By Colleen McGurk, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Colleen McGurk is a special education teacher with seven-years experience in the New York City Public School System. She holds master’s degrees in educational leadership and childhood education, with dual certification in special education and general education. She is a member of Educators 4 Excellence.
(CNN) - After reading Diane Ravitch’s post on this blog, I felt compelled to respond. As a teacher with seven years in a special education and integrated co-teaching classroom in New York City, I have heard a variety of excuses as to why our schools are not performing at a higher, and more consistent level. Poverty is certainly a piece of the puzzle and it must be addressed. But one of the best ways to reverse poverty is through an excellent education. And when it comes to education, no group is better prepared to lead than teachers. It’s time policy makers, elected officials and even pundits help elevate our voices in these critical debates. It’s one of the reasons I’ve joined a teacher-led group called Educators for Excellence, a national organization committed to ensuring teachers’ voices are heard in the policy debates that affect our classrooms and careers.
Most of my fourth-grade students come from homes that are well below the federal poverty line. Living in poverty makes my students’ lives harder, but that doesn’t stop me from challenging them on a daily basis. Whether it is in reading, writing, math or a game of basketball, every time I raise the bar, they step up. My students need to be challenged and engaged more so than other kids who have more solid support systems outside the classroom.
Teachers are a large part of the solution, but we need the same support, and high expectations that we have for our students.
I’ve worked in other industries and I truly have unmatched respect for our profession. Prior to teaching, I lived in Brazil and worked as a technology consultant for international companies. Before that, I was the project manager at Harvard Business School’s Executive Education. Both positions were incredibly competitive in terms of work ethic and salaries. Those environments inspired my colleagues and me to do our best. And that’s where Ravitch’s opinion on merit pay and mine veer off in different directions.
Ravitch argues that, “Merit pay fails because teachers are doing the best they can with or without a bonus. Merit pay destroys teamwork and collaboration in the school. Teachers work together; they are not in an individual sport, trying to be first.” As a current teacher, I can attest that “competition” is not a bad word, and it also doesn’t have to mean a lack of collaboration. Paying teachers more for demonstrated excellence will say loud and clear that teaching is synonymous with quality and high expectations. We need to elevate the profession by encouraging teachers to push themselves and each other. Teachers create a sense of camaraderie among colleagues as we learn from each other. Isn’t that what’s best for our students?
Furthermore, performance-based compensation is crucial to keeping our best teachers. I see teachers working at school from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and throughout the summer, as they slowly inch their way up the standard “step and lane” pay scale with each year of experience. Personally, I have spent many hours outside the “traditional” teaching hours. This past year, like many teachers, I spent several hundred dollars on school supplies ranging from books to erasers to copy paper. It’s no wonder many excellent, committed teachers consider leaving the profession for another that recognizes their contributions financially.
A recent report from the national non-profit, TNTP, called “The Irreplaceables,” estimated that the nation’s 50 largest school districts lose10,000 of their best teachers each year, in part because principals aren’t fighting hard enough to hold on to them. I challenge anyone who says that appropriate financial compensation isn't one critical piece of the solution.
And recognition is more than just financial. Great teachers are constantly looking to grow and develop, yet we find that more and more opportunities for professional growth lie outside the classroom.
Imagine a teaching profession that acknowledged and rewarded excellence, was well respected, attracted the best and the brightest, and gave high-performing teachers opportunities to stay in the classroom yet still enrich, and further, their career. I go to work every day - my office happens to be a classroom - I attend meetings, conferences and professional development seminars, similar to other professions. My colleagues are my students and faculty and we learn from each other to create an atmosphere of positive learning experiences. Now more than ever, teachers need to devote more time outside the classroom to learn the strategies needed to help our students compete and excel in the global marketplace.
That world would at minimum include these three policies that would help determine compensation for those irreplaceable teachers more effectively.
Better evaluation: Teachers want to know how they’re doing in the classroom. Districts and unions in places like New York City and Los Angeles need to come together as promised to craft a meaningful, multi-measured evaluation and support system. These conversations need to include teachers. I would support using student growth data as one component, as long it is paired with other factors like multiple classroom observations and student surveys. Most importantly, the focus of any system should be on providing timely and relevant feedback to help teachers get the tools and skills they need to improve.
Differentiated pay: Teachers want to be recognized and rewarded when they do well. Who doesn’t? Merit pay hasn’t worked in the past because teachers couldn’t be confident it was based on objective measures. With a strong evaluation system, we’d be able to reward with credibility those teachers who are excelling. Even the country’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association agrees - its Commission on Effective Teachers and Training made similar recommendations recently for elevating the teaching profession.
Career ladders: Like in any other profession, teachers want to know that there is room for career advancement. Teachers have the most insight and understanding about what policies affect us. I do consider myself an expert in the field and I embrace the idea of a culture of shared responsibility where principals, teachers and unions work together, support each other, challenge each other and boost each other to higher levels of thinking. I want to be able to stay in my classroom and still develop as a professional.
It’s time we change the education conversation from one focused on excuses to one focused on solutions. Teachers are ready and willing to lead the charge to reimagine what the teaching profession can and should look like. We must raise the bar in order to be the teachers we want to be–the teachers our students deserve.
The opinions expressed are solely those of Colleen McGurk.