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Similar Attitudes About Teachers in U.S. and U.K.

When I received word that my op-ed about merit pay for teachers was accepted for publication in The Guardian (London), I eagerly looked forward to the reaction of readers in order to see if their views would be different from readers' views here on the same subject ("No merit in merit pay for teachers," Mar. 27).

Based on the first 181 comments posted as I write this column, however, there is a remarkable similarity. What emerges is the belief on the part of most readers that any attempt to explain is seen as an attempt to excuse. This same reaction is consistently on display in this country, whether the topic is merit pay, the academic achievement gap, or any other contentious issue.

The remarks about merit pay made both in the U.S. and in the U.K. are permeated by a palpable attitude of sarcasm or hostility. They go something like this: Teachers are no different from other workers. They should be paid strictly on the basis of their individual performance. That's how business ostensibly works. Why should teaching be any different? (It's interesting to note that these comments almost always come from those who have never taught in public schools.)

I understand why readers feel this way, particularly in today's protracted recession. People are rightly anxious about the future. But they overlook several differences between schools and businesses. First, public schools have to enroll all who show up at the schoolhouse door regardless of qualifications or motivation. Second, students cannot be fired if they fail to do the work or abide by the rules set down. Third, teachers are held solely responsible when results do not meet expectations.

These differences are not intended to deny that some teachers do not belong in the classroom. Protecting them from accountability undermines taxpayer confidence when it is desperately needed. (The often introduced argument about private and religious schools is not applicable because they have the legal right to enroll and expel students as they see fit.)

It would be interesting to learn what readers in other countries think about merit pay and other issues in education. Cultural values undoubtedly would color their comments, but perhaps not as much as is widely believed. All parents want a quality education for their children, and all taxpayers want to get top value for their investment. In today's global economy, no country can afford to rest on its laurels. In this environment, there may be more commonality than many assume.

It would also be informative to know how open readers abroad are specifically to research, as opposed to ideology, on controversial topics in education. In the U.S., it's virtually impossible to change opinions no matter how solid the research. The latest study about school choice in Milwaukee, for example, found that students in the program performed similarly or worse than students in Milwaukee Public Schools on the Wisconsin Student Assessment System. Yet I seriously doubt if the results will change the views of many people.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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