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Why Performance-Based Pay for Teachers Makes Sense

| Ben Johnson

Up until now, I have stayed away from hot-bed political conversations but I am now right in the middle of one: Performance-based pay for teachers. I am currently managing a grant to implement performance-based compensation systems in ten charter schools and the fun is only beginning.

When I was a teacher, terms like career ladder, merit pay, and performance-based compensation were prevalent and I was intrigued about how teachers could be paid differently. It always bothered me that all teachers got the same pay, but didn't all do the same level of work. This seemed to be the immutable law and if a teacher wanted more money, they either stayed in the district for as many years as they could endure, or they applied to another district with a higher pay scale.

Later I discovered that this law was not so firm as I originally believed. When math, science, or ESL teachers were in short supply, all of a sudden, they were offered signing bonuses, language differentials, and hard-to-staff-position stipends.

To me, this opened the door to the idea that some teachers are more important than others, at least to the hiring officials. Conversations about career ladders, or master teacher positions popped up and then disappeared just as fast. But in my heart of hearts, I always felt teachers deserved to be paid according to their efforts.

A Value-Added Score

I have heard all of the arguments against performance-based compensation: creation of rivalry and competition, bad feelings and envy, strife and hostility are all predictions of what comes out of performance-based compensation plans. I know of several school districts in Texas that refused to participate in the state sponsored performance-based pay plans because they wanted to avoid the predicted negative consequences and didn't want the hassle, or didn't think they could design a system that is fair.

My feeling was that it is money for the teachers and the classified staff, why not let them have it? I figured the hassle of designing a system that approaches fairness was worth it if it put more money in teachers' pockets.

The lack of fairness was always brought up as an excuse. What about the teachers who teach the gifted kids, or worse, the ones that get the stupid kids (yes, I said it), or a teacher who inherits kids from poor communities, bad teachers or bad schools the previous year? Nobody could answer those questions until we looked at business and borrowed from them the concept "value-added."

In the last few years, state governments have been experimenting with performance-based compensation plans. A few have incorporated the concept of value-added education which means that the teacher measures the level of the students knowledge and skills at the beginning of the year, then at the end of the year, and the difference, hopefully positive, is what "value" that teacher added to those students. Now we have something that is fair.

So I ask, what is the complaint about performance-based pay system?

As a last resort response I always got, "I didn't become a teacher because of the money. I am a teacher because of the kids. If I wanted the money, I would have become a doctor or lawyer." Aside from being stereotypical, this answer always bothered me. Why not work for free then? Why worry about striking for fringe benefits and increased salary? Of course it is about money! Every teacher could use the money.

It wasn't until recently that I understood that the real concern about performance-based pay was not about the money at all. It is about performance of the teacher. Performance is shown when each individual student's progress is connected directly to his or her particular teacher or set of teachers. Based on how much the student learned, as demonstrated by the pre- and post- tests, a teacher will be assigned a value-added score. Teachers won't be able to blame the prior school-year teacher, nor the parents, nor society as some have done. If the score is low, it is either the kids are stupid, or the teacher is ineffective. We know that kids are not stupid, so...

How can a union protect a teacher from remediation, sanctions, or dismissal if the data shows clearly that the teacher is ineffective with the current students? It can't. And the traditional role of the union will have to change if it is to exist, just as the traditional role of the teacher must change.

What are your thoughts regarding performance-based compensation for teachers? I look forward to your comments.

For the counterpoint to this blog, check Gaetan Pappalardo's blog Elementary Educator Asks: Does Merit Pay Turn Kids into Zombies?

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Administrator, author and educator

All Kids Can Learn

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Cameron:

Good point. With or without performance based bonuses, these students would have struggled. Is that the teacher's fault? Should the teacher get docked because these students have issues outside of school? The performance based pay model that I am using is one in which the teacher works with a professional learning community and put their heads together on how to best help students, especially in cases like these seven. Each teacher is evaluated on three observations instead of just one and that forms 50% of the bonus, while student performance in that teacher's classroom is 30% and the school student performance is 20%. So, in your situation, the teacher would still get a bonus if as a professional, they are performing at high levels per the observations and if the school in general is doing well.

