Thursday, March 31, 2011
Public school teachers have taken a beating from politicians, opinion-makers, business and foundation leaders and just about everyone else. Lazy teachers, it is said, have wrecked our public education system.
A March 2010 headline in Newsweek put it bluntly: “The problem with education is teachers.” The authors asserted, “In no other profession are workers so insulated from accountability.” The authors missed eight years of impunity during George W. Bush’s tenure, and corporate-driven economic disasters for which no one has been held to account.
The assault on teachers usually takes the form of grim news reports about failing schools, films such as Waiting for Superman and legislation designed to “root out” bad teachers like noxious weeds. Illinois legislators recently considered a bill that would have barred teachers from teaching in the state if they performed poorly on three annual evaluations in 10 years.
One of the most popular remedies for our ailing schools is “merit pay,” an idea championed by business, civic and political leaders, including President Barack Obama. It is the notion that teacher compensation should be tied to performance in order to “incentivize” excellence and attract quality people to the teaching profession.
Americans should not let such surefire solutions as merit pay go untapped. So, why not start with the members of Congress?
Few will disagree that Congress should be held to a higher standard of accountability. Merit pay will incentivize responsible decision-making. How would merit pay work for U.S. senators and representatives?
First, to prevent bias, a nonpartisan commission of experts will be empanelled and charged with establishing criteria for evaluating performance. Every two years, the Commission to Incentivize Congressional Excellence (CICE) will evaluate lawmakers based on the Quality of Life Index (QLI) for their districts (or states, in the case of senators).
AMERICANS SHOULD NOT LET SUCH SUREFIRE SOLUTIONS AS MERIT PAY GO UNTAPPED.
Quality-of-life factors that the CICE will measure include: poverty, crime and incarceration; infant mortality, homelessness; school drop-out rates; incidence of gun violence; wealth and income disparities; quality of health, education, housing, air and water.
Members of Congress whose districts perform below average will be subject to instant recall elections back home. If they win, upon return they will forfeit the annual cost-of-living allowance (COLA) and taxpayer funded health insurance. If they lose, they will be barred from ever running for another federal office.
Time is of the essence. Sponsors should immediately introduce the “Congressional Performance Inducement and Leadership by Example Act” (COPILEA), mandating merit pay for Congress.
Understandably, some lawmakers will complain that social and economic ills such as poverty, racism and crime have deeper roots than their tenure in Congress – that they should not be held responsible for what are, in essence, structural problems.
Teachers will hope objections by our eminent leaders bring understanding to their own plight. They too have little control over socioeconomic conditions that shape the learning environment. They anticipate this new found appreciation of “social context” by lawmakers will help change our education discourse.
Lawmakers who derive power from seniority will protest the volatility this bill injects into congressional tenure. They will argue that Congress is already held accountable. But, the power of merit pay, and its popularity among lawmakers should trump such considerations. Lawmakers eager to set an example will welcome additional standards of that strengthen our democracy.
James Thindwa is a member of the board of directors of In These Times and a labor and community activist.