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Give poor our best teachers
Arizona Republic
Jan. 7, 2004 12:00 AM
John Scudder

The real problem with public education is not - as our friends on the right would have you believe - that the system is an evil, bureaucratic, broken machine that is beyond redemption. In fact, numerous surveys show that most parents are quite happy with the public schools in their neighborhood.

Rather, the problem with public education is that we have the most overburdened and underfunded schools serving the students in the lowest socioeconomic areas. We don't need a list of AIMS or Stanford 9 scores to tell us this, though they almost always verify this very problem. The schools in the poorest areas, with a few notable exceptions, tend to have the least-experienced teachers and administrators and worst facilities. Additionally, they have the neediest students.

This issue requires us to re-prioritize our school funding philosophy, not abandon it to the free-market worshippers who would simply discard these needy learners. While this re-prioritization would demand that we pay more to those teachers and administrators who dare to work in the poorest areas, it should not be in the form of merit pay. Money should be used for what Jim Collins refers to in his Good to Great as "getting the right people on the bus."

You see, merit pay - the failed, Skinnerian relic - doesn't work.

As Alfie Kohn summarized in the Harvard Business Review: "Research suggests that, by and large, rewards succeed at securing one thing only: temporary compliance. When it comes to producing lasting change in attitudes and behavior, however, rewards, like punishment, are strikingly ineffective."

In other words, you can bribe yourself into losing a few pounds, but unless you find deeper intrinsic reasons for doing so, you are sure to gain them back. This is as true of test scores as it is of fad diets.

Sorry to break the news, but bribing schools in poor areas to pump up test scores isn't going to cut it for comprehensive school reform. This chimerical fix is nothing more than a Band-Aid. Our goal should be to get the most talented, committed educators to the neediest students. To do this, we need to draw some of the most talented young college graduates to, first, the field of education. And, second, we need to get them to the lowest socioeconomic areas.

Only then will we have a public education system of which we can all be proud.

John Scudder is a writer and educator who grew up in Scottsdale. He can be reached at

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