This is one area in which I strongly disagree with Obama.
I come from a teacher family. I’ve always been surrounded by teachers. None of them want this. (And none of them like “No Child Left Behind” either… because it basically means “No children in rich neighborhoods left behind”.)
The problem isn’t bad teachers. Sure, there are bad teachers — I certainly had my share of them. But here are some of the many reasons why many of our country’s children, especially the poor, aren’t learning well enough or aren’t graduating:
- One or both of their parents are dead, in jail, or missing.
- They’re mentally handicapped, often because their parents abused drugs or alcohol during pregnancy.
- Or they’re just not very smart, but the schools don’t have the funding for separate remedial teaching programs.
- They’re highly transient, moving between schools every few months, because their parents keep moving to find work (or they keep getting evicted and move between relatives’ homes who put them up for free for a while).
- They’re emotionally affected by external factors that hinder their performance at school, such as being victims of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse at home.
- They are frequently absent from school because their parents are deadbeats and didn’t take them there.
- They’re the children of (often illegal) immigrants and aren’t exposed to English until they get to school, so in addition to the difficulty of learning the subject matter, they have to simultaneously learn a new language that they’re only exposed to during the school day without any formal instruction.
Now, how many of those situations are the teachers’ fault?
Moreover, these problems tend to be concentrated geographically and more frequent in those with low socioeconomic status, so schools in bad neighborhoods will have many more students in these situations than the schools in richer, nicer districts.
Under No Child Left Behind, “underperforming” schools lose funding, usually closing down and merging their students into other districts. Why would that help any of these problems? It actually makes many of them worse.
An underperforming school can hardly be blamed for the problems of its neighborhood. Rather, it should be used as a tool to help address some of these problems. For underprivileged children, school is often their favorite place to be: it’s a safe haven from the brutal world of their home life.
Merit-based teacher salaries would only cause sensible teachers (none of whom can afford to take lower salaries) to leave these schools and flee for the rich suburbs. The only teachers remaining would be the ones who weren’t good enough to get jobs anywhere else — so we’d be leaving our worst teachers in the worst neighborhoods where the kids need the most help.
Now, most privileged people (myself included, and by “privileged” I mean that we didn’t endure most of the conditions above) hear the idea of merit-based teacher pay and think it’s great. You think of that one “bad” tenured math teacher who was an asshole or that crazy English teacher who gave you a B- on that paper. But those aren’t the teachers that this would affect.
We were middle-class white kids in the suburbs. Despite that asshole math teacher or that crazy English teacher, we still came out perfectly fine. Our schools would have done well with or without those teachers because, ultimately, the quality of the teachers really doesn’t affect the school’s graduation rate or the students’ standardized test scores.
We did well because we were middle-class white kids fortunate enough to have great home lives and parents who cared about us. Our teachers had it easy. They don’t deserve any more or less money than the brave teachers in poor districts who endure a daily world full of tragedy and poverty.