Thanks for the comment.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Quote:

Ben,

Thanks for your thought-provoking post. I once taught at an expensive private school. Seven kids out of 200 Grade 7 students seemed to stall in their learning. Funnily enough, all seven families were experiencing significant disruptions that same year. How do you factor that into performance pay?

Administrator, author and educator

Proffessional Learning Communities are Good for Schools

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John:

Thanks for your clarification. I appreciate your dedication to your school, teachers, students and profession as an obviously top-notch administrator, as demonstrated by the fact that you are reading Edutopia online and staying abreast of your profession.

You and I both agree then that professional learning communities are the way to go to empower teachers to build their skills and their talents as teachers and facilitators of student learning.

Where we disagree is in regards to No Child Left Behind. Although I am not a fan of government intervention, I saw first hand, a very positive change in the way schools work when NCLB came on the scene in 2001. In their ineffable overbearing way, the government required all schools who receive federal money to show that all students were learning. Before NCLB, we were just looking at school average. The GT students helped a lot. Many students were classified as special ed because they were exempt from the process. Students who were absent on testing day, were not required to take the make up test. We played the games to make our numbers look good. But NCLB changed all that and made schools accountable, even for special ed. I saw schools make efforts to help all students and not let them slide by with mediocre performance. I saw schools turn to disaggregated data for the first time and try to find solutions for the achievement gaps they never knew existed. Do teachers and administrators still try to play games with NCLB? Sure. There are way too many quick-fix solutions, test prep workbooks, testing strategy programs, and sure-fire academic performance boosting programs. If NCLB goes away, I don't think we will ever go back to our blythely ignorant days of not collecting and looking at the data, but overall, and all the unfunded mandates, NCLB did students across the nation a favor.

Thanks for having an open mind and sharing your thoughts. I will let you know how the experiment works out.

Sincerely,

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Quote:

Thank you so much for your response. I think I can answer some of your questions that you posted earlier.

First of all, I want you to know that I am not "fervently" trying to protect any system as you call it. That's the accusation that Secretary Duncan and the Obama administration make every time someone disagrees with their brand of "reform." Most of us who are in the trenches each day, are fighting the battle to find what works for our kids, and when someone from else-where tries to impose a solution, we are naturally very skeptical. Don't forget, we've had NCLB "done to us" for the past 10 years or so, and we have seen the damage an over-emphasis on testing does to teaching and learning. So as you can see, we are skeptical of anything being pushed down by the powers that be, including some merit pay scheme.

The reformers out there are looking for some one-size fits all magical solution, whether it is merit pay or whatever, and they think that's the answer. Performance pay, where teachers receive bonuses based on test scores, has been tried in NC during the past decade, until budget cuts killed the bonuses. What I learned as both teacher and administrator is that we do what we do because that's who we are. Not once as a teacher or administrator did the possibility of receiving a bonus at the end of the year influence the decisions I made on behalf of a child. What did influence those decisions was what I believed was in his or her best interest. I would encourage you to read Daniel Pink's latest book "Drive." I think he sums up very clearly why performance pay schemes will not work, and maybe why educators see them as a bit insulting. As Pink points out, performance pay works very well for physical or manual tasks, but for tasks requiring higher-order operations, it might even hinder performance. In NC, I do not know hardly a teacher who applied themselves to the job because they hoped to receive that bonus the next fall. Teachers, at least the ones we want, have very different motivations for what they do. They became teachers because they cared about kids. They do what they do each and every day because they care about kids. I would be just a bit concerned about the teacher who became a teacher because of the "good bonuses." But if it will satisfy your curiosity, perhaps we need to try a merit pay program one more time so we can see, once again that it will not work. I have no problem with experimentation, so go ahead and try it, again.

As far as your recommendation to read the Dufour's work on professional learning communities, I have done so. I have read from cover to cover "Professional Learning Communities at Work" and their book "Whatever It Takes" and it has provided great insight that the PLCs at my school apply on a daily basis to address the needs of our kids. I have also participated in training with the Dufours with another school system for which I worked. The school in which I currently work is a model professional learning community where teachers are respected as professionals. While they might feel they could use a bit more pay for what they do, I'm sure they would tell you that basing that pay on how well their kids do on test scores is a stupid idea.

