Teachers Speak Out – An Open Letter to the Harvard Graduate School of Education

On blogs.edweek.org, I read a really moving letter by 3 teachers to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, asking when the institution will speak out on issues fundamental to the educational well-being of children and their schools.

Here’s an excerpt from the letter:

As veteran public school teachers, we are disappointed that the HGSE has not shown the leadership it professes by speaking out against the unprecedented attack on public education. To be sure, there have been courageous voices on your faculty who have defended public schools and the endangered idea of educating the whole child. We know that a thoughtful faculty does not think with one mind, and that there will always be differences about what constitutes the most effective pedagogies or curricula. But we have not heard the HGSE as an institution speak out on issues fundamental to the educational well-being of children and their schools.

These issues include:

The over-testing of students, beginning as early as 3rd grade, and the misuse of single, imperfect high- stakes standardized assessment instruments like MCAS;

The expansion of charters through funding formulas that divert resources from those urban and rural public schools charged with educating our most challenged children;

The stripping away of art, music, critical thinking, creativity, experiential learning, trips, and play periods-of joy itself-from schools so that they might become more effective test preparation centers;

The use of state curriculum frameworks-and soon, possibly, national standards -to narrow and standardize our schools, an effort that only encourages increasing numbers of affluent middle class parents to seek out for their children the same private schools that so many “reformers” have already chosen for theirs;

The cynical insistence that all schools be equal in a society whose social and economic policies make us increasingly unequal;

Merit pay proposals that deny and undermine the essentially collaborative nature of teaching;

And finally, the sustained media vilification of hard-working, dedicated public school teachers.

These depressing developments have intensified over the past fifteen years. They violate the first principles of humane and progressive education, as we understand them.

Read the entire letter here.

13 thoughts on “Teachers Speak Out – An Open Letter to the Harvard Graduate School of Education

  1. I was really happy until I came to this part:
    “Merit pay pro­pos­als that deny and under­mine the essen­tially col­lab­o­ra­tive nature of teaching;

    And finally, the sus­tained media vil­i­fi­ca­tion of hard-working, ded­i­cated pub­lic school teachers.”

    The fact of the matter is that there are many awful teachers and they are protected by the existing system. I am also baffled by the notion that merit pay works for almost every career but teaching (or maybe government employees in general). Having better pay opportunities available to those who prove themselves capable should attract better candidates in the long run.


  2. To answer the question of Mathew about merit pay: he must understand that the proposals for merit pay all exist within the confines of the current and deeply flawed system. We all agree that there are awful teachers being rewarded for merely showing up and that there are great teachers not being rewarded for going the extra mile. The merit pay proposals, though, all use state test scores as the arbiter of a good teacher.

    Since teachers can’t pick the students coming into their class, and since the ability and background of students can vary widely from class to class, it isn’t logical to compare scores either from year to year or from a subset of the total to overall averages. Given the way state tests work, and given the ways in which students are assigned to teachers, linking teacher evaluations to scores would be the same as using a lottery to evaluate their performance. A teacher given a particularly advanced (academically or otherwise) class one year would be lucky, but a teacher assigned kids who are a challenge that same year would be out of luck.

    Even if we changed state tests to evaluate the same child at the start and the end of a school year, would that allow us to fairly use scores as the basis for merit pay? A child with a great and effective teacher can still be hampered by the divorce of parents, or a vision problem not caught early, or a bad cold on test day, or thousand other issues. Again, the teacher is caught in a game of chance if merit pay is to be based on test scores.

    Finally, what would merit pay based on test scores do to the way teachers operate in their classroom? If we pay more for better scores aren’t we asking teachers to teach to the test and to focus their energy primarily on the students most likely to achieve good scores? Is that what we want?

    If merit pay for teachers is ever possible, it will require wholesale change in the way schools are run and the elimination of the labor union/factory model of education which has polluted public education for many decades.


  3. Do doctors get paid by the number of patients that recover? No…or by the general health of their patients? No.
    People who build aircraft are not docked pay when a plane falls out of the sky?

