- The Washington Times - Monday, September 17, 2001

In Congress, state and city legislative bodies and the White House, there is constant talk of educational reform. A major obstacle is the opposition of teachers unions, with very few compromises, to merit pay for individual teachers.

As an education reporter, I know how difficult it is to remove incompetent teachers. Of course, due process fairness is essential. But it takes months, or sometimes years, to fire teachers whose students keep falling below grade level as the damage to the youngsters increases. Moreover, Steven Malanga of the Manhattan Institute reported recently that "New York principals fail less than 1 percent of teachers in annual evaluations."

Years ago, while attending a New York City Board of Education meeting, I heard a black father, who had been a high school dropout in the South and wound up in a dead-end factory job in New York that paid him $90 a week. He said that his daughter was his only hope, and she was falling further and further behind each year in school.

"You people," he said to the impassive school board members, "are responsible when my child's not learning. You and the principal and her teachers. When you fail, when everybody fails my child, what happens? Nothing. Nobody gets fired. Nothing happens to nobody except my child."

In New York City, as in many other cities, hundreds of thousands of students keep falling further and further behind. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has continually insisted that a key way to achieve accountability in school systems is to provide merit pay for teachers who make a measurable difference in their students' progress. But New York City's United Federation of Teachers refuses to agree. The union will only accept a plan that will give additional pay to all teachers in a school that improves. This approach protects incompetent teachers who will continue to convince considerable numbers of children that they're incapable of learning.

I've written several books based on years of reporting in classrooms, and there is no mystery to discovering who the good teachers are. You can tell the failures not only by spending time in their classrooms, but often the effective teachers, with pride in their work, will identify their failing colleagues to you.

There's another way to tell. Harvey Scribner was the chancellor of the New York City school system in the 1970s. I often interviewed him and followed him around as he tried mightily to bring accountability into the system. As he told me: "Setting criteria for the staff in each district can finally, and fairly, alter the tradition that a teacher is guaranteed his job for life, no matter how he performs."

Mr. Scribner had one flaw. He was not a politician. He had clear principles, and his commitment to the students precluded any backtracking to pressures from the powerful United Federation of Teachers. The union finally ran him out of town.

While Mr. Scribner was still in office, we were talking about teacher evaluations. He told me of a school in Massachusetts where, for five years, children had been moving each year into a fifth-grade math class with reasonable skills gained from their previous teachers. But, for five years, those kids who had gone into that fifth-grade class came out of it with marked deterioration in their knowledge and understanding of math.

The students were not at fault. But if this same fifth-grade teacher had tenure, it would have been very difficult to remove her, as incompetent as she was.

Mr. Scribner believed, and I agree, that once a teacher survives his or her probationary period, licenses should be renewable, depending on an evaluation of how well that teacher's students have been learning. And, he added, there would have to be explanations for those children who had not been learning. Children with hearing or vision problems, for example, are often not examined until their conditions become so disabling that they can't be overlooked.

But more often than not, there are teachers who are not certified in their subjects or are unable to connect to children. It's not a question of different teaching styles. I've known first-rate teachers with many different ways of teaching. There are, however, people in many fields with inferior communication skills. And there are also teachers who do not believe that children from poor neighborhoods and broken homes have the capacity to learn very much.

In all the talk about school reform, the president and legislators should focus on actual accountability, including merit pay.

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