Columns » Max Brantley

Everybody's doing it

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Little Rock teachers, despite deserved skepticism about a “merit pay” experiment proposed for the Little Rock School District, are in a tough spot.

By their coming vote, teachers in grades K-5 will demonstrate whether they are for or against quality education. (Not really, but follow along.)

Big money and masterful PR have written the narrative. The schools suck. Lazy teachers are the reason. If you dangle some bonuses in front of the no-count unionized teacher corps, they’ll work harder.

The Walton jillionaires and their minions have written this script by pouring money into every cause — private schools, voucher programs, charter schools — devoted to the proposition that the public schools are failing.

(A pause for inconvenient facts: The Jan. 26 New York Times reported on a vast federally financed study. It demonstrated that regular public school students, when family income and circumstances are taken into account, do better on national tests than private or charter school students, particularly those in charter and conservative Christian schools.)

In Little Rock, the Waltons want to chip in a few pennies to expand on a merit pay experiment underwritten last year by private school patron Walter Hussman, publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The idea is to choose 50 volunteer teachers who will receive bonuses if their students progress by some arbitrary amount on a national test. The idea has been accepted without question by the Little Rock superintendent and a business community always ready to confer nobility on the ideas of rich guys.

Any previous experience with such a plan on record anywhere? No. Any experience with failed merit pay plans elsewhere? Yes. Any research on which this program is based? No. Any research on the damaging consequences of high-stakes testing? Yes.

Teachers mentioned the wonderful results in North Carolina, where pay incentives are tied to advanced training. Teachers warned of the workplace-damaging impact of giving bonuses to some teachers but not others in a setting where collaboration is vital. Board member Katherine Mitchell talked about an idea with real promise — reducing class sizes in K-3.

The flaws in the Walton project are many. For one thing, teachers won’t be randomly selected, but chosen from volunteers. We’d be surprised if teachers with confidence in their skills sufficient to volunteer DIDN’T succeed with students.

On the pro-bonus side there were only bromides. “This is the wave of the future.” “Everybody’s doing it.” Imagine if a kid tried that line on his momma.

With a Walton-financed lobbyist cheerleading in the front row, the school board sent the idea to a vote of teachers, who must give 75 percent approval. Whatever the outcome, the board has sent a clear message: “We have a disaster of such size on our hands that even unproven ideas are worth trying.” Board members seem to think this sends a welcoming signal to parents who’ve fled the schools. Instead, we think it sends a signal of desperation. Rather than champion the successes of schools they represent, board members parrot a line scripted by Walton shills, “The status quo is not working.”

“Merit pay” has always been more about punishment than reward. You may be sure that more punishment — including louder denunciation of shiftless teachers — is in store if teachers don’t vote meekly to go along. As I said at the start, Little Rock elementary teachers are in a tough spot.




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