There’s a reason I’m no longer a public school teacher…

…and this is it.

{Diane Ravitch, author of  The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic Books, 2010), argues that our national conversation about schools and education needs to shift away from trashing teachers because of poor test scores and toward real reforms engineered by educators  not politicians or business people. She is one of the many critics of Waiting for Superman, which I have not yet seen. The premise of this documentary is that it’s craaaazzzy what parents will do to get their children into NYC’s better schools and that all children deserve to have a good education. I agree with the mandate that we must teach all our children to the best of our abilities and also acknowledge that there are teachers in our school systems who do not meet the standards of good teaching, but I chafe at the idea, propagated in the movie, that teachers and unions are to blame for all that is wrong with education. Diane points out some of the myth-debunking that critics of the movie have done regarding proposed solutions to our country’s “educational crisis.”}

My response:

The last few years I taught in HISD, the district touted merit pay as the greatest thing since sliced bread. The first year merit pay was instituted, I got the “bonus” – the only teacher on my grade level who received it. I can’t remember why I got it.

The second year, I opted out of the bonus in protest. My mother thought I was crazy. I probably was, but I stood on principle, and I don’t regret it.

That year, my colleague, Marie, was HISD Elementary School Teacher of the Year. Teacher of the Year. For all of HISD. She was honored at a banquet I was fortunate enough to attend. It was one of the highlights of my time at Briargrove. Marie is a talented, hardworking, dedicated teacher of English as a Second Language students, and no one deserved that honor more than she. I was thrilled for her, as was our whole team.

Marie did not earn the bonus that year. Although she won $5,000 from the organization that sponsors the TOY award, she did not receive a bonus from her own employer for raising student test scores and being a fabulous teacher because her children had not performed well enough for her to get the bonus.

I was glad I declined the extra money. The following year, even though I had already started teaching at Presbyterian School, I was eligible to receive the bonus. I had to “opt in” though, and I chose not to do so.

For two years, I chose not to receive a bonus I had actually earned. The reason is this: not all teachers were eligible for the same bonus amount. Teachers in TAKS grade levels (3rd and up) were eligible for more. The more TAKS tests they taught, I mean were responsible for, the more money they could earn. So a fifth grade teacher who teaches all subjects can earn a shitload of extra money (for raising test scores on the Reading, Math, and Science tests.) On the face of it, that seems fair, right? More test prep, better scores, more money.

BUT. Fine arts, physical education, special education, Title 1 teachers, technology teachers, etc. are not eligible for bonuses beyond those that the entire school is eligible to receive. They work just as hard in their area of expertise as the 3rd grade math teacher or the 4th grade writing teacher. Pre-K through second grade teachers are also only eligible for school-wide bonuses since they do not teach a TAKS grade.

What that means is that if the school does well on TAKS, if the children improve their scores from year to year (and in HISD, the Stanford 10 scores also factor into the merit pay system), teachers of non-TAKS subjects and grades can earn a fixed bonus amount (when I left HISD it was around $1500). But a teacher in a TAKS grade can earn thousands more. To me, this sends the message that test scores are what’s important in education, and I didn’t want any part of that.

Another example: my friend, Robin (who still teaches in HISD), told me that she doesn’t qualify for the “collaborating teacher” category in HISD’s ASPIRE (merit pay) program despite these facts: she’s the lead science teacher for the school, she teaches a science ancillary class in all grade levels, she’s the vertical science team leader, she coordinates science day for the school, and she coordinates the school’s recycling program. But she can’t earn a bonus for her collaboration.


And that’s why I’m no longer a public school teacher. I’m 99% certain I’ll never teach in a public school again, at least in Texas. (The writer of this piece cites GWB’s No Child Left Behind Act for the current testing mania. It started when W was governor of Texas, all this TAKS bullshit.) I cannot imagine what my experience would have been like if, when I was in school, we had the intense focus on testing that is pervasive in schools today. While I support accountability and excellence in education, I do not believe (and research backs me up) that dangling a green carrot in front of teachers is the way to achieve the desired results.


3 thoughts on “There’s a reason I’m no longer a public school teacher…

  1. Right on, Kelly. I’m at a campus this year (public school, San Antonio) that is eligible for that “DATE grant” money, and because I’m the GT Specialist I’m not eligible. Only way I would have been eligible is to rearrange my entire schedule and upend the 5th grade schedule to reconfigure the advanced math class I teach to 5th graders, which I tailored from the get-go to fit exactly the kids in the class, the current schedules, and their needs. I REFUSED to change it to a lesser-quality program so I could opt in for the extra $700+ I would have netted to change the program delivery. So I stood on principle too.
    Here’s why I stay in public education though: because I know I can fix it. Maybe not the whole system, but I can fix my corner. I can be a good model not just for the kids but also the teachers, I can be a parent partner and a child advocate and I can vote, vote, vote, every election, even if it feels like my voice isn’t heard b/c eventually, it will be.
    My kids’ very underprivileged public school finally passed a bond this last week. First bond in about 15 years that passed. And it passed b/c activist, smart, dedicated parents have decided to stop bleeding the public school system by running to private schools, have decided to use their intelligence and hard work and, in some cases, their political clout and social capital to change the system from within or without, whatever works. I’m proud to be a part of them, and to once again be changing my own child’s school. My own corner of the world.
    Call me Don Quixote. I’m off to polish my jousting stick.

    1. I do not doubt at all that you can change it, Dinakins! I think one of the hardest things about districts like SAISD and HISD are that they’re so big. It feels like the teachers’ voices are not heard, much less considered. The things I’m hearing from HISD teachers about what the district is implementing are INSANE. They no longer allow for the needs of individual campuses – every school does the same thing, in lockstep (like assessing all students – in math and reading, I think – every three weeks. Crazy! How do you even teach them anything?)

      I am proud of you for being an advocate for your students and for the teachers in the school. I know you are as passionate about education as I am. I think I just got tired of fighting against all the bullshit. Teachers can hardly teach anymore with all the mandates and meetings and test score analysis. So little room for creativity and real, honest-to-goodness problem-solving. I’m sure your class has all that, though!

      Keep the faith! I still support public school teachers and the work they do. I just wish it weren’t so damn hard for people to do their jobs!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *