For the organized teaching profession to come out in favor of teacher-testing, merit pay and the firing of incompetents all in a matter of days is roughly equivalent to an association of landlords coming out in favor of rent control. Yet back-to-back conventions of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have surfaced just such unaccustomed ideas. NEA president Mary Futrell persuaded her organization to soften its opposition to teacher testing, and even to support the dismissal of incompetent teachers. And yesterday, the AFT's Albert Shanker floated the idea of nationally certified "super duper" teachers who would be given extra pay. He said it might allow the unions to drop their automatic opposition to merit pay in any form.
What's happening, of course, is less a change of heart than a change of tactics. Teachers have found themselves in the politically awkward position of 1)being blamed for much of what's wrong with public education and 2)resisting the public's prescriptions for making things better -- prescriptions that clearly include teacher testing and merit pay.
Unfortunately, the teachers' changing tactics aren't likely to make much difference in what happens in the schools. The states already were pushing ahead with competency testing, in spite of teacher opposition. But aside from weeding out a relative handful of nonreaders and math illiterates who should never have been in teaching to start with, the tests of the sort already in place in some 30 states aren't likely to improve public education. And merit pay, whether of the sort the public seems to support or bonuses for the "super duper" specialists that Shanker talked about yesterday, isn't likely to make much difference either.
That doesn't necessarily mean that the ideas are wrong. It may make sense to insist that a teacher be reasonably competent in English and math, and pass a test to that effect; but it doesn't follow that those who pass such tests will be good teachers. A tougher test of the bar-exam type that Shanker has advocated for entering teachers would keep a lot of prospective teachers out of the classroom without necessarily weeding out those least gifted at teaching.
Similarly with merit pay. The basic idea is unassailable: those who do best what they are hired to do should be paid more. But while it may be fair to reward extraordinary competency (though you could spend a decade trying to figure out how to define it) merit pay of the sort most generally discussed won't increase competency.
What might? Basically two things: 1)attracting brighter young people into the profession to begin with and 2)making it routinely possible for less-competent teachers to learn from their most-competent colleagues.
The answer to the first is higher base pay (not merit pay). As for the second, Kenneth Clark, the New York psychologist made sense in a proposal he wrote for the D.C. public schools some 15 years ago. Clark proposed that teachers be certified only after three successful years (under close supervision) on the job -- much like a medical resident. Then would come promotions (with appropriate pay increases) to staff teacher (roughly comparable to a university assistant professor), senior teacher (associate professor) and master teacher (full professor).
Clark's idea was that the likeliest way of improving teacher competency was not the lure of money but help from those who had learned to do it well, and that those who consistently showed themselves capable of delivering that help should get special status and income.
That still strikes me as a sensible direction. But competency testing and merit pay -- even "super duper" merit pay -- won't get you there.