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We Should Give Teachers a Decent Wage and Then Let Them Teach

September 06, 2000|RICHARD J. RIORDAN | Richard J. Riordan is mayor of Los Angeles

Despite a recent salary increase, a beginning teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District earns roughly $7.40 a day per student. Teenagers make more money per hour baby-sitting. We need to pay teachers as professional educators, not as baby-sitters. They deserve a salary that reflects the huge responsibility of educating our children. A respectable salary also would draw more qualified people to the profession, help alleviate teacher shortages and raise student achievement levels.

The maxim that teachers accept deflated salaries because they "love their jobs" loses merit when we realize the challenges facing them. They do not "love" overcrowded schools, inadequate supplies, low-performing students and dirty and dilapidated facilities. Although California has begun addressing these issues, it is safe to say that today's classroom is not an educator's paradise.

However, with an increase in salary should come a greater level of accountability. Accountability begins at the top with principals and district administrators. When we give principals the authority to hire, remove and assign teachers to classrooms, we can hold them accountable for results. Similarly, the local superintendents should have the same authority over principals.

If we hold students accountable for gains in student achievement, how can we not hold administrators and teachers accountable for the same thing? In business, the primary objective is to make a profit, and workers are compensated for their contribution to this goal. In education, the "profit" should be student achievement.

Let's start with a higher base salary for teachers and then offer bonus pay for successful schools, not individual teachers. Bonus pay should be determined by a formula developed by teachers, staff, principals and parents at the local school and approved by the district. The formula would include such factors as student attendance, professional development, parent participation, peer review, school cleanliness and standardized test scores. If a school meets its benchmark, then the entire school--administrators, teachers and staff--receives the bonus. This type of incentive would motivate schools to assist struggling teachers and remove those who impede progress.

Some say that it is unfair to link bonus pay to standardized test scores of students who are not proficient in English or who have below grade-level skills. Moreover, schools with students who already have high test scores will have an unfair advantage over schools with low test scorers. I agree. We should compensate schools depending on their test scores' annual "percentage gain." For example, if a school's average reading score at the beginning of the year is at the 25th percentile but rises to the 35th percentile by the end of the year, that school should be compensated for the growth.

It's also been said that linking bonus pay to standardized test scores is detrimental for students because it pressures teachers to narrow the academic curriculum and focus on basic skills: reading and math. Critics have labeled this "teaching to the test." If "teaching to the test" means focusing on basic skills, then I support it. Most people agree that standardized tests are good indicators of students' proficiencies in basic skills, and when a vast majority of students are deficient in those skills, it is necessary to concentrate teaching efforts toward mastering them.

I also strongly support art, drama, music, computers, physical education and other "non-tested" items. However, I am more concerned that students read at grade level and calculate mathematical problems, because these are the requisites for success in other academic subjects.

The only way accountability strategies can succeed is if teachers are fairly compensated. The LAUSD and the teachers union should negotiate a contract that rewards teachers and schools for being successful, holds them accountable to high standards and provides incentives for them to do what they do best: teach.

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