College & Workforce Readiness Commentary

Please Don’t Do Me Any Favors

By James D. Starkey — May 13, 2008 4 min read

My graduate school sociology teacher once invited my wife and me to a dinner party. She had a beautiful home on Observatory Park in the University of Denver area, and her party was populated by beautiful and important people. There were lawyers, college professors, people working on institution grants, and some who were in positions to award such grants. My wife, Katherine, and I did a great job holding up our end of the conversation, until someone inevitably asked us what we did when we weren’t going to dinner parties.

Their reaction to the news that we were teachers couldn’t have been more immediate. No one gasped audibly. No one ran shrieking from the room. No one laughed. But what they did do was change the way they looked at us. Before, when they all just assumed we had a right to be at this party by virtue of our legal or medical or university careers, we were just like one of the gang. Our contributions and little jokes were greeted with the same interest or lack of interest that everyone else’s were. But when they discovered we were high school teachers, the tone changed. They started falling all over themselves to tell us what a noble calling we were pursuing. They told us how much they admired our willingness to work in public education. (The idea that teaching public high school was not necessarily a choice, much less a noble one, never crossed their minds.) I could see one bejeweled lady barely restrain an impulse to pat me on the head. To this day, I consider that dinner party and the condescension with which we were treated to be the worst social experience of my life.

The idea that teaching public high school was not necessarily a choice, much less a noble one, never crossed their minds.

You see, everybody talks about how important teachers are. Everyone thinks it a scandal that teachers make so much less money than other professionals with comparable education. My mother still gets teary-eyed when she thinks about the nobility of my calling. But no one really believes any of this. Individual teachers, the ones that we know and talk to and call friends or family, are uniformly admirable, talented, and professional people. But conventional wisdom says that, as a group, teachers are poorly educated, lazy, and generally not up to the rigors of a real job in the business community.

How else do you explain the glut of education reforms that always end up focusing on the same things: pay-for-performance, national standards and the tests to enforce them, and districtwide curricula designed to ensure that all Algebra 1 classes, for example, are on the same lesson and the same page of the same textbook at any given time throughout the year? All of these so-called innovations come from the following assumptions: (1) Teachers don’t work as hard as they could, but would work harder if they got more money; (2) teachers don’t have their own standards; and (3) if teachers did have standards, they wouldn’t know how to realize them.

The ProComp plan in the Denver public schools has received national recognition, and rightly so. Ostensibly, it seeks to give teachers the dignity and respect they deserve by compensating them appropriately and by giving them more ownership of districtwide programs and curricula. It creates a new way of figuring compensation. Teachers who work in at-risk schools are rewarded, for example. Teachers who get their students to raise their test scores are appropriately compensated. Working on committees, doing community outreach, as well as doing coursework all figure into the package.

A good idea, sure. But I can’t help but feel a twinge of resentment about the whole thing. I taught for almost 40 years, and I can count on one hand the number of teachers I’ve met who could have been considered lazy. On the other hand, I could spend the rest of the day listing teachers whose lives and the lives of their families were completely school-centered. They were people who volunteered for committee work, who actually paid attention during faculty meetings, who lugged home papers to grade every night and lugged them back every morning, who spent hours on lesson planning, who couldn’t get to sleep some nights because their 5th-period class wasn’t working. They were people who could have been successful in any profession simply because they themselves were so professional. I guarantee you that none of these teachers could have worked harder than they already did.

What I am suggesting is that ProComp and similar programs arise from the assumption that teachers could work harder, and I simply reject that notion. Good teachers work hard because that is what they have to do.

I resent the idea of national standards and standardized tests like the Colorado Student Assessment Program even more. In my 35 years in the Jefferson County, Colo., public schools, I was bombarded by “standards” every two or three years. Each new bombardment was labeled something different, and each required a flurry of faculty meetings to discuss the same points we discussed during the last onslaught. Each new set of standards, although couched in different terms, was exactly the same as the previous set. And all of those sets pretty much matched what I and my fellow teachers had been working so hard to accomplish anyway. The idea that public school teachers need a third party to tell them what is already painfully obvious is just plain insulting.

The notion that across districts, states, and eventually the nation at large all students should be “on the same page” is the most insulting of all. In Jefferson County, we have had Standards-Based Education, which took the place of Objective-Based Education, which took the place of Performance-Based Education. All of these educational bases attempted to establish set curricula, presumably because public school teachers are not capable of designing their own classes.

The idea that one should have strategies to get students to reach standards has occurred to me—and to every other classroom teacher. What do standards-setters think we’ve been doing all this time?

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