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Something Wrong in Our Schools? Let’s Blame Teachers

Joel Parkes is a third-grade teacher at Middleton Street Elementary School in Huntington Park, which is in the Los Angeles Unified School District

Much has been written lately about merit pay for teachers, an idea with which I agree in principle. But merit pay would be unfair to teachers for many reasons.

I teach upper-elementary grades at a school that is at the absolute bottom of the Academic Performance Index, ranking one out of 10 in both statewide and “similar schools” APIs. The majority of my school’s students are classified as “English language learners”; almost all are Latino. Virtually every student at my school lives in poverty and gets a free breakfast and lunch from the school.

Next year I’ll teach fourth grade, and this is what my past experience at this school leads me to expect:

At least two-thirds of my students will have been socially promoted through every grade and, by definition, won’t have the skills necessary for the work that the state and district standards requires them to do. Some of them, probably five or 10, won’t even know the alphabet, through no fault of mine, but they won’t be held accountable. I will be.

Out of frustration over not being able to do the work, a number of my students will chronically disrupt my class, so my learning environment will be adversely affected daily. There is no meaningful consequence for chronic disruptive behavior at my school, so none of those students will be held accountable in any meaningful way. I will be.

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Other students will be so discouraged at not being able to do the work that they will make no effort. They will seldom complete homework assignments and will produce virtually no work in class. Our senior assistant vice principal has stated that “we don’t retain [hold back] students for not trying,” so the students who do no work won’t be held accountable. I will be.

I’ll give you two historical examples of accountability and leave you with a question.

First, when the Roman legions marched, they built roads and bridges, some of which survive to this day. When the legions had to cross a river, the engineers were called on to design and build a bridge. After the bridge was built, the engineers stood under the bridge while the army crossed. That’s accountability, but at least they had what was necessary to build the bridge.

On the other hand, when the Khmer Rouge seized Cambodia, they took the teachers and other educated people to the rice paddies and said, “You’re so smart and educated. Make the rice grow faster or we will kill you.” So there were a lot of dead teachers in Cambodia. Accountability? The Khmer Rouge certainly thought so.

Consider, please: As a teacher, I have no control over a school system that does not require students to meet standards in order to move on to the next grade. But I am to be held accountable.

As a teacher, I have no control over the system’s lack of disciplinary support and inability to make certain students produce work. But I am to be held accountable.

As a teacher, I have no control over uneducated parents, overcrowded and noisy homes or the other very real consequences of poverty. But I am held accountable.

With regard to merit pay, my question is this: Am I being told to build a bridge and given the tools I need for the job, or am I just being taken to the country and told to make the rice grow faster? I know what answer I would give.


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