It’s the Teachers, Stupid

All the time and money we spend on education reform will mean nothing if we don’t grow the pool of qualified teachers.

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Obama and Duncan should follow through on the plan to pay bonuses to teachers who work in schools serving low-income students, many also African-American or Latino. Right now, these schools have too many inexperienced teachers.

For what they’re paid, experienced teachers tend to opt to work in other schools where students bring to class fewer family and social problems. Or the best teachers gravitate to suburban districts that not only enroll well-prepared students from relatively stable homes but also pay well. As Obama promised in the campaign, his Obama administration should give school districts incentives to weed out teachers who are not getting the job done.

The biggest obstacles to higher achievement in D.C., Chancellor Rhee appears to believe, are the teachers’ union and its contract. She has taken aim at tenure and the salary schedule. Instead, she wants merit pay.

What’s wrong with her proposed personnel policies ought to be clear in the Federal City, with its legions of civil servants. How many of them have no job security? How many are paid based on performance? Who else in the D.C. municipal workforce—police? firefighters?—gets paid based on merit? Does anyone remember that salary schedules were a civil service reform, a guard against arbitrary decisions about pay?

I agree that teachers’ unions share the blame for the state of urban education. But they are to be blamed for being too weak, not too strong. If the unions had negotiated better, teachers would be paid more and the country would have enough good teachers to put in the toughest classrooms.

Kenneth J. Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is a freelance journalist based in Boston.