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'Publish or Perish' for Precollegiate Educators

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We have always known that some teachers are better than others, but only in very recent years has the problem of determining merit become a national issue. Politicians, officials of teachers' unions, school administrators, parents, and teachers themselves agree that superior teachers ought to get better pay than mediocre or poor ones. But how do we determine merit?

California, one of the early states to institute what it described as merit pay, for example, chooses "mentor teachers" by virtue of how much work they do. "The prototype," according to the state's school superintendent, Bill Honig, "is a football coach or drama teacher. We pay them more to take on extra work."

A few states have used the phrase "merit pay" to justify across-the-board raises for all teachers. Florida's Educational Reform Act of 1983, for example, allowed every teacher in the state to be designated a "master teacher," thus qualifying for more pay.

As prerequisites to raising the pay of any teacher, some localities have instituted measures of merit that include national teachers' tests, peer-supervisor ratings, or the trend of student performance on standardized tests over a period of time. All of these are subject to serious error or obvious manipulation.

For decades now, colleges and universities have struggled to recognize and reward superior professorial performance. I think that one method has proved most successful and offers an intriguing model for precollegiate educators as well: "publish or perish."

A radical idea? Perhaps. But before I make my case for requiring public-school educators to publish in some form or "perish", let us consider a few of higher education's notable failures in evaluating professorial merit.

  • A "Teacher of the Year" was dismissed recently at the University of Wisconsin because, her dean declared, she actually "taught poorly."
  • At the University of Maryland, an elaborately selected "Distinguished Scholar Teacher" was fired by top administrators for lack of publication.

Every year, campuses experience similar situations: Popular professors fail to be promoted, sometimes even to be re-hired. Their cases show up in the newspapers and sometimes in the courts. What these examples tell us is that contests singling out this or that teacher have become hollow public-relations gimmicks, and student and even peer evaluation may be distorted by self-promoting, show-boating teachers who have sniffed out the qualities that will bring approval. But it's encouraging to note that today, before conferring lifetime tenure, serious officials look closely at the total substance of a teacher's work, which includes rigorously assessing what the person knows in his field.

By requiring professors to publish continually, the country's leading colleges and universities adhere to a quite stern procedure of regularly evaluating a professor's competence. Even after tenure has been conferred, publication governs promotions and salary increments.

Obviously, this method of evaluation is readily subject to abuse: inferior campuses will accept inferior or indifferent publication; some faculty will dedicate themselves to publishing and neglect their teaching; some campuses will exalt publishing and denigrate teaching. But publishing remains the one area of objective evidence for appraising a professor's grasp of his field, independent of the distortions inherent in rating scales or the demands of whimsical or tyrannical supervisors. Publication in reputable journals carries with it recognition by the profession.

Opportunities for publishing are readily available to high-school and elementary teachers, especially if we include reading papers at professional meetings or participating in panels, as well as preparing articles for journals. Publication at its best has always been a way of sharing one's discoveries and insights with colleagues.

Teachers at any level must be in constant, simultaneous touch with their subject and with their students. How one teacher finds it possible, for example, to communicate to foreign-born students the arbitrary subtleties of English idioms must be of interest and possible use to other teachers. A teacher who discovers, say, a pattern in his or her expectations of certain groups of students virtually owes it to the profession to record carefully this experience, in the perspective of previous studies of this phenomenon.

We might not expect elementary and high-school teachers often to cross the borders of their disciplines, doing pioneer research, say, as we expect university professors to do. But we can certainly expect such teachers to be intimately and significantly involved in their classroom activities so that they inevitably uncover new methods for teaching, new areas or arrangements for study, even new needs and new problems.

The teaching of English, for example, can only be aided by studies examining the actual use in literate sources of split infinitives, sentence-ending prepositions, the use of "who" for "whom," or of "between you and I" for "between you and me." Our language lives dynamically in its daily use by young people and public-school teachers are ideally situated to observe the constant changes.

Elementary and high-school teachers of English are certainly as capable as professors of developing new critical insights into classical texts, not to mention the lyrics of the popular songs their students listen to or the television shows they watch. Teachers in inner-city schools are in a unique position to study linguistic, behavioral, and value patterns. If high-school students can develop science and math projects that are recognized for their originality, certainly we can reasonably expect that their teachers do at least comparable work. Few journals look only at the pedigree of contributors; editors and referees read the texts of submissions.

One might argue that teachers who publish at any level must take time away from teaching. I have always found this argument egregious nonsense. The best teachers I have ever had--on any level--have been the best-informed and the most articulate ones. Any teacher is personally enhanced by working at his highest level of learning and talent. Time spent in the library or laboratory or at the typewriter enriches time spent in front of a class. A teacher's research time is at least as valuable for students as athletic or drama coaching. That teacher dismissed by the University of Wisconsin was poor, according to her dean, because she did not keep up with her field. A teacher who can contribute to a dialogue with colleagues at a professional meeting about the problems he or she has encountered and tried to solve in the classroom strengthens rather than weakens his or her overall teaching performance.

The danger in instituting a publishing expectation of elementary and high-school teachers is the same as in higher education: It can become a crushing burden if teaching schedules are not humane. Moreover, some campuses have allowed prolific publishers to leave the classroom altogether, thus making a mockery of the integral relation between publishing and teaching. Other campuses measure as a publication every trifle that carries a professor's name, counting and weighing items instead of seriously evaluating them.

But these dangers are no greater than those that prevail now, either with no reliable and valid measurement of merit at all or with inadequate or misleading ones.

Teaching at every level used to be a prestigious profession. In the 1930's and 40's many high-school teachers had doctorates, published articles and books, and could comfortably teach in college. Elementary teachers in many communities were comparably well prepared. Most had to pass difficult licensing tests and many had tenure, like professors. Teachers at prestigious private schools today still come from this mold. We should strengthen the training of public-school teachers today to prepare them for serious professional activity, including publication. Salary scales will have to be improved to encourage it.

We must as a nation recover for teachers a good measure of their old respectability. We must expect that a teacher know his subject and can communicate it successfully to a range of students. I submit that publication, properly understood and sensibly assessed, would be indisputable evidence establishing such basic competency.

Vol. 04, Issue 27, Page 24

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