    It’s ridiculous to tie teachers’ salary to the test scores of the children they teach…absolute nonsense. Teachers are professionals who should be treated as such…that’s the only way that there will ever be improvements in the education system.
    I applaud the teachers in writing this letter. It’s a hopeful sign.


  4. I agree that test scores should not be the sole basis for merit pay determination and that our existing school systems are a mess; however, that doesn’t mean that merit pay is bad or impossible.

    I simply fail to see that the majority of teachers that I have encountered are “professionals.” Too few of them appear to demonstrate any intellectual curiosity about their profession, seek (or even accept) feedback about their performance or conduct analysis of actions and results.

    As far as comparisons to other fields, the healthcare industry is a big mess, too, but people do have more choice in avoiding bad doctors than we do with teachers and that does hit doctors in the pocket. I suspect that people who fail to properly build airplanes do get financial penalties either in getting fired for egregiously bad work or low raises if they compare poorly with their peers.


  5. John & Matthew make esp. good–and to me, not mutually exclusive–points re. merit pay, a potentially valuable tool for quality public ed. in all communities. My instinct (and I may well be in a small minority on this, among StopHW readers) is YES to merit pay but NO to tying it exclusively or even heavily to high-stakes test scores.

    Like doctors, teachers affect lives profoundly and in some cases, even save them. (Thinking here of kids in very difficult circumstances whose lives have truly been turned around through the efforts and/or example of an exceptional teacher…happens more than we know, I’ll bet, and probably more than even the teachers themselves know.) If there were a fair, careful, reliable way to measure teacher quality–perhaps through some sort of 360-degree review process, with checks & balances provided by the variety of reviewers (students, parents, fellow teachers, the principal & maybe even a self-assessment component), why wouldn’t we compensate teachers accordingly?

    If the same thing could be done with doctors, I’d support that, too! Think of how it could improve health care.


  6. Sorry, I forgot that I’m living in Canada when I wrote my doctor analogy…it doesn’t apply to the States. The point though that Matthew makes about teachers not behaving in professional ways is true, but attaching merit pay is not a way to make them more professional. Alfie Kohn and Dan Pink would both point out how financial incentives do not work in this kind of scenario. If teachers were treated as professionals and were given the autonomy and time to do their work the way they want to, I suspect the quality of teacher’s work would rise, as would their job satisfaction.

    The system is just old and outdated and it needs to change.
    I like Mary’s idea of teacher evaluations that include students and parents. Certainly if the children’s grades are a sign of the quality of the teacher, then the parents comments must have some merit as well. With all the homework parents do, kids grades are parents grades too.


  7. PsychMom- Good point about kids grades being parents grades (instead of a reflection of teacher quality). I think we need to evaluate the system itself before we evaluate teacher effectiveness. I’m not sure more teacher autonomy is the answer. It would still lead to teachers passing off the work to vulnerable parents who are scared of their kids falling behind. Maybe re-thinking our current model of one teacher to 20-35 students. Perhaps a master teacher (paid more) in the classroom with several junior teachers. These younger teachers give more susbstanital teaching time to the kids under the direct guidance of the master teacher. Once a teacher demonstrates his/her mastery as an junior teacher, he/she can be moved up to a higher paid master teacher position (facilitating junior teachers). I’m thinking along the lines of interns and residents at teaching hospitals.


  8. Anonymous: Cool idea. Managing the jr. teachers would complicate the master’s teacher’s job a bit, but that’s part of why he/she would get the big(ger) bucks.

    The whole class size aspect is also intriguing. Would quality of teaching automatically improve if all classes could magically shrink to 10 or 15, vs. 20+? Or would weak teachers remain just as weak?


  9. Sorry- The post about jr. teachers was Disillusioned. Not sure why it came up anonymous. Mary- I think one of the problems with our current system is there is no promotional incentive to being a good teacher beyond becoming a principal (which most good teachers don’t want). If there were some prestige and added pay to being a master teacher; I think good jr. teachers would strive for it. Also, a master teacher could act as an emotional buffer between the jr. teachers and the parents; creating less emotional conflict between parents and teachers.


