Sunday, April 3, 2011

Educators' simplest hopes damaged by political ideology

A friend in Darlington referred me to a letter published in the local newspaper there last week by a 2005 Milliken educator from Anderson, Mary Nell Anthony. Anthony's letter made a number of interesting points, and after pondering her perspective, I decided to share. Rather than copy her letter, let me describe its main ideas.

Anthony takes on the subject of accountability and how accountability is being presently used as a blunt club against school district employees across South Carolina. Lawmakers propose that adopting a pay-for-test-scores plan will promote accountability among the ranks of teachers and others. Anthony does not argue that school district employees should not be held accountable. Rather, she illustrates the absurdity of using pay-for-test-scores as a medium for achieving accountability.

Take public law enforcement, she offers. If our program of law enforcement is entirely effective, that will mean there is no crime in our communities. But we know differently; there is certainly crime occurring in our communities; our jails and courts are busy with the processing of crimes and those who commit them. Does this mean our law enforcement personnel should be penalized and paid according to whose "beats" yield the least reports of crime? If so, perhaps those patrolling federal parks and country clubs would be paid the most, while those risking their lives to raid drug dens and in violent gunfights would be compensated the least. That's pay-for-performance, is it not?

Anthony applies the same to dentists next. Effective dentistry means that patients will have great check-ups, zero cavities, regardless of the personal behavior and choices. Applying the pay-for-performance model, those dentists whose patients fit the bill will earn the most, while dentists filling cavity after cavity will earn the least. Best, then, that dentists seek to locate in the most economically-advantaged neighborhoods and communities, where good dental hygiene is taught and practiced in the homes, right?

And what if some dentists have repeat offenders, patients who come back again and again to have cavities refilled, and more cavities filled, and even more dental work done? Should those dentists lose their practices and their licenses? It would certainty hold dentists accountable for their effectiveness in promoting dental health.

Anthony suggests that, applying the same principle to physicians, any patient diagnosed with a terminal illness is clearly evidence of an ineffective health care provider. Such providers should be paid least, while doctors seeing patients with no health concerns would be paid most.

What about owners of health clubs and gyms, or registered dieticians? Isn't our present epidemic of obesity evidence that this group of service providers is ineffective? Shouldn't their compensations be penalized?

Anthony writes,

Sound ridiculous? We teachers think so, too. Yet, there are legislators, the Superintendent of Education, and our newly-elected governor that want mandates such as these placed on teachers. They have this mentality that if a teacher performs the right combination, the human mind will click into place and our entire population will be educated. Thus, underperforming teachers will not be paid.

Classrooms are microcosms of society. Each year, I have kids with privileged backgrounds and kids with adverse living conditions. I have kids that live on the lake, and I have had kids that live in their car.

I doubt any educator chose a career in education with an intent to get rich. But most educators chose their careers with the hope of emulating their own best teachers, inspiring students to learn and grow, and making a real and positive change in their communities one child at a time.

When educators enter the classroom, they have simple hopes. They hope their students come to school prepared by parents and ready, even eager, to learn. They hope they will have the professional freedom to address the individual needs of each student, as each is unique, and the unwavering support of their administrators when their professional judgment is questioned. They hope that their investment of time and energy will be rewarded through the years with compensation that recognizes their credentials and years of committed experience. They hope for basic respect, for safe and secure working environments, for constructive criticism and positive reinforcement. They hope their love for their profession is never diminished. They hope they have made the right career choices.

Educators manage the damage to these hopes daily. Many of their children do not come to school fed or rested, much less ready or eager to learn. Many do not come to school prepared by parents to be taught. Many educators feel they do not have the professional freedom to address the needs of each student, nor the time to address individual needs, with more and more children packed into each classroom. Many of them feel they don't have the unwavering support of their adminstrators. Many hear their professional judgment questioned and go undefended often enough that they question it themselves, and retreat into cautiousness and sheepish compliance; they know what is wrong and know what is needed, but dare not speak up or out. Many see their investment of time and energy discounted by leaders with political agendas. Many grow used to the general disrespect, from students in the classroom, from administrators and school board members, from community leaders and lawmakers. Many make personal adjustments to deal with cramped, unwieldy, even unsafe and unreasonable working conditions. Many hang onto their own love for their best teachers and best days, and for their families, to keep going.

What Anthony expresses in her letter is a poignant and real pain and frustration that her hopes -- and, no doubt, the hopes of her colleagues and co-workers throughout the profession in South Carolina -- are being pounded, subverted, undermined, destroyed unnecessarily by political ideologues. Her feelings are entirely valid when you consider how many school district employees hold college degrees, and how many years of experience they represent, and compare that to how few local school board members statewide hold the most basic teacher certificate, how few spent any time in a classroom, and how few members of the legislature have taught children in public schools.

Those with the most preparation and commitment hold the least political power; those with the greatest political power have the least preparation and commitment to serve children in any public school.

The proposal of "pay-for-test-scores" is merely the most recent iteration of that ideology.

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