I don't know if Veltajean Olson would have qualified for a merit bonus had they been available during her 33-year teaching career.
Her methods were a bit unorthodox. She taught her 3rd and 4th graders how to dance the minuet and the Virginia reel, how to sing her favorite songs and how to read a poem aloud. She showed them how to take notes in outline form and how to deliver a book report, and she devoted several weeks each year to the study of primitive cultures that interested her.
The extras were a waste of time as far as the standardized tests were concerned and unusual enough that professional evaluators of classroom merit might have given her low marks.
But I do know that of all the great teachers my sister and I had growing up, Olson -- still Mrs. Olson to me -- was the greatest. The breadth of her enthusiasms inspired hundreds of her pupils from the mid-1950s until her retirement in the mid-1980s to approach learning with an encompassing vigor and to believe in themselves when faced with challenges of all sorts.
I thought of Mrs. Olson when the issue of merit pay for teachers came up last week at the National Education Association conference in Chicago. Delegates voted down a proposal that the NEA endorse and assist in experimental performance-based pay incentives for teachers, after which local editorialists whipped them with a familiar lash:
The teachers union "still doesn't get it," scolded the Tribune, invoking the image of "mediocre instructors" who are "reward[ed] merely for showing up." The Sun-Times blasted the union's "poor attitude" toward "a meek attempt to push teachers into the 21st Century" and implied that the rejection of merit pay reflected wholesale indifference and ineptitude among public school teachers.
Actually, those who don't get it are the ones who continue to push the failed, 18th Century idea that paying teachers based on student test scores or bureaucratic evaluations of their classroom skills is a way to improve educational outcomes. A recent Education Week survey detailed the unimpressive record of such experiments dating back to1710, where they prompted widespread cheating in Great Britain, through various recent American incarnations in which the lure of bonuses reliably causes a narrowing of curriculum and an increase in faculty tensions.
"It can't possibly work," said Mrs. Olson, now 79, when I reached her Monday at her apartment across the street from the Ann Arbor, Mich., junior high where she still volunteers as a consultant. "Teaching is all about character, personality and energy. It's an art. How can you measure that? Who's going to decide who's the better teacher?"
She's no union hack and no apologist for mediocrity. But she and other good teachers I spoke to about this know how poisonous testing-mania is and how petty, arbitrary and vindictive school administrators in charge of staff evaluations can be.
They also know that, independent of pedagogical skill, some classes can make a teacher look good -- when they're flush with highly motivated, obedient pupils with involved parents -- and some can make a teacher look bad -- when they're overpopulated with insolent, disruptive kids whose parents don't give a damn. They also know how easy it is for demagogues to turn teachers into scapegoats for the social pathologies that lie behind the so-called crisis in public education.
Good teachers know there are problems with the current system -- salaries based on seniority and credentials instead of talent lead to moral inequities, and it's awfully hard to get rid of incompetent teachers. But they know that the alternatives have so far proved worse. So they remain deeply skeptical of the proposed market-style quick fixes.
Would those of us who had Mrs. Olson been better off if she'd skipped the dancing, the poetry, the singing and the gratuitous anthropology in order to drill us in long division and vocabulary that might show up on the standardized tests? Would the promise of bonuses give us a few more like her?
"No, no, no," said Mrs. Olson, who, as far as I know, has never been wrong about anything. "It would cause more problems than it would solve." ******************************************* -- Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA Fax: (618) 453-4244 Phone: (618) 453-4241 (office) (618) 457-8903 (home) E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org