By William Mattox, JMI Resident Fellow
If it weren’t for two teachers with four last names, I might well be among those who are skeptical about proposals to tie teacher pay to student performance.  I come, after all, from a household that reveres teachers – our extended family is full of them – and I’m very mindful of the fact that the teachers’ unions strongly oppose merit pay proposals. Yet, as I’ve listened to the debate over merit pay in Florida and around the country, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about how these proposals would affect two teachers that I greatly admire (even though one of them greatly annoyed me at first).  Let me see if I can explain.Portrait of a Teacher as a Young Woman
Ms. Laura Simmons came to my high school to teach AP English my senior year.  A young teacher in her mid-20s, she had been hired during the summer, after our school’s legendary AP English teacher – a leather-pants-wearing hippie – decided to “sell out” and became part of The Establishment (Assistant Principal). Ms. Simmons initially came across as an earnest, no-nonsense, persnickety fussbudget.  But one day early in the school year, she made the mistake of telling our first-period class that she was very self-conscious about a temporary black spot on her chin (where a dermatologist had just burned off a mole).Upon hearing this, I did what any mischievous teenage boy might do.  I came to school early the next day, armed with a sheet of black construction paper, a hole punch, and some glue, and proceeded to paste a black spot on the chins of all my first-period classmates before school.  We then covered our chins with our hands, propping our elbows atop our desks, until Ms. Simmons arrived and began writing the day’s assignment on the chalkboard. When Ms. Simmons turned around and saw all of us staring back at her with black chin spots, she shrieked!  And I feared that I was in a heap of trouble.  But after a long pause, Ms. Simmons punctured the nervous silence that had fallen over our classroom with a deep, cathartic laugh.  Apparently, she recognized that our prank was meant to be something of an initiation – her initiation as Elder into our Tribe of Precocious Learners.For the next nine months, Ms. Simmons poured herself into our lives, teaching us everything we could absorb about alliteration, and parallel structure, and rhetorical questions, and kernel sentences.  She taught us to hear The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and to see The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man.  And she assured us that it was okay to break writing rules occasionally for effect . . . so long as we remembered to avoid clichés like the plague!   When Ms. Simmons had finished her magic that year, she blew out town, Mary Poppins-like, taking her supercalifragilisticexpialidocious teaching skills to some new place, with her new husband, and her new name:  Mrs. Hunter.I only saw her once after that – when we had a reunion of our yearbook staff (which she oversaw) to celebrate winning First Place in a national competition.But I never forgot Ms. Simmons-Hunter-Whatever-I’m-Supposed-to-Call-Her.  Because she had a more profound impact on me than any schoolteacher I ever had.  Ode to a Meritorious Teacher
I write this Ode to a Meritorious Teacher — hey, it beats writing odes about Grecian urns! – to point out  that the very best teacher I ever had ranked among the lowest paid in the entire profession.  And the reason I know this is because the pay structure for teachers hasn’t changed much over the last 30 years. Then, as now, teachers got brownie points for having lots of classroom experience.  And then, as now, little payday consideration was given to the amount of progress a teacher’s students actually made under her tutelage.At first blush, the age-old emphasis on rewarding training and experience appears reasonable.  More classroom time and training ought to make one a better teacher . . . and it usually does.Yet, sometimes veteran teachers with advanced degrees turn out to be complete duds in the classroom.  And sometimes promising young instructors bring so much natural teaching talent to the table that they manage to prod their pupils to progress far more than anyone could have possibly predicted. Given that annual end-of-year assessments can now measure students’ learning gains under a particular teacher, President Obama and many education reformers in both parties believe these objective measurements ought to become a major factor in determining the length and size of teacher contracts.  Not the only factor, surely, since some significant aspects of education defy objective measurement, but a very important factor.   Nevertheless, the National Education Association opposes legislative efforts to link pay and tenure to performance.  And their affiliate in Florida has displayed a close-minded vigor that has surprised – and disappointed – many Floridians.        As Bill Cotterell, a columnist for The Tallahassee Democrat, observed, “The teachers unions’ position on merit pay and tenure has been about as negotiable as the National Rifle Association’s approach to gun control:  First, we start with no bill.  Then, we’re done.”  What Gym Coaches Can Teach Us
Regrettably, failure to tie pay to performance undermines the professionalism of the teachers’ profession.  It makes it more difficult to attract top-tier talent to teaching.  And this, in turn, fuels despicable put-downs like, “Those who can’t, teach,” and the even meaner, “Those who can’t teach, teach gym.”Ironically, the folks who teach gym – and coach sports – know something about the legitimacy of tying the pay of leaders to the performance of those under their leadership.  As George Allen notes in his book, What Washington Can Learn from the World of Sports, college and professional coaches tend to be judged by the won-loss records their teams amass. Thus, young coaches that take underachieving programs to new heights (like Florida’s Urban Meyer) rightly earn more than experienced veterans whose talented teams frequently fall short (like Illinois’ Ron Zook).  And even though coaches who’ve experienced lots of success get “a long leash” – appropriately – they are still expected to get results from their current players. Indeed, if one wants a vivid picture of just how absurd Florida’s current teacher tenure system is, consider this: a public school teacher with years of nothing-but-mediocre performance had far more job security during the 2009-10 school year than Bobby Bowden, the second-winningest coach in college football history. Déjà vu All Over Again
In addition to their opposition to performance-based pay, something else has bothered me about the teachers unions’ campaign against merit pay.  And the best way for me to relay this concern is by telling a story that’ll seem like “déjà vu all over again” (to borrow Yogi Berra’s memorable phrase).  One recent summer, the neo-hippie teacher that was slated to teach my son Richard’s AP English class got busted for possession of marijuana.  So, the school principal asked a promising young teacher named Mrs. Jennifer Roady-Lawson to take her place.Early in the school year, Richard told me that everyone in AP English was wigging out because Mrs. Roady-Lawson seemed like an earnest, no-nonsense, persnickety fussbudget.  (Or something to that effect.)  But a month or two later, Richard reported that students were adjusting to Mrs. Roady-Lawson’s high standards.  And, at some point, Richard apparently determined that it might even be possible to goad Mrs. Roady-Lawson in a good-natured way. So, when Mrs. Roady-Lawson assigned her students to write an argumentative essay that used humor, Richard did what any mischievous teenage boy might do.  He picked a polarizing topic that no sane person would consider amusing, staked out a position diametrically opposite the one his teacher holds, and wrote the most persuasive paper he could write. To her great credit, Mrs. Roady-Lawson did not penalize my un-toady son for playfully poking fun at her political point of view.  And when Richard came home proudly displaying a top score on that assignment, I told him he had special reason to be pleased – because a person who disagrees with your position is more apt to see the weaknesses in your argument (and the pitfalls of your humor) than someone who agrees with you.Needless to say, AP English ended up being one of Richard’s favorite classes this year – thanks in no small part to his open-minded, even-handed, intellectually-challenging teacher with the hyphenated last name.  Pass/Fail Pay or Excellent Pay?
I write this second Ode to a Meritorious Teacher – hey, it still beats writing odes about Grecian urns! – because Mrs. Roady-Lawson’s willingness to let her students wrestle with both sides of a controversial issue stood in marked contrast to what some more-experienced and better-paid teachers in other parts of the state did during the S.B. 6 debate.In the weeks leading up to the vote on S.B. 6, members of the Florida Legislature received an avalanche of phone calls, e-mails, and letters urging them to oppose merit pay.    Most of these communiques came from teachers themselves.  But some came from students who appear to have been coached by their teachers to spout the FEA’s party line.  (See sidebar.)   Now, it would be grossly unfair to suggest that these unscrupulous teachers were somehow representative of all those who opposed S.B. 6.  But it would be equally misleading for someone to claim that the FEA actually represented the interests of all Florida teachers – or, especially, all of Florida’s best teachers – when it lobbied against merit pay.Indeed, in a fascinating survey of more than 20,000 Florida teachers, the respondents divided evenly when asked: “Do you think all teachers with the same number of years in the profession should be paid the same, regardless of their skill level?”  Forty percent of the teachers answered yes, 39 percent said no, and the rest were undecided or gave no response.Interestingly, these numbers might actually understate teachers’ support for merit pay – or at least their potential support.  Here’s why I say that . . .Suppose Florida teachers were asked:   In what classes are your students more motivated to excel – those in which they simply pass or fail . . . or those in which they can earn an A?I suspect almost every Florida teacher would say that students typically strive for excellence more in classes where they can earn an A than in pass/fail classes. And, yet, if this is true of students, would it not also be true of teachers?  Human nature being what it is, wouldn’t teachers be more apt to go the extra mile (or to keep going the extra mile) if they knew that they would earn more if their students learned more?Some people resent this line of argument because they think it diminishes the nobility of people who “didn’t choose to be teachers for the money” and who “don’t need to be treated like Pavlov’s dog” to do a good job.  I understand these objections, because I know a number of teachers who have a relentless intrinsic drive to excel that seems unfazed by external factors.  Yet, the fact that there are such noble teachers only increases my support for merit pay.  Because teachers who constantly challenge their students to soar higher and dig deeper deserve to be well compensated for the success they inspire.  Moreover, we need such teachers to be well compensated, lest they find it tempting to “sell out” and leave the classroom when their household budgets get squeezed.     Not in Kansas Anymore
