There seems to be this new meme going around amongst teachers, if some of the gals I'm friends with on Facebook are any indication. The idea? "It's not my fault." Seriously. If a given kid doesn't learn, it's not the fault of the person whose job it is to teach him. It's his parents' fault.
Look, I know that parents are important to a child's education. I know that children whose parents are active in their education do better in school than kids whose parents aren't. It's a no-brainer. That said, there's no reason for this to be anything other than the difference between an honors student and a C-student, with obvious exceptions for the kids who just don't give a damn.
If your job is to teach, then you need to ensure that kids learn, to the best of your ability. If you're not going to do that, get the hell out of the profession, or at least quit acting like you're a fucking martyr. Yeah, there are some unmotivated kids out there, but guess what? Teaching them is your job. Much as we all like to think the generations which come after ours are sliding straight to hell...every generation thinks that. Looking at the matter from an historical perspective, graduation rates are higher than ever. Kids are staying in school now much more than they did even back in the 1980s (from 14% in 1980 to 8% in 2009), so to say now that kids just don't care is a bit questionable.
And here's the corollary to that: if it's not your fault the kids don't learn, you're not as valuable as you are claiming to be. You cannot have it both ways. Either you are an essential part of a child's learning and on the hook for their success, or they're failing through no fault of your own, and you don't matter. It's really that simple. If you want the much-higher pay teachers are clamoring for (and really, with the median salary for teachers being in the $40,000 range, they're not hurting for money), then you have to be worth it. If you're going to throw your hands up and say "Ain't me!", then there's no reason to increase your salary, because you're not essential. If you're not teaching the kids, then let's pay you the $23,000 or so the average daycare worker gets, because that's all you are.
The rub, of course, is that in reality it is both ways, a fact to which we can all attest. Some teachers are fantastic, some are horrible, and the vast majority of teachers are just sort of muddling along waiting for retirement. There needs to be some system in place to reward the good teachers, and to push the shitty ones out. Merit pay is the usual answer to this, but it's not a perfect solution. How do you gauge merit? Test scores?
Here's the problem with that: I've finally found out what teaching to the test means. The tests are, of course, the standardized ones. Basic skills tests. As a parent, I see the utility of this sort of thing--they exist to measure learning, to ensure that kids are being taught at least at a certain base level. It's not a very high level; most of what was on the TAAS test I took back in 10th grade was stuff I learned in junior high. Obviously, kids who can't pass these tests aren't being taught enough to get by in the real world.
But standardized tests aren't taken annually. Here, at least, they are first encountered in third grade. Now, those who are against these tests claim that "teaching to the test" squeezes out all the time for arts education, and Social Studies...basically, the claim goes, if it's not on the test, it's not taught. Unsurprisingly, this is bullshit. My kids go to art or music class several times a week, not much changed from when I was in elementary school. No, the reality of "teaching to the test" is much more pernicious. It goes like this: kindergarten lays a nice foundation, and by the end of first grade kids know how to read. Other than that, not a whole hell of a lot of new stuff is introduced. Early in third grade, the teacher realizes she's been handed a classroom of kids who haven't been taught much of anything, and frantic cramming for the test begins. Get the kids past the test and move them up a grade...and the same thing happens. Little, if anything, is being taught in the grades which aren't defined by standardized tests. And that's why you can't tie merit pay to test performance.
For once, I actually do have a proposed alternative: have students and parents evaluate teachers in grade school the same way professors are evaluated in college, and base merit pay increases at least partially off that. Yes, there will be some personality conflicts and some axes being ground, but by & large those will be obvious. Student evaluations would be weighted more heavily than parents', as parents don't always pay attention. And, to be fairly accurate, I think you'd need to start the system two or three years before the first merit raises were handed out. Is my idea perfect? No. It is inherently subjective, and kids being pressured into leaving good reviews is a very real issue. I do, however, think it's better than the system of nothing we have now.
The essential teachers need to be paid as such, as do the daycare workers.