  10. Teacher pay is a big subject–bigger than can be covered here. But, I’ll make a few quick points. I have no philosophical opposition to higher pay for teachers who tackle especially tough challenges or who are recognized by *qualified* superiors as being especially effective. I’m just saying that it is pure fantasy to imagine such a scenario in today’s public schools. I would reject the notion of “merit” pay, though, as opposed to simply higher salaries. I don’t believe a bonus sort of system is good idea under any circumstance.

    There is a more important thing to understand about teacher pay, though. Good teachers–the ones who are requested by anxious parents and who administrators lean on when the going gets rough–are not motivated by more money. If you are familiar with Herzberg’s motivation hygiene theory, as well as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, then you are well on your way to understanding good teachers.

    The teachers you don’t want for your child are the ones who are primarily motivated by money, and time off and easy schedules. The good teachers–the ones you want for your own children–have intrinsic motivation related to the satisfaction of their jobs and their interaction with children. They need enough money to support themselves, of course, but their primary motivation is the value of their work. You could pay them like paupers or pay them like royalty and the quality of their work would be the same. Not so with the bad teachers.

    So, be careful what you wish for. The law of unintended consequences can never be ignored in economics. If we set up a merit pay system (bonuses based on almost anything) we will be encouraging exactly the wrong type of teacher to stay in their position and we will be attracting exactly the wrong kind of teacher to the profession. If, instead, we figure out how to empower teachers in their own classroom, and we reward them with more responsibility, and we allow them to hone their craft instead of following a script, then we will find that a living wage is all that is required for pay and that the right sort of teachers will be attracted to the profession.


  11. John, I respectfully disagree with a bunch of your points.

    “qualified” supervisors: Who decides who’s qualified? Even in our very small town there’s disagreement. I remember being stunned when another parent called a principal who’d been amazing for my kids “totally incompetent.” Eye of the beholder.

    “good teachers…aren’t motivated by money”: Money may not be their primary motivation, but most teachers are not monks who’ve eschewed all material needs for their calling…nor should they have to be. A “living wage” (yikes) may work fine for a passionate 23-year-old teacher, but what about when he/she wants to marry, have children, purchase a home? Teachers have mortgages & utility bills & health care bills just like the rest of us. They’re human beings! Taking pride in one’s performance and appreciating a hard-earned raise are not mutually exclusive in any profession, including teaching.

    “You could pay them like pau­pers or pay them like roy­alty and the qual­ity of their work would be the same. Not so with the bad teachers.” Actually, I suspect it would be exactly the same with bad teachers. Their performance probably wouldn’t improve much with a raise. That’s why an automatic, universal, one-size-fits-all pay increase–even if the funds were there–doesn’t seem quite right, even if it would help a lot of underpaid teachers.


  12. Mary:

    I think we’re actually making the same point about “qualified” administrators–I agree that such an animal hardly exists in today’s public schools. That’s why I’m saying it is fantasy to imagine a fair system of merit pay or additional pay over that of colleagues based on either test scores or the say-so of the vast majority of current administrators. Plus, federal law regarding unions would prevent many such arrangements anyway.

    And, as far as your point about money motivation–again I think we are in general agreement as far as the need to pay enough to raise a family, etc–hence my comment about the “living wage,” a phrase which is commonly taken to mean what you point out. The “paupers versus royalty” statement was made to make a point, not to be taken literally.

    All I was trying to indicate is that good teachers are motivated primarily by the intrinsic satisfaction of their job and that money is merely a “hygiene” factor as laid out in Herzberg’s management theory. Hey, I’m married to a teacher, so I well understand and support their needs. I’d just like to avoid further problems created by well-meaning but ignorant fed and state authorities.


  13. While I agree with many points stated above, the fact is charter schools provide choice that many parents who have previously been denied a voice, now have. Here in Chicago, charter schools provide a viable and much needed option for our our parents and their children, and I have yet to see the supposed detrimental effects of diverted resources. As long as children are being provided with they education they deserve, what difference does it make whether this occurs at a public or charter school?


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