Brief Thoughts on Teacher Pay

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by Conor Friedersdorf

In the "teacher wars" here's where I stand: I think America's teachers should be paid more in money and prestige, that the discretion of principals is a better way to determine relative compensation than test scores, seniority, or masters degrees, that programs like Teach for America demonstrate the need for reform in the credentialing process, and that a necessary tradeoff as teachers are paid more in a merit based system is less job security.

I understand why teachers are upset about the Los Angeles Times coverage of the "value" teachers add to student test scores. Some parents are going to place too much emphasis on that single metric of evaluation. But I'd have published the story were I an editor at the newspaper. Every bit of information a newspaper publishes is going to be misused by some of its readers. That isn't any reason to deprive the rest of us.

Teachers ought to understand this better than most people since every week they read student assignments and use their fallible judgment to assign a letter grade, often based on opaque, somewhat arbitrary standards. This process culminates in a report card sent home at the end of every semester. It typically assesses achievement on an A to F scale that presumably doesn't capture every nuance of student mastery over a subject. High school teachers who give out these grades do so knowing that for many students they'll one day be scrutinized by college admissions officers, who'll admit or deny applicants largely based on the average of these somewhat arbitrary grades that don't capture every nuance of a student's academic abilities.

Despite its imperfections, I haven't many teachers eager to do away with grades, and while I've seen a lot of teachers complain about being evaluated based on test scores -- a complaint with which I sympathize -- I've never seen a persuasive defense of "masters degrees earned" or "years worked" as a better metric of quality. Yet teachers unions champion a status quo that relies on these very measures.

As Jack Shafer notes, "If you can't grade the graders, whom can you grade?"

But as I said, I'd prefer a system that gave broad discretion to individual principals. Would some teachers be treated unfairly by their boss under such a system? Sure, but there are lots of schools out there. 

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