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Where Merit, Competence Need Not Apply

Why can't we get rid of bad teachers and pay the good ones a higher salary, using the same logic that teachers use to grade an individual student's work?

November 26, 2000|WILLIAM CHITWOOD | William Chitwood, a former junior high school teacher, is a private-sector language arts instructor who lives in La Canada Flintridge

Good morning, kids. I have some bad news: Only 64% of Los Angeles Unified schools qualified for state cash rewards based on the SAT-9-linked Academic Performance Index, below the state average of 67.4%. Although 75% of the elementary schools met their goals and equaled the state average, only 39% of our middle schools and a pathetic 16% of our high schools did so.

By the way, class: United Teachers-Los Angeles has authorized a possible strike for an 18.8% salary boost.

You look puzzled, so let me explain. Assume for a moment that some of you could read at grade level and that I could assign a book report. Upon analyzing your papers, we'd probably find that of 20 kids, two of you got A's, three got B's, 10 got C's, three got D's and two of you--well, let's just say you'd probably end up with a desk in a plush office at district headquarters.

Your personal ability would reflect an achievement curve, which everybody in the real world believes should be the criterion for your grades or rewards. Yet when it comes to public education, we have decided to adopt principles the exact opposite of fairness, merit, competence and common sense.

For example, we know that some of the 40,000 UTLA teachers deserve state bonuses and a pay hike. You've probably seen them grading time-consuming essays and challenging students to think. They're natural-born teachers who will do a good job no matter what you pay them because they know that teaching is a rare privilege, not a state entitlement program.

On the other hand, some of us barely made it into or out of college, could never make it in the competitive private sector and would almost certainly fail a national competency exam. (Repeat three times, class: Test students, not teachers!)

Truth is, private industry--and many suburban districts--wouldn't pay some UTLA members to break rocks, much less teach, so they've camped here for life. I'm talking about the teachers who can't speak or write clearly and who rarely assign challenging work. One LAUSD teacher was even observed by a former district superintendent directing a class to randomly color shapes on paper.

No, don't worry, Sophie--those who can't teach kids anything worthwhile usually become district managers, multi-culturalist consultants and education professors.

I see some raised hands. Yes, good question, Maria: Why can't we get rid of bad teachers and pay the good ones a higher salary, using the same logic that teachers use to grade each student's work on individual merits?

Well, once upon a time--when California public schools were the best in the country--some wily politicians and powerful union bosses met in a magical land called Sacramento, where the people's hard-earned gold piles up and disappears each year into a mysterious vortex called the state Department of Education. (The name is curious because nobody there ever teaches or learns anything.) Nearly a thousand highly paid elves spin useless theories and toil on a magic book called the Education Code, written in untranslatable elf dialect.

Well, the Sacramentoids and their clever elves decided that public schoolteachers were entitled to permanent jobs and equal salaries, no matter how lazy or harebrained they might be.

I know, I know--it's mean, stupid and totally unfair, but that's what teachers unions are all about: forcing the taxpayers--your parents--to equally reward unequal ability. And the biggest threat the teachers unions use to get what they want is to disrupt their own students' education.

Yes, we want you to believe we're your best friends, yet Big Brother (a reference to a classic book called "1984" that most of you will never be able to comprehend, thanks to our secondary schools) says we will even sacrifice what little education you have by picketing our schools and intimidating substitutes who cross strike lines.

Right, Bobby. It's as if those 18 kids who didn't get A's on our imaginary book reports conspired to disrupt the class until the instructor agreed to give everyone the same high grade. That's why veteran schoolteachers become complacent and ineffective.

Let's just hope the taxpaying public doesn't follow our example by simply replacing strikers, just as we teachers are wont to do with failing students who disrupt our own classes.

Considering LAUSD's overall dismal rankings on state and national standardized tests, could permanent strike-replacement teachers really do a worse job? Good question, kids--but my union rep says I'd better not tell you the answer.

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