Demerit Pay
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In the spirit of generosity I've been thanking the gods that private school teachers' salaries are not connected to students' standardized test scores. Else Malia Obama's science teacher at the Sidwell Friends School might have lost her job faster than you can say "grade inflation."

On November 3, 2009, the one-year anniversary of his election, President Obama, speaking at a middle school in Madison, Wisconsin, told his audience that First Daughter Malia had recently come home from school with a 73 on a science test, but after renewed educational vigor she aced her next test. This was the same day President Obama reiterated his call for public school teachers' merit pay to be based in part on student performance on standardized tests.

I'm a 17-year veteran English teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, so naturally I thought, "Yep, change has finally come."

After numbing my students with No Child Left Behind tests for the past seven years, I can now depend on Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to turn it all around.

But Secretary Duncan's not going to hand over any federal grant money willy-nilly. No sir. No money changes hands until the states beat down those all-powerful teacher unions (and if you want to see how powerful teacher unions are, just drive by your local public school and check out the cars in the faculty parking lot. The Cash for Clunkers program rejected my 1997 Toyota Corolla and most of my colleagues' cars as well).

I'm confident that connecting teacher salaries to standardized scores will so excite students they'll turn off their Play Stations and Xboxes and begin to memorize their times tables; that's how much they're certain to want their teachers to receive that extra $1200 a year.

The merit pay provision undoubtedly will make poor students with full-time jobs and little parental support more alert in class. It'll make their parents serve them healthier breakfast foods. It'll encourage parents to turn off ESPN and help their kids perfect their five-paragraph essays and give up drinking so they can pay for educational perks.

Public school students, realizing they do have the power to move their teachers from a rented apartment into ownership of a condo, will wake at dawn on Saturday mornings and work a few Sudokus; then they're likely rush to be first in line when the library doors open.

Of course, Secretary Duncan's plan might motivate some students to intentionally tank these tests so that their teachers eat it. Call it, "The Revenge of the D-Minus Students." I hope the government will factor in these scores so innocent teachers don't lose their credentials and their health care.

I look forward with curiosity and wonder to the system the Department of Education is devising to measure teachers' effectiveness. I'm all for merit pay, but I can't figure out how it will work. How does a test measure teacher effectiveness when we teachers teach different subjects to different groups of kids in vastly different universes?

For example, in my wing of the building, I teach English to 12th graders; only three of 42 are applying to college. My next door neighbor teaches ESL to kids who've just immigrated. All day I hear her saying, "This is my pencil. This is my eraser. This is my bottle of Prozac."

In the room next to hers, our AP Physics teacher works with only those students who are applying to universities.

And just outside our building the varsity volleyball coach teaches drills.

How does a test compare students' mastery of spiking a volleyball with their ability to understand the properties of an atom?

While I wait for the federal government to grade my colleagues and me, my heart goes out to Malia's science teacher. What was she supposed to say to the Obamas when the First Daughter came home with a C?

"Well, Mr. President, Michelle, allow me to be straightforward. I think you sir, are spending way too much time golfing on Martha's Vineyard. And ma'am what's with the Double Dutching on the White House lawn? You need to spend more face time with your daughter. Or at least give her a turn."

Might the teacher have had the guts to say, "Malia's a bright and wonderful child. But frankly, I think her grade is a cry for help. Enough with flying off to Copenhagen in the middle of the night. Stay home and read to her."

My guess is that Malia's Sidwell Friends School teacher did the prudent thing; the next time she administered a science test, she made sure it was easier, and she thanked her lucky stars her pay wasn't tied to Malia's "C."

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