The confusion, criticism and anger that erupted across the Houston Independent School District in response to the new teacher merit pay program must seem both baffling and disappointing to HISD Superintendent Abe Saavedra. His intent was to reward good teaching, not stir up a storm of protest.
So why did so many teachers at all grade levels feel offended, demoralized and outraged by the bonus program?
I think he misses the point by apologizing for the manner in which the bonuses were publicized, for the implications of his remarks about "the cream of the crop" and for the details that need to be "tweaked" to improve the program. These glitches do not account for the intensity and magnitude of the negative response expressed by teachers who received the bonuses, as well as by those who did not.
Of course I cannot speak for all HISD teachers, but what has upset the teachers at my school is the district's message that teachers of "core" subjects are intrinsically more worthy than teachers of "other" subjects, and that a teacher's "value" is determined solely by a number on a standardized test. The system devised to calculate this "excellence" is so complicated that it almost defies comprehension and we question both the time and money that the district has spent designing and implementing it — but our greatest objection is that it ends up being divisive to our sense of community.
We believe it does "take a village" to educate a child, and we have worked long and hard to create a collaborative community that meets the diverse needs of all our students. The competitive nature of the bonus program rends the fabric of this community and interjects an element of "separate and not equal," which works at cross purposes to the "professional learning community" ideal espoused by the district.
And to what purpose? Will bonus money improve student learning? Will it increase teacher satisfaction and attract new teachers to the district?
I would like to see the district ask these questions of all HISD teachers. I suspect most of us would answer that we would prefer to have the money put into our salaries; we do the best we can every day, for every child, because we care.
There are no easy answers, but the best answers are simple. HISD should give us the help we need by providing a safe and comfortable environment, optimal materials, small class sizes, adequate time to spend with our students, supportive resource staff and let us teach!
Determining teacher excellence solely on the basis of test scores is like judging doctors on how well their patients follow medical advice — in both cases there is a variable beyond one's control. Perhaps the best way to improve test scores would be to pay the students (those who do well as well as those who show improvement) — this might motivate parents as well as students.
I know Saavedra says his commitment to merit pay will not change. I am asking him to reconsider his position in the context of the greater importance of affirming the integrity of the learning community as a whole. Collaboration is our greatest strength and our only hope for long-term success with our students.
Graham is an art teacher at Lovett Elementary School.