By the way, NC does NOT HAVE teacher unions. They are illegal. North Carolina's teachers are not allowed to have collective bargaining. So I do not have what you call "union buddies." I might also add that I am currently an administrator who does not enjoy tenure, but I do believe in the promise of public education. Ultimately, your words betray your real biases. I had hoped for so much better from a site that I once respected like Edutopia!

Administrator, author and educator

Parents should Get the Bonus!

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MRM:

I agree. Parents do much more for students than do the teachers. Frankly, I believe that for a teacher to take any credit for what a student produces is sheer madness. Students and their parents are more important than any teacher and they should be rewarded for what they do!

However, I do not see it as a bad thing that teachers take the time to find out what student know and don't know and then make creative, interesting and motivational learning environments to help the student enhance certain areas of their knowledge and skills and inspire them to learn to think.

Do teachers really do that? You and I both want them to. Performance based pay holds that as a goal. In the Performance based pay model I am espousing, teachers must perform at high levels, i.e. create those rich learning environments, and they must work together with other teachers and individually and collectively they must strive to improve student learning. If they do all this, then they qualify for a significant bonus to their base pay. The teachers get more of a bonus if the students in their class and their school also perform.

You are absolutely correct. The performance base pay system that I described above, would be a total waste of time and money if placed in the traditional status-quo school system.

Thanks for your passion-- we need more parents like you!

How do we know kids in Finland are learning better than our kids if they never test them? Just wondering.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Quote:

Here are a few more things to ponder in your efforts to be equitable:

How fair is it that my daughter's math teacher is a disaster, but my husband and I are both math wizzes and we tutor her every night? Who gets the bonus, the teacher? What about the fact that many parents in well-to-do districts frequently hire outside tutors for their kids?

Also, as someone pointed out, some kids do not progress at a nice even pace. My younger daughter didn't even know all her letters going into kindergarten (not for lack of exposure...) By the end of kindergarten, she was reading easy chapter books. This is who she is. She has never been one to learn at a steady, even pace; and I have had to fend off the school a few times--they say they let her learn at her own pace (plateaus followed by large jumps), but then they write her off because she doesn't follow their nice pacing guide.

I had to pull her out for one year in 4th grade because she was so stressed from the pressure of testing that she stopped learning. She became a reader that year (at her own pace) and she now frequently reads 1000 pages a week and is an honors student.

My older daughter used to be my science kid until she took a Earth Science where all the teacher did was worksheets (parading as labs) and test prep for the end of year state test. The kids all begged her every class to go outside, but they never did; she told them to stop bugging her. (It was EARTH science, after all--it might have been appropriate to touch the ACTUAL Earth once or twice...) All the students did well on the EOY test. My daughter did very, very well on the test; but now she hates science. Should the teacher get a bonus?

How about students who know a lot and can express themselves verbally, but can't get it down in writing so well? Are the state tests a good indication of what those students "know"?

The bottom line is that the standardized tests have become so much more important than actual learning, and VAM efforts will only increase this. Did you know that they have almost no standardized tests in Finland? Don't you want our system to more like theirs, where students are actually taught to think?

Quote:

Here are a few more things to ponder in your efforts to be equitable:

How fair is it that my daughter's math teacher is a disaster, but my husband and I are both math wizzes and we tutor her every night? Who gets the bonus, the teacher? What about the fact that many parents in well-to-do districts frequently hire outside tutors for their kids?

Also, as someone pointed out, some kids do not progress at a nice even pace. My younger daughter didn't even know all her letters going into kindergarten (not for lack of exposure...) By the end of kindergarten, she was reading easy chapter books. This is who she is. She has never been one to learn at a steady, even pace; and I have had to fend off the school a few times--they say they let her learn at her own pace (plateaus followed by large jumps), but then they write her off because she doesn't follow their nice pacing guide.

