is the ultimate goal of teaching, why should it not be measured? The Affordable Care Act has expanded incentives to evaluate doctors and hospitals based on patient outcomes, regardless of the initial condition of the patient. Should we demand any less from teachers?
Most professions have established procedures, often through licensing and testing, to evaluate practitioners. The corporate world regularly assesses employees, with pay tied to their performance. While these evaluation systems are far from perfect, they are better than having no evaluations at all. Therefore, it seems unfair to exempt teachers from these widely accepted practices.
When the concept of merit pay first emerged amongst education innovators decades ago, my mother initially resisted it. Since my home state of Alabama never engaged in a substantive discussion about pay-for-performance, our conversations were purely academic. Nevertheless, even then, I supported the idea of merit pay for teachers. My mother had spent several years teaching in segregated schools during the era of Jim Crow laws, and she harbored doubts about fair assessment for black teachers. Sadly, state laws allowed authorities to pay black teachers less than their white counterparts, regardless of qualifications, throughout much of the 1960s.
Fortunately, times have changed, and so have my mother’s opinions on teacher accountability. During her retirement, she mentored students and witnessed the varying levels of teaching quality. She has come to acknowledge the importance of carefully selecting and continually assessing teachers.
While my mother was an exceptional teacher, she was not the only one who made a significant impact on my education. I had a remarkable fifth-grade science teacher and an outstanding ninth-grade algebra teacher. Undoubtedly, there are hundreds of thousands more like them currently working as educators. These passionate teachers ensure that their students – regardless of their deficiencies or learning challenges – leave their classrooms more prepared for the future.
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