Opinion
Education Opinion

Tackling Performance Pay: Me and Albert Haynesworth

By Susan Graham — September 15, 2009 4 min read

On Friday I was reading The Washington Post, and although I don’t usually spend much time in the sports section, this headline got my attention:

How to Measure $100 Million of Impact

Since my job is to impact student learning, I was intrigued by the idea of paying one person one hundred million dollars for his impact on playing a game. While I didn’t know anything about Albert Haynesworth, he clearly represents a very big investment for the Washington Redskins. I was particularly interested when I discovered that Haynesworth is a defensive tackle.

Now if you didn’t know anything about football, the fact that he’s a defensive tackle might not mean anything to you. But if you know just a little bit, it may seem like a really bad idea because it is unlikely that Albert Haynesworth will ever score a single point during his entire football career. In fact, he’s not even expected to help his team make forward progress, and everybody knows that you win the game by scoring points. So why is he the highest paid man on the field?

His teammate running back Clinton Portis, who does carry the ball and who does score touchdowns, says the other players don’t have a problem with Haynesworth’s pay, even though Rick Maese of The Washington Post writes, ”...his true contribution will be difficult to measure with statistics.”

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On Sunday I was reading The Washington Post and as I as reading the editorial section, this got my attention:

Old School in Virginia: Instead of making outdated promises, the gubernatorial candidates should be promoting education reform.

Since I’m pretty invested in promoting education reform myself, I was intrigued by the idea that both candidates seem to have almost identical education reform planks in their platforms. I have to admit that I thought maybe they had been listening to those of us who are out there on the front line, because they agree that Virginia teacher salaries ought to meet the national average.

The Post argued

Much of the debate has focused on whether the state can afford to do so much and on which candidate would come up with the money. But they both have set the wrong goal. There are more effective ways to improve teacher quality..... Far better use of scarce public dollars is to encourage meaningful reforms, such as linking teacher pay to student test scores so that effective teachers are properly rewarded...."

That sounds sort of like saying, “Hey, we need to reward those guys in the offensive backfield because they’re the ones who score points. Never mind about the offensive linemen or the defense because they don’t bring in any high scores.” When teacher compensation is tied to test scores, how does one “properly reward” the special education teacher who works with autistic children? How is the contribution of the band director who inspires and motivates students going to be measured? What about the vocational teacher whose students leave school with less than amazing GPAs and SATs, but who graduate with highly marketable skills and a job with benefits? Professional teachers, just like professional athletes, know that the contribution of a colleague isn’t necessarily assessed by points scored.

The editorialist at The Post nails it when he says, “Low salaries discourage people from entering, and staying in teaching.” But he fumbles when he claims “systems don’t compete nationally for teachers.” Yes, we do; Virginia school systems are forced to recruit all over the country because we do not produce enough teachers to fill our empty classrooms.

When professional sports teams invest enough to run a school system in a single player, they do so because they feel it is necessary to spend big bucks to recruit top talent. When Wall Street investment firms tanked, we were told that they still needed to pay huge salaries and breathtaking bonuses to retain “talent.” Teachers don’t expect to get rich, but they do expect to be able to support their families. Virginia ranks seventh or eighth in the nation in average income, but comes in 31st on the list of states’ teacher pay. Isn’t it a little disingenuous to say that money matters in recruitment and retention of talent when staffing the boardroom and the locker room, but isn’t a factor in the classroom?

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On Monday I was reading The Washington Post and the front page headline got my attention:

The Season Starts, but the Questions Persist

The Redskins lost their season opener to the New York Giants 17-23. The offense didn’t do so hot. Defense did okay and Haynesworth play solidly, but had no spectacular plays that were game changers.The Post says “The temptation can be to draw hard-and-fast conclusions about how a season will turn out based on one Sunday afternoon in September.....” It sounds like a call to postpone accountability when adults play a game for stratospheric salaries. Armchair quarterbacks care about their team, give them the benefit of the doubt, and hold the players in high regard. I think most education pundits really do care about school; so I wonder why they are quick to draw hard-and-fast conclusions about our schools, and to be so dismissive of the teachers who commit their careers to children?

Before Sunday’s game Albert Haynesworth said “I can’t sit here and say we’re going to win every game or whatever. What I can promise [is] that I can do my job, and I’m pretty good at what I do. They just expect me to play my game and play how I play and that’s about it. That’s all I can promise.”

I know how you feel, Albert.

As the school year gets started I’m just saying, “As a teacher I can’t say that all children will become proficient in all areas or whatever. What I can promise is that I can do my job and I’m pretty good at what I do. I wish they just expected me to teach the kids and to teach the way I think works best and that’s about it. That’s all I can promise.”

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table 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.