Education Opinion

Pay Teachers Like CEOs

By Walt Gardner — March 16, 2012 2 min read
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Teachers are slated to be judged and rewarded in the next school year largely on how well their students perform on the basis of quantifiable outcomes. The usual rationale is that this strategy is how top executives in business are evaluated and compensated. If adopted, the corporate model will transform schools and allow the U.S. to compete in the global economy.

But the argument is dead wrong. “CEOs are different: They are almost certainly the only category of Americans who regularly get rewarded for failure with massive amounts of money” (“Executive Decisions,” The New Republic, Mar. 1). To put it differently, nothing succeeds like failure in the executive suite. There are countless examples of the disconnect between performance and pay in corporate America, from Angelo Mozilo of Countrywide, to Aubrey McClendon of Chesapeake Energy, to Mark Hurd of Hewlett Packard.

Yet Americans still are most likely to believe that “people are rewarded for intelligence and skill” (“The Mobility Myth,” The New Republic, Mar. 1). There is some truth to this belief, but it overstates the reality, which is that connections figure heavily in who moves up and who is laid off. If this observation is accurate, it will lead to mass firings in education when they are not deserved. And unlike CEOs who leave with huge severance packages despite their failure at the helm, teachers will leave with nothing but the pensions they’ve paid into during their days in the classroom.

Perhaps the notion of pay for performance would make sense if schools were allowed to operate like businesses. But they’re not. Public schools by law must enroll all students who show up at their doors regardless of their ability or motivation, and they can’t be expelled except for the most egregious behavior. It’s a wonder that teachers do as well as they do under the circumstances. Yet don’t ever expect education marketeers to concede this point. They’re only interested in the undeniable cases of failing schools.

I wonder what their reaction will be to the op-ed by Greg Smith, a former executive director at Goldman Sachs who laid bare the truth about the assertion that corporations have their customers best interests in mind (“Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs,” The New York Times, Mar. 14)? It’s a scathing exposé of how the storied Wall Street firm actually does business, and a reminder that the double standard used to judge public schools and public corporations is too blatant to be ignored any longer.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.