EDUCATION MATTERS:

It would seem that the drive to reward “master teachers” is picking up speed again. Now it’s coming from Washington, and the proponents of this idea reason that these master teachers would light the way for their less-competent colleagues and that the whole system would be upgraded by a nation of harder-working teachers clamoring for bonus bucks — and learning what good teaching is all about in the process.

Aside from being ridiculously simplistic in its formulation, it would also be uneven, and thus unfair, in its application. A question comes to mind: Who would be appointed to choose the deserving among our ranks? On-site administrators would seem a logical choice, given their opportunity to observe teachers with any frequency. Whether they could be objective in their evaluation is another matter.

The temptation to equate talent with experience would be all but irresistible as veteran teachers who have weathered the years and ruffled the fewest feathers would be the likeliest candidates for honors. Furthermore, the tendency to pass over teachers who follow their instincts or assert their autonomy would be great from administrators who see part of their job profile as telling teachers how to teach.

Perhaps, instead, some sort of roving task force of “teacher specialists” is envisioned, which brings up other questions. Would these anointed ones have had any recent teaching experience? How many observations would they deem sufficient to determine whether a teacher is merit-worthy? Any serious assessment of a teacher’s skill would require a substantial investment of time, certainly beyond a few cursory visitations. Additionally, it should be expected that some expertise in the subject matter, as well as an understanding of today’s classroom, be required of anyone who would presume to judge others in those contexts.

All this assumes that objective criteria exist for what constitutes a good teacher. Implicit in such an assumption is the idea that good teaching can be reduced to a formula, that education is dispensed in measured quantities. How does one measure a teacher’s compassion and understanding? What scale would be used to determine a teacher’s commitment to children’s welfare and growth or how well he accepts and nurtures individual differences in his students? By what standard would a teacher’s insistence on challenging the inquisitive and motivating the lethargic be applied? These are essentials of good teaching, and yet they might easily go unheralded in a system that asked only for demonstrable results from the educators.

If there are precedents to be set for evaluating and rewarding our public servants, I foresee some interesting possibilities. Why stop with teachers?

In our pursuit of excellence, we can create a class of certifiably super cops, fearless firemen, omniscient judges. And it would be only fitting that the very politicians who are promoting the master-teacher concept be themselves subjected to closer scrutiny, then compensated according to their merits. We might award them integrity points or place them on a sincerity scale with incentives for commendable service. Given the current state of affairs and the present quality of leadership, very little of the public’s money would be put at risk by such a proposal.

Distinguishing the good politicians from the bad is indeed a tantalizing prospect, but unfortunately it would become (as it would with teachers) an entirely subjective matter. Creating a master class among a group of peers would serve only to drive a wedge between the designated elite and the unappreciated others.

For too long, the teaching profession has taken disproportionate blame for today’s underachieving youth. There are other, less politically popular, considerations that need to be addressed. Children who come from broken homes, children who spend up to eight mindless hours a day on their computers and their video games, parents who are uninvolved in their children’s schools, to name a few. In casting about for a villain, our lawmakers have descended on the schools, implying by their merit-pay proposals that teacher incompetence is a principal cause.

If some sort of economic rewards are contemplated as a remedy, they should be applied to the whole profession, along with the realization that individuals who spend five or more years of higher education to enter a profession that is woefully underpaid are, in all probability, dedicated to their craft and the purpose to which it is applied.


 DAN KIMBER is a teacher in the Glendale Unified School District, where he has taught for more than 30 years. He may be reached at DKimb8@ sbcglobal.net.

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