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Unmerited Teachers

This column was written by Mark Hemingway
A New York Times op-ed earlier this week highlighted the sad plight of America's teachers. Co-authored by Nínive Calegari, Daniel Moulthrop, and of all people, literary hipster Dave Eggers, the op-ed was called "Reading, Writing and Retailing." It attempted to draw attention to the not-so-new phenomenon of teachers working second jobs in the summer, as if this were somewhat undignified.

"In your community, you might spot your son's Advanced Placement biology teacher working in the summer as a travel agent. Or perhaps your daughter's English teacher is painting the house down the street. Not counting those who teach summer school, about 20 percent of the country's teachers have second jobs (often during the school year, too), and the majority of those jobs could not be construed as enhancing universal respect for those who teach."

Nevermind why a teacher working another job during the summer is considered disrespectful, or that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics public-school teachers earn more per hour than the average white-collar professional. (Or way more. In New York, you can be at the top of the pay scale and work only 28 hours a week, and it's against the teachers' contract to work during the summer anyway.) To the extent that underpaid teachers are a problem, it is for one reason and one reason only: teachers unions.

If teachers unions care about increasing pay for teachers, the solution would be simple. It's called "merit pay," or as it's known in every other employment arena in the country, How The World Works. Unlike all jobs outside of government, if you're a teacher, how good you are at your job is no indicator of how much money you'll make.

This is because unions insist on uniform pay for all teachers regardless of ability. Teaching is not an assembly line where workers come in shifts and are interchangeable. It is a highly specialized profession that requires tremendous adaptability. And more than that, it is far too important a job to pretend that educators are all equal.

And teachers being underpaid is just one part of the struggle they face, according to the authors. According to provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act, teachers must be monitored for competence. The horror! Jorge Izquierdo, a New York City principal, is one of the few education professionals willing to speak out on the issue, put it this way: "I am like the CEO of a little corporation. I am judged by whether or not I achieve the equivalent of a profit -- how much the children gain in learning. But unlike any other CEO, I can't hire the people who work here or fire them when they're incompetent."


In fact, insisting on uniform pay is just part of the problem that comes with treating all teachers as equals. Union contractual protections for teachers are so extensive that it's nearly impossible to fire a teacher no matter how outrageously incompetent he is. When a school district does go through the motions, it's not uncommon for it to cost more than six figures' worth of legal fees. Not only are schools not allowed to give good teachers more money, they can't afford to fire the bad ones. There are so many bad teachers entrenched in public education, shuffling bad teachers from district to district before parents catch on has its own term of art: The Dance of Lemons.

Of course, there's an easy fix to this problem that avoids messy issues like determining whether or not teachers can actually teach. According to the authors in the New York Times, that is raise taxes.

"But where will local districts get the money to increase salaries? One idea: every day, bonds are approved to build stadiums, even schools. The presumption is that the new buildings will increase the profile of a given city, thus attracting more visitors, more businesses, more families and more tax revenue, all of which will pay down the bond. By the same token, then, wouldn't it make sense to create a bond to pay for better educators?"

Let's turn this analogy on its head. Say a city approves a bond for a stadium -- but imagine that the local baseball players' unions have the same clout as the NEA. Now once the athletes have been signed, they have to play no matter how good (or bad) they turn out to be. They could hit .178 or have an ERA of 7.4 and still they would suit up every day for years on end. Would a baseball team this bad raise the profile of the city? Highly unlikely.

If teachers want to increase the diminished prestige of their profession and be compensated better -- they can be allowed earn what they deserve. In some cases that might be a fortune.

But to complain about teachers being underpaid without addressing the issue of merit pay is like staring down the barrel of a gun and fretting about being pistol-whipped. To the teachers unions credit they have obscured the issue such that it's wrongly about schools not having enough money, or more laughably, New York Times op-eds about how society doesn't value teachers. Society values teachers quite a bit. They just wisely choose not to value them all equally.

Mark Hemingway is a writer in Washington, D.C.

By Mark Hemingway
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online