Sadly, the people who claim to represent teachers appear to have little use for thinking outside the box – for looking at teacher compensation issues in new ways and entertaining the possibility that teachers might actually fare better under a new system.  Instead, the unions’ reflexive resistance to merit pay reminds one of their opposition to other educational reforms that have been adopted in Florida over the last decade.Look, our family came late to the party.  We’ve only been in Florida three years.  And we don’t know everything about what went on here under the banner of “educational reform” prior to our arrival. All we know is that we aren’t in Kansas anymore.  Instead of being trapped in a sepia-colored educational landscape where all the kids get a plain vanilla education, we’ve landed in a yellow-brick Sunshine State well down the road to adopting some of the most forward-looking, student-friendly educational policies anywhere in the country.And these innovative reforms aren’t just giving white kids like my son a chance to learn from extraordinary teachers like Mrs. Roady-Lawson.  But these reforms are helping kids of every race and economic background and learning style get a chance to pursue an educational plan tailored to their unique needs. In fact, I like to boast to my progressive friends in other states that Florida is well on its way to becoming the first state where poor kids can routinely get a private school education if they want one.  And I hope soon to be able to boast that Florida not only compensates its teachers on merit (the way athletes, coaches, and other professionals are compensated) but is the first state to reverse the upside-down practice of having the union “agents” who represent teachers earn way more than the star teachers receive. For these things to happen, more and more Floridians will need to see that the twin pillars of reform – higher standards and more choices – aren’t just good for students, but good for teachers as well. Indeed, many of the FEA’s worst fears about merit pay only hold true in a monopolistic system where teachers have but one prospective employer.  In an educational landscape where there are many potential employers, robotic administrators who fail to take into consideration the extenuating circumstances that might explain a good teacher’s “off year” will find themselves losing talented teachers to other schools.Pride and Prejudice
Look, I know these issues are complicated – and that reformers need to proceed prudently, not cavalierly.  But when I hear the teachers’ unions cast aspersions on the folks working to reward excellent teachers, it reminds me of the way Lt. Wickham slyly impugned the character of Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  And while I recognize that teachers are understandably predisposed to trust the unions that claim to represent them – just as Elizabeth Bennet was predisposed to trust Lt. Wickham – I hope that good teachers throughout the state of Florida will give the educational reformers a chance to prove that they have honorable intentions in promoting merit pay. For if there is any truth that might help to allay the concerns of those in the noble Tribe of Great Teachers Who Aren’t In It for the Money but Still Deserve to be Well Compensated, it is this:Sometimes a “foe” who seems at first to be an earnest, no-nonsense, persnickety, fussbudget proves to be a friend who’s been seeking your best interest all along.   I’m sure that probably sounds suspicious to some.  But it’s the lesson Elizabeth Bennet learned in Pride and Prejudice.  And it’s the lesson my son and I each learned . . . from two extraordinary English teachers with four last names.Sidebar:
“Prompting Pupils to Parrot the Party Line”
Using public records law, JMI staff obtained copies of student phone messages, letters, and e-mails to Florida elected officials about S.B. 6.  Curiously, many student calls were made during school hours and followed a familiar script.  In some, the voice of an adult “prompter” could be heard in the background when students struggled to remember their “lines.”Similarly, a political science instructor at East Ridge High School in Clermont sent a packet of nearly 100 letters that his students wrote to the Senate President as a class assignment.  The teacher claimed he presented the bill with “a neutral connotation” – and expressed “total amazement” when all of his students opposed S.B. 6. Yet, included in the packet – no doubt by accident – was the teacher’s actual assignment, which included “talking points” against S.B. 6 that had been copied from a memo (also enclosed) written from teachers unions’ perspective.  No arguments in support of S.B. 6 were included with the assignment.Not surprisingly, the students’ letters echo arguments found in the “talking points” memo – sometimes word-for-word.  To review these letters and the teacher’s assignment, go to /library/doclib/Journal_Summer2010_SB6StudentLetters.pdf.