Over the past two weeks, This American Life has been airing one of the most moving stories I've ever heard on that show. And that's saying something. I strongly encourage you to listen to Harper High School, Part 1 and Harper High School, Part 2 if you haven't already.
The stories from Harper High School are about gangs, guns, and being a teenager, but what moved me to write today is a piece at the end of the second hour in which the Principal of Harper High talks about what she would do if she won the lottery. She talks for four and a half minutes about things she would buy for the kids at the school--little things, like coats for kids who don't have them, and bigger things, like support staff for the school or houses where homeless kids could stay and be safe.
And this got me thinking: what if, instead of putting all our effort into getting rid of bad Teachers and bribing them with merit pay, we just give the money to the good Teachers? What if we said to the best Teacher in each school, "Here's $10,000. Do whatever you want with it." What would happen then?
Of course, people would get all touchy about unregulated government funds, but couldn't we make a Teacher Committee out of, say, five of the best Teachers in a school, and give the money that would have been used for Merit Pay to them to spend in the school? Or have Teachers write grant applications for things they want to do in the school?
When I think about a school like Harper, where some kids don't get home to shower, change and eat before coming to school, I wonder what would happen to test scores if every Teacher had a fridge with milk and a box of cereal in her classroom. What if kids could get a shower and a clean uniform if they got to school 30 minutes early? Or just if they needed it?
And most painfully, next year Harper High will only be able to afford a part-time Social Worker next year. That's what Chicago Teachers were striking about, if you recall. Most of the kids in the school have witnessed at least one shooting, and the city thinks they can get by with ONE PART-TIME Social Worker? That's insane. How can anyone expect learning to go on in any productive way in a school where hundreds of traumatized kids are trying to co-exist and there's nobody with the professional expertise to help them? What does a kid do if his best friend is killed on a day when the Social Worker isn't there?
Those are just the things someone who hasn't taught in a city school would think of. I taught in a New York City school for a year and a half. If someone had given me $10k back then, the first things I would have bought were paper and a working copier. The school provided me with two reams of paper for the year. After that, I had to buy my own or rely on donations from parents. No paper, no copies. And everyone was always making copies with only 25 sheets in the copier, so it was always jammed. After that, I would have bought pre-sharpened pencils by the gross because the kids were always losing theirs. And then I would have bought a bed for the student who told me that he wanted a bed for Christmas because he was still sleeping in a toddler bed, even though he was in fourth grade and about 5 feet tall.
I know the hot thing now is the idea that Merit Pay will make all Teachers work harder. But if we've got the money, how about first making sure all the kids are eating, then making sure there are support staff in every school, then getting Teachers the supplies they need. The money that's left over can go to Merit Pay.