What Is Teacher Merit? Convince Me, Mr. Bloomberg

February 15, 2011 Updated: February 15, 2011

With Gov. Andrew Cuomo tightening the state’s belt to close a $9 billion budget gap, New York City will have to bear its share of the cuts. The way it’s looking now, the city will have to lay off teachers.

That’s the reverse direction according to most education advocates. Smaller classes and more teachers improve education quality; larger classes and fewer teachers mean lower quality.

You can call it fair, as Cuomo has done, or unfair, as Mayor Michael Bloomberg has.

I call it inevitable. Cuomo said in his State of the State address, “New York has no future as the tax capital of the nation.”

He is right. Unfortunately, New York has the highest taxes in the country and reducing taxes in New York, or even keeping them static while prices go up, will mean that cuts have to be made.

Cuomo and Bloomberg do agree that the decision on which teachers to layoff should be based on both seniority and merit. However, there is a problem: State law indicates that teachers can only be laid off based on seniority. And, many state legislators, who would have to vote to change the law, feel the same way.

In other words, instead of firing the 10 worst teachers in school, a school is currently forced to fire the 10 newest ones.

“By not allowing schools to take merit into account, the state would not only deprive our children across the city of great teachers, it would increase class size, because more teachers would need to be laid off, since the newest teachers get paid lower salaries,” said Bloomberg in his State of the City address last month. “It’s not right. It’s not fair. And it’s not something we can allow to happen. We’ve made too much progress. Our kids deserve better.”

As compelling as I find Bloomberg’s confrontational approach to state law, I remain unconvinced.

I could be convinced, but I would have to find out what criteria it is that Mayor Bloomberg is using to call a veteran teacher a bad one worthy of laying off. Is it simply because they make more money than newer teachers and the city would save more money if it laid off the veteran ones? That is what he is suggesting in the above quote.

In that case, teacher layoffs shouldn’t be happening, pay reductions should be happening. It was a mistake for Mayor Bloomberg to highlight the pay scale in a discussion about merit. If merit is the issue, then tell us about merit.

I’m sure there are real rubrics for determining the merit of a teacher, involving some mathematical formulas for judging one teacher’s students’ test scores against those of another teacher who teaches a similar group of students. The Bloomberg administration is fastidiously reliant on numbers.

Still, I’m unconvinced of using merit for teacher layoffs.

As a parent planning to send his kids to public schools, I want to see something more than government bureaucrats and numbers at work in determining merit. I want to see character.

What would an ideal teacher be like? I don’t think I could realistically write down one thing to judge real people. But most parents with school-age children can agree that kids today are over exposed to sex, drugs, and violence in our culture. As a result, their attention spans are corroded and their perspectives are warped.

If Mayor Bloomberg wants New Yorkers to support merit as a criteria for laying off teachers then he has to tell them that first and foremost the teachers who will be kept are those who are creating the most socially stable, morally pure, and character-driven environment for students.

Then, I am convinced.

evan.mantyk@epochtimes.com

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Evan Mantyk
Evan Mantyk is an English teacher in New York and President of the Society of Classical Poets.