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GUEST COLUMN: Scrapping teacher pay schedules a step toward scrapping public schools

Kenneth Fuller

Kenneth Fuller, a retired Rome attorney and former state senator, writes a regular column for the Rome News-Tribune. Readers may contact him at lawdawg1973@att.net.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal is after the public school system.

His intent is to destroy the system of public education, which has provided the future of this Democracy since its earliest days. He and the Republican Party believe everything operated by government will be better operated by for-profit corporations.

They have given our prisons, probation, and parole to corporations, at a great cost, and the next big pie to divvy up among their friends with eyes for the bottom line is your kid’s schools.

The ballot in November 2016 will ask you to approve something Nathan calls “Opportunity Schools” and asks you to let him operate them himself — as a czar. No, my friends, our school boards will have no input or authority. Nathan will be a dictator over our schools.

But, first, he says he will scrap Georgia’s teacher pay schedules.

In recent years, local anti-tax groups, conservative politicians, and proponents of performance-based pay systems have attacked the single salary schedule for teacher pay, such as we have in Georgia — portraying it as an anachronism and an impediment to advancing student academic performance. Such claims have no basis in fact.

The single salary schedule is an objective method for determining teacher compensation and has been our law for more than 50 years. It removes biases associated with grade level, race and gender. It recognizes the contributions of all teachers irrespective of the subject matter taught. And it guards against subjective and inconsistent evaluations of performance.

Teachers have always been devalued in the United States and, in the past several years, the pace and intensity of the attacks has escalated sharply.

Spurred by the June 2 deadline for the second round of Race to the Top funding, states have raced to fire more teachers, tie pay and evaluation to student test scores, close or reconstitute more schools, and disempower teachers’ unions and teaching as a profession — trampling teachers, students, and communities in the process.

What lies behind this unprecedented assault on teachers? And, even more important, what can we do about it? We believe that these attacks are part of an effort to dismantle public education and that we need an effective, collaborative strategy to combat it.

But let’s start with what isn’t going on.

In virtually the same words used to sell No Child Left Behind in the early years of Bush II, the attacks on teachers are phrased in terms of “closing the achievement gap.”

No. If closing the achievement gap were the goal, we would see demands for adequate, equitable resources and funding for every student in every school — demands, for example, for quality early childhood education programs, full-time librarians, robust arts and physical education programs, mandated caps on class size, and enough time for teachers to prepare and collaborate.

We would also see a renewed commitment to affirmative action in university admissions; a drive to recruit and nurture teachers of color; a commitment to ensure that students come to school ready to learn because their families have housing, food, medical care, and jobs; and an end to zero tolerance discipline policies that criminalize youth.

The idea of “pay for performance,” which involves supplementing teacher pay or providing bonuses based on student test scores, is one of the latest educational fads to sweep the country. The fact is, research indicates that performance pay will not improve teaching or learning.

In an authoritative study conducted at Vanderbilt University, teachers who were offered bonuses for improving student test results produced no more improvement than the control group. Similar studies of teacher merit pay have shown null results in New York City and Chicago. Because of the lack of positive results, a number of pay for performance programs have been abandoned, including programs in New York City and California.

Faced with evidence that performance pay does not directly improve instruction, promoters of the system have turned to a different claim — that performance pay will help school systems attract and retain strong teachers, while discouraging weaker ones. This is an unlikely scenario.

Performance pay may in fact drive more talented teachers out of the profession. Studies show that while money matters to teachers, working conditions are more important.

Teachers want to work in supportive environments, where they have scope for creativity as well as rigor, and where colleagues collaborate, rather than compete, with one another. If performance pay pits teachers against one another, places even greater emphasis on test results, and creates doubts about the system’s fairness, more teachers are likely to look for other lines of work.

When Finland’s leaders sought to improve their students’ academic performance, they instituted measures that included reducing class size, boosting teachers’ salaries, and eliminating standardized testing. Teaching is now a highly sought after profession in Finland, and Finnish students top the world in academic performance.

If we want to make teaching a profession worth pursuing, we must pay all teachers a respectable professional wage and provide them the tools they need to do their job — small classes, strong mentors, time for planning and collaboration, scope for their own creativity and help with addressing challenges such as poverty and homelessness.

Teachers, pick up your phone, or pen and paper, and contact your state legislators now. They will decide your future, beginning on Jan. 11, 2016. They are your elected representatives and, believe you me, they will hear you much more clearly than they will Nathan Deal. Don’t stop there. Keep it up. Plan to visit the capitol with your friends soon after Jan. 11. Do something.

Kenneth Fuller, a retired Rome attorney and former state senator, writes for the website MOVE GEORGIA FORWARD. Readers may contact him at MoveGeorgiaForward@gmail.com.