Unserious Ideas from Ann Quindlen

Anna Quindlen wrote this column a few months ago about the new Frank McCourt book, Teacher Man (see fellow guest-blogger Sara Mead’s take on the book here). It’s worth reading, in that it stands as a kind of monument to the wooly-minded thinking on teacher issues that passes for conventional wisdom in many circles today.

Quindlen begins by asserting that “Teaching’s the hardest job there is.” This she knows because she tried it once, for half a day, and found it to be really hard. Where teaching might end up on the hard-job hierarchy if Quindlen were to spend a morning trying to be an airline pilot, heart surgeon, auto mechanic, certified public accountant, or any other job requiring skill, experience, and training that she lacks, we are left to wonder.

She notes that teacher turnover in the early years is significant, and assures us that “If any business had that rate of turnover, someone would do something smart and strategic to fix it.” Of course, lots of businesses actually do have that rate of turnover or higher–but never mind. Because instead of fixing this problem by instituting a blanket pay raise, “pols have wasted decades obsessing about something called merit pay.” In fact, the number of pols who obsess about paying our best teachers higher salaries is surpassingly small–would that it were otherwise.

Merit pay is “a concept that works fine if you’re making widgets, but kids aren’t widgets,” she says. It’s also a concept that appear to work splendidly if you’re making best-selling novels and columns in the nation’s leading newspapers and magazines.

Quindlen identifies Frank McCourt as an unusually good teacher, and offers some examples that seem to demonstrate this conclusively, before proceeding to explain at some length why merit pay can never work, because it’s impossible to identify unusually good teachers, or demonstrate their value conclusively.

Because while Anna Quindlen may see the what is right and good in fine teachers like Frank McCourt, we apparantly cannot build a school system that relies on teachers with McCourt’s virtue or principals with Quindlen’s keen judgment. To her, McCourt’s creative teaching is obvious, but “you can easily imagine the principal…who would find it unseemly.” On the other
hand, “tying raises to pass rates is a flagrant invitation to inflate student achievement.” Teachers, it seems, just can’t be trusted to act with integrity, and it’s not fair to them to expect otherwise.

She then turns to the NEA’s cynically unserious proposal to create a national minimum salary of $40,000 for all teachers. “Why not?” she aks. “surely we can do the math to get them a decent wage,” preferably through “a tax on corporate profits.” The price tag on that proposal is tens of billions of dollars in year one and skyward from there, but hey, the corporations don’t need it, they’re just using it to create huge mountains of money on which fat-cat executives can go sledding, Scrooge McDuck-style. If only more Americans had the conscience of Anna Quindlen, if only more people cared like she does, we would have long ago grown a money tree that could painlessly solve problems such as these.

Finally she returns to McCourt, who at the end of his story “is preparing to leave teaching with the idea of living off his pension and maybe writing…” A lifetime spent as a remarkable teacher in an urban school system, and only a modest teacher’s pension to show for it. We can all agree that’s just not good enough. How, then, to solve this problem? Seek out the Frank McCourts
of the world, recognize their achievement, and give them the reward they deserve? Or wait to find money that does not exist to pay all the teachers who lack Frank McCourt’s dedication, talent, and success the same amount of money as he? To Anna Quindlen, the answer could not be more clear.

– Kevin Carey

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