I had to pull her out for one year in 4th grade because she was so stressed from the pressure of testing that she stopped learning. She became a reader that year (at her own pace) and she now frequently reads 1000 pages a week and is an honors student.

My older daughter used to be my science kid until she took a Earth Science where all the teacher did was worksheets (parading as labs) and test prep for the end of year state test. The kids all begged her every class to go outside, but they never did; she told them to stop bugging her. (It was EARTH science, after all--it might have been appropriate to touch the ACTUAL Earth once or twice...) All the students did well on the EOY test. My daughter did very, very well on the test; but now she hates science. Should the teacher get a bonus?

How about students who know a lot and can express themselves verbally, but can't get it down in writing so well? Are the state tests a good indication of what those students "know"?

The bottom line is that the standardized tests have become so much more important than actual learning, and VAM efforts will only increase this. Did you know that they have almost no standardized tests in Finland? Don't you want our system to more like theirs, where students are actually taught to think?

Administrator, author and educator

Fear of the Unknown

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John:

I agree. Money is not the issue, though the detractors want it to be. What the money does do is that it helps teachers stay in the school they are invested in. Not many teachers I know of will walk away from $5,000 to $10,000 to go to another school. It is also a way to cast a wider net and bring in a larger variety of teachers who otherwise would have never considered being teachers in the first place because of the comparatively low wages.

But to your original point. It is scary being tied to student performance when you are accustomed to anonymity. Teachers working together cannot be anonymous because they have to share the data from their classes to show something works or doesn't work. That would be really motivating! It doesn't hurt to get a bonus for really working hard either.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Quote:

I see lots of comments from very obviously caring and thoughtful teachers. I therefore have to believe they regularly self-assess the level of success of their efforts, making adjustments as needed. Why then are they NOT willing to join other interested people to find or develop assessment for all to use? Don't consider it punitive to assess all - most everyone is. As many have noted, $$$ does not motivate; I would think working for a good assessment, improving on areas found wanting, would be very positive and thus very motivating and thus satisfying. Why the apparent disconnect?

Administrator, author and educator

Christmas is More--so is education

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Joy:

I just saw the movie, The Grinch, with my family and I love it every time I see it. The message is clear.

For 180 years teachers have been striving to do a better job teaching: trying to get better results from their students. One could say that every conceivable thing has been tried, and yet we are still not satisfied (rightfully so) with student performance.

The hermit, Grinch was under the mistaken viewpoint that Christmas is material event. Some teachers are under the mistaken viewpoint that teaching is a craft done in isolation. You appear to be more enlightened.

Teaching must be a collaborative science. One model is the performance based pay model. The "performance" is mainly the teacher performance, not solely the student performance. But, expecting teachers to use the same isolationism that got us where we are today is absolutely Grinch-like. It was only when the Grinch joined the Whos that he enjoyed the Christmas season. Under the teacher performance base pay program I am trying to start, teachers will have the support and collaboration of their fellow teachers in solving student learning problems and in this fashion be able to discover that education is more than just teaching-- it is inspiring students to learn.

Thanks for the metaphor!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Quote:

In a mock trial based on the book How the Grinch Stole Christmas! the Grinch states that he took away the Who's toys, gifts, and Christmas trees to show everyone in Who-ville that there was more to Christmas than just toys and presents. To his surprise Christmas came to Who-ville even without the presents. Everybody started singing, and the Christmas joy came even without the toys. Christmas didn't come from a store. Christmas does mean a little bit more.

It seems that today education comes from the store of specific instructional content, indicators, and data gathering evidence. Like buying the presents and toys, adults believe that by using this strategy or that program, scores will be raised and children are educated. Value added. Isn't education a little bit more?

Excellent approach.

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Excellent approach. Dedicated, supportive and consistent.

Administrator, author and educator

Challenges and Opportunities

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Cheryl:

I can understand your concerns. It would be terrifying to have to have the students perform at a certain level and base my pay on that.

The system that I am working with uses a value added model- whatever level the students are at at the beginning of the year compared to the progress they have made in the year that I taught them. Also we link each student to each teacher so that if you do not have the student the whole time, then you are given credit for the time you do have the student. Battelle for Kids, http://www.battelleforkids.org/, has been doing this for many years and has had powerful success.

