By Richard Schmitt
In his recent remarks about education President Barack Obama offered support for the idea of paying teachers more if their students had higher scores on standardized tests like the MCAS. Education reformers have recommended merit pay as a method for improving American education for a while now. It seems common-sensical. If you pay your cleaners minimum wage, they will do a minimal cleaning job. Pay them a bit more and they will have some incentive for working harder. Get a cheap yard clean up service and they may cut your grass but not trim the edges carefully. Pay a little more and you may find that your yard looks better.
So why would this idea not work with teachers? Because mowing lawns, cleaning offices or houses is not a job you do because you love mowing lawns or cleaning. You do it for the money. If that is what you do it for, you may well work harder to get more money. But we don’t do everything “for the money.” Other things matter. Few people get married for money; we don’t have kids for money. We don’t have friends for money, or knit or sew or cook good meals for family and friends for money. Some people are fortunate to have work that they love. Yes, they get paid and often would like to get paid more, but since they love their job, they do it as well as they can – even if they do not get paid as much money as they would like.
Money matters; money is important. Especially if you are always short, always balancing debts and bills, however hard you work, money is a major problem. But it is not the only thing that matters. Doing things well matters. If you are fortunate to have found a good doctor, she will take as good care of you as she can, even if you do not pay her extra. If you are fortunate to have found a good mechanic, he will not work harder on your car than one anyone else’s if you offer him more money. He wants to be proud of his work. Yes, he wants to make a decent living but that is not all he cares about. He cares about doing good work. The same of the doctor. Yes, she wants to earn a decent living. But she wants to make sure that she takes as good care of her patients are she possibly can.
Many people in America think of going to school as a way to making more money. What you do in school is “get a degree.” In order to do that, you need to get good grades in your classes. In order to do that, you have to pass exams by remembering what the teacher said. Notice, that in this picture of school there is no mention of education. Education is different from getting a degree. Education involves learning. Learning involves acquiring information, but more importantly, it involves becoming interested in a subject, wanting to know whatever you find out about it. Getting an education is learning to be curious and finding out what you can do to satisfy that curiosity. It means learning to read, to research and to do so critically. It means to learn to ask questions, to formulate answers, to look at different answers to a question and figure out which is more likely to be right.
Good teachers do not primarily raise the standardized test scores of their students. They try to educate them, to arouse their curiosity, to do whatever they can to make their students want to be educated, to be curious about the world, to be eager to learn more. But teachers who did not get educated themselves, who themselves do not care to know more, who themselves never learned to be curious and to ask a million questions cannot convey that to their students. That means that teachers who went to school to get a degree, by passing courses, so that they could earn more money than their parents are not equipped to educate their students because they never received an education themselves.
Here is where President Obama’s proposal comes in. As long as we treat education as a means of making money and think the teacher who gets paid more is going to be a better teacher, we mix up two quite different values: making money and getting an education.
Yes, by all means, let’s pay teachers better. They deserve it. But if you want to improve education, you need — among many other things — teachers who are deeply interested in knowing their subjects, teachers who can communicate excitement about learning because they are interested in learning. You need to raise a generation of teachers who like books, science, math, art or music, people who will teach these areas with genuine interest because knowing these things made their life better.
Teachers who believe that education is good only for making more money are not themselves educated and, therefore, cannot educate anyone else. We need teachers who regard education as important for its own sake, teachers who would — if they could afford to do so — teach for nothing because education and educating are, for them, worthwhile ways of spending good chunks of their lives. Of course, they too need to eat and they make their living teaching. But teaching, for the good teacher, is about a lot more than making a living.
So if we want to improve education, let’s talk about education and leave money out of it. It would be good to pay teachers a decent wage. It is hard work, even if you are not very good at it. But paying teachers a decent wage is not going to improve education. Improving education will require teachers who are educated, who are eager to learn and who want to communicate their excitement about learning to their students.