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Tuesday, March 29, 2005 | In Ohio, where I grew up, we all knew better than to pick up a stick and poke at a beehive. Even the smallest child knew that provoking a swarm of bees was dangerous, and not worth the effort.

Apparently, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t get much exposure to this in his native Austria. Otherwise, he’d know better than to poke at the California Teacher’s Association (as well as the California Nurses Association, police and firefighters). These powerful organizations are made up of workers, just like the honeycombs. While we don’t have queen bees, we do have a collective mentality when it comes to our livelihood. While we work for little and give back a lot, we generally keep to ourselves. Unless someone pokes at us with a stick.

As a teacher, I am more familiar with the education “reforms.” Gov. Schwarzenegger’s proposals would effectively gut public education in several ways, but the thing that sticks most in the collective craw of teachers is the idea of merit pay. First of all, the concept of salary tied to test scores flies in the face of any reason at all. If Teacher A has lower-income, second-language students who will inevitably score lower on tests while Teacher B has Advanced Placement students in a wealthy suburb full of college graduates, where’s the fairness in this comparison? Schools are not factories; the output cannot be measured in numbers and volume. We are trying to nurture and create productive, well-rounded people, not unmanned defense drones. Of course, if we were making the drones, funding probably wouldn’t be a problem.

Some would argue that merit pay works in almost every other field: In business, your paycheck is tied to your job performance, and to your productivity. However, businesses can choose their clientele, rejecting those with little money or with hare-brained ideas. By the same token, clients can choose to take their business where they see fit; in public

So, with these unusual factors, does merit pay for teachers make sense? Perhaps if each school functioned on its own as a little business unto itself, and each principal were essentially a CEO of that small business, it would work. But then, there is yet another factor that makes schools different: Do we as a country want our education and learning tied only to money? Do we really want our teachers choosing curriculum based on what will be least offensive and most likely to produce higher test scores as opposed to what will inspire students to seek, to learn, to question? With merit pay, teachers will be forced to shy away from anything that might offend the sensibilities of any “special interest,” be it religious, political, cultural or economic. And when in a learning environment where choices about subject matter and strategy are made with only the bottom line in mind, will real teaching and learning take place?

When the governor calls teachers a “special interest” group, most of us laugh. We do indeed have a special interest: educating the state’s children. Do the drug companies and construction firms that contribute heavily to the governor’s campaign do anything altruistic to better our society? I don’t think so. Everything with business is a bottom line. I don’t believe that we, as a state or as a country, want to turn our schools into places where the fuel that stokes the fire of learning is cold, hard cash rather than a true desire to educate and inspire. Teachers will fight for this right, because it is their mission.

However, like everyone else, educators need to make a living, so if it comes to a choice between academic integrity and survival, I suspect most teachers of integrity will leave the profession. The other likely outcome will be that a principal forced to choose between staff members will create a fiefdom of toadies with an undercurrent of competition rather than cooperation, or, in order to protect teachers, will say that all teachers are above average.

Earlier this month I attended the California Teacher’s Association Conference on Equity and Human Rights. In a room full of educators, counselors and librarians, the faces tell all: These are men and women who have devoted their lives to service, and who are passionate about what they do. They don’t just settle for the mediocre, as the governor would have citizens believe. And like the bees, they simply go about their work until

Laura Preble is a writer and high school English teacher with the Grossmont School District. She lives in La Mesa.

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