What will it take to make some Oklahoma politicians and leaders understand how detrimental it is for the state that teachers here are paid below regional and national levels?
Low teacher salaries send a clear signal to everyone here and outside the state that intellectualism and enlightenment are not appreciated in Oklahoma. This is not good for the state's long-term economic viability.
Low teacher salaries also force some of the state's most compassionate, educated and needed residents into second-class-citizen status. This can foster disrespect for educators.
Yet, House Speaker Lance Cargill, R-Harrah; The Oklahoman editorial page; and other politicians in the state are leading a movement to put teacher salaries under a merit pay system without appropriately acknowledging the historical and contemporary impact of these low salaries. Oklahoma is about $1,000 below the regional average in teacher salaries, according to the Oklahoma Education Association. Overall, Oklahoma ranks 47th in the nation in teacher salaries, according to OEA. This has been the state's story for decades.
Tying teacher salaries to something as non-definable and political as student achievement and assessment is a fool's errand. A merit pay system surely will lead to lower salaries for the bulk of the state's teachers in the future, especially those high school teachers in liberal arts disciplines, such as English, history, art, music and drama. Elementary school teachers in low-performing schools, some located in the inner city of Oklahoma City and Tulsa, almost certainly would see an overall decline in their wages, as well.
Merit pay systems based on test scores are fundamentally flawed. They fail to take into account human factors among students, such as family problems, poor nutrition and psychological distress. Merit pay systems based on subject " math and science teachers might make more than English teachers " create a two-tiered educational system that fails to take into account the holistic and accumulative nature of education. Students need solid language and critical thinking skills to succeed in any discipline.
Merit pay systems are inherently political, as well. Who decides when a teacher is doing a good job? The Oklahoma Legislature? Cargill? Editorial writers for The Oklahoman? A testing company? School superintendents, principals, fellow teachers, a school committee, a state board? The bottom line is that any merit pay system forces teachers to cater to the prevailing political reality in the state and the office politics in their individual schools. Innovation will be discouraged. Teachers who speak out on the minority side of the political fence will be punished.
Cargill, who says he has given his last teacher raise without a merit pay system, has been holding a series of hearings on the issue. He is expected to push the issue in the 2008 legislative session. He will have strong GOP and corporate media support.
Gov. Brad Henry, a strong proponent of public education, has said he thinks the state should raise teacher salaries to the regional average before it implements a merit pay system.
A better idea for the state would be to raise teacher salaries to the national average before it tinkers with the system.
Ultimately, teachers may have to show up in a huge rally at the state Capitol in 2008 to stop or modify the merit pay plan. Will they do it?
Hochenauer is an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and author of the progressive blog Okie Funk: Notes From the Outback, www.okiefunk.com.