The other part about a successful performance pay program is that the pay is a bonus to the regular salary and is based mainly on teacher performance on what teachers are supposed to be doing in the classroom anyway--good teaching (50% of the bonus). 30% is classroom student performance and 20% is school-wide performance.

So, if I understand your concern correctly, it is actually an opportunity for you under such a system to show the great gains in student performance that you always produce in these needy students (although these gains may still be below state standards).

Sincerely,
Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Quote:

As a special education teacher, I work with students that have not only missing skills but a history of failure. I do my best to encourage, model, and teach to missing skills (social, emotional and academic). Merit pay would most likely be tied into the student achieving the state benchmark for academic content areas...none of the students on my caselaod, or in my classes have achieved this goal, and many are 20 points below grade level (translates to 4 grade levels lower than their actual grade). If merit pay is enacted, I fear that teachers simular to me will not reach district goals and thus not make merit pay.

Montessori educator

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I would like to respond to Ben Johnson's opinion about merit pay with pre and post tests each year to measure student progress. I worked in a public, Montessori charter school in Minnesota for a number of years teaching a 1-3rd grade combined class. We used a pre, mid-year and post test each year. We also used a nationally standardized test and the Minnesota Comprehensive Achievement test each spring. The student's progress was readily apparent from the results of all the tests. We did not have perfomance based pay, and I don't believe any of the teachers would have wanted that. We also did not grade student work, we had parent conferences privately with each family twice a year for 30 minutes each time, and conferences any time it was necessary.

Being a charter school has some advantages. The main advantage is that the school is populated by families and students who had specifically chosen our method of teaching. A disadvantage...the school is primarily funded by the state, and does not receive funds from local taxation/propositions. The school applied for and received grants for many of its endeavors.

A business model does not work for education. I did not become a teacher for the money, or to process children. To go to college for 7 years to get a Masters degree then a state teaching license was very expensive. It takes a few years of teaching to cover that. Do you need to have a degree in the business world...no. With all that education, an elementary school teacher is lucky to make $50,000 a year. What business executive would be happy with that? Can't think of any? And, you have to keep going to school to get continuing education credits to keep your teaching license current. Business execs are planning their next three day weekend or trip to Hawaii, not working continuing education hours into their schedules. What business executive wants to be personally involved in 30 people's lives on a daily basis for 7 hours and get just a 15 minute "coffee" break? Someone might counter with "teachers have the summer off." Teachers put it enough extra hours throughout the school year to cover at least the amount of time the have "off" during the summer. Many teachers use that time to take classes and better themselves. Many take second jobs so they can make ends meet. Some get to decompress so they can start a new school year refreshed.

Teachers know how difficult it is balancing children's abilities and interests, their social skills or lack of, and their interactions with each other. Teachers have a very high level of responsibility which they fulfill every day, working long hours, stopping into a classroom on the weekends and often spending their own money to provide enrichment for their students in the classroom.

Children come to school with a variety of "dispositions" from lack of sleep, poor nutrition, absentee parents, fighting parents, parents on drugs, gangs, media encouraging them to be promiscuous, learning disabilities, illness, as well as the positive traits of curiosity, genuine concern for their own learning, the love of family, an enriched home life regardless of socio-economic background. Teachers see it all in their careers. Schools are a focal point for everything that is going on in communities and families, added to the child's own individual ability to learn and think. Teachers are individuals, too, bringing all they can to the classroom to serve those kids. It can take years to be a highly skilled teacher, but many burn out and don't make it to that high skill level.

The best approach, in my estimation, is to respect teachers and students, giving them encouragement, coaching and support. Pay for results does not seem to be a good way to go about that. Resentment toward students who keep a teacher or a school from funding is a poor but realistic part of the "merit pay" picture, (and school ranking system)as well.

Just my opinion, after 35 years of teaching.

Administrator, author and educator

Things must change

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Gaetan:

Thanks for posting. I am glad that you have an administrator that realizes that management of the school is the not the primary job duty. We need more of those administrators.

The performance based pay system that I trying to implement requires that the administrators work more as teacher coaches. Each teacher receives at least three formative observations not just the one every other year. This is more fair for the teacher and it send the message to the teacher that good teaching happens all year, not just once during an evaluation.

Thanks
Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Quote:

"My school is fortunate enough to have an administrator who does not deal with students and gets to focus a lot of her time on the teachers. Not only does she read my lesson plans and provide helpful feedback, but she steps into my classroom often to see what I am doing as a teacher."

This makes sense. This needs to be a part of teacher evaluation more than anything else. One of my colleagues brought this up in a PD meeting. In order for an admin to really assess a teacher they really need to know that teacher by consistent, productive feedback. If Admins spend all day with discipline problems and paperwork they can't do that. All teachers teach differently and are effective on many different levels. Admins need time to discover the teaching styles of all of their teachers in order to give thoughtful feedback.

Administrator, author and educator

Control is the problem

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Eric:

Thanks for your post. I know how you feel. At one time I felt the same.

I think it is important that we speak the same language about performance based pay. 50% of the performance is the teacher's performance on multiple observations. One part, usually 30% is based on the teacher's own classroom student performance, and 20% is based on the school performance. Also performance based pay is added to the current salary, not the sum total of the salary. So that means that you are not punished by student issues outside of your control and you are rewarded if you and your team find creative ways to motivate your students to learn more.

Having said that, performance based pay by itself, with no support and structure for improving teacher capacity, effectiveness and attitudes will fail. Those are the ones your studies talked about.

Here are just a few of the studies that say that teacher performance pay can improve teacher and student performance, not just because of the pay, but because of the systemic structure that is involved.

Lavy, V. (2007). Using performance-based pay to improve the quality of teachers. Future of Children, 17(1), 87-109. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Koppich, J. E. (2010). Teacher Unions and New Forms of Teacher Compensation. (Cover story). Phi Delta Kappan, 91(8), 22-26. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Slotnik, W. J. (2010). The Buck Stops Here. (Cover story). Phi Delta Kappan, 91(8), 44-48. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Podgursky, M., & Springer, M. G. (2007). Credentials Versus Performance: Review of the Teacher Performance Pay Research. Peabody Journal of Education (0161956X), 82(4), 551-573. doi:10.1080/01619560701602934

Odden, A. (2004). Lessons Learned About Standards-Based Teacher Evaluation Systems. Peabody Journal of Education (0161956X), 79(4), 126-137. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Milanowski, A. (2004). The Relationship Between Teacher Performance Evaluation Scores and Student Achievement: Evidence From Cincinnati. Peabody Journal of Education (0161956X), 79(4), 33-53. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Mack-Kirschner, A. (2005). Teacher Performance and Pay. California English, 10(4), 20. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Gallagher, H. (2004). Vaughn Elementary's Innovative Teacher Evaluation System: Are Teacher Evaluation Scores Related to Growth in Student Achievement?. Peabody Journal of Education (0161956X), 79(4), 79-107. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Thanks for your views.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Quote:

Your article is called "Why Performance-Based Pay for Teachers Makes Sense." And then you go on to give examples of why it WOULD make sense... if students were interchangeable automatons and all schools were boarding schools.

When I can control all aspects of my students' home life, and when I can exclude that minority of students who, despite the best efforts of all those around them, just refuse to learn, then I'll cheerfully submit to performance-based pay. While students' lives outside of school continue to have MUCH more impact on their performance than anything I do in the classroom, and since performance pay has been studied and the studies have suggested it doesn't do any good, you'll forgive me for not being excited to be punished for the failings of society.

I teach some needy kids, you see. I like working with them most of the time, and I think I'm good at it. But they're needy. As long as I'm not penalized for working with them, I'd like to keep doing so. But once my pay depends on their home life, I'm going to have to think about supporting my own family first and start looking for another job. And I doubt the first-year teacher they replace me with is going to be as effective as I am, at least for a while. But by the time he is effective, he'll probably get tired of being penalized for his students' home life too, and will have followed me out farther into the suburbs, to the easy-to-teach kids.

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