Kentucky’s attacks on teachers turn our schools into a real-life ‘Hunger Games’

Thank you to Linda Blackford for her recent commentary, “A teacher-bashing in Kentucky: An overview.”

Leadership matters. It has the potential to influence student outcomes. Clearly, there is a lack of leadership in Frankfort. Kentucky State Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis is taking pages from the flawed and unsuccessful playbooks of his neoliberal, pro-privatization counterparts in Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. From no longer requiring master’s degrees for teachers to maintain certification to promoting privatized for profit “charter schools” as the panacea to save the “failing public schools” – our “commissioner” is helping dismantle our public schools – and the teaching profession – in Kentucky.

Lewis continues to disparage professionally prepared – and experienced – educators through diminishing the significance of the complex work they do on a daily basis, insulting their commitment and expertise, threatening their pensions, and cutting programs and budgets. Recently, in addition to painting a negative narrative around our public schools and the professionals that work in them, he proposed a “pay for performance” incentive for Kentucky Public School teachers as a means to motivate them to “work harder” and ensure every student has access to a “quality public school.” While this may sound promising on the surface – especially if you have not read the numerous studies conducted by scholars on this practice over the past 30+ years – it is a failed solution.

Recent research identifies the key flaws in Lewis’ assumption that monetary “bonuses” will improve student outcomes:

1. Most teachers see their work – their profession – as a calling and are not motivated by higher salaries.

2. Teachers already believe they are working as hard as they can for their students and find it difficult to consider they can work any harder – even for personal financial gain.

3. A significant body of research – and anecdotal evidence – tells us teachers improve their practice (and student outcomes improve) through collegial support (including leaders), working in a culture that promotes trust, collective efficacy, academic optimism, and the quality of professional learning/development opportunities.

Lewis’ pay for performance recommendation assumes teachers aren’t already working hard to improve student performance and they will be motivated by extrinsic monetary rewards. Further, it turns our schools and classrooms into a real-life Hunger Games – pitting teachers against each other, promoting inequitable practices such as tracking and rewarding teachers simply for working with students who are generally already high achievers. Incentivizing student outcomes discourages teachers from working with the most fragile, vulnerable, and marginalized students, creates a fear of pedagogical risk-taking, diminishes creativity, and simply perpetuates the status quo. Survival of the already “fit.”

Student outcomes won’t improve by incentivizing their test scores. We know outcomes improve if we build relationships with students and families, select and develop leaders who demand excellence AND equity for all students, AND if we address the myriad social issues that impact student outcomes – often, issues the school cannot control, only address.

Kentucky’s schoolteachers (support staff and administrators) are some of THE hardest working people we have ever known – Lewis should not forget that. As one of the highest paid state education commissioners in the country (let that sink in for a second) – as well as a former professor of educational leadership at the University of Kentucky -- Lewis should have a better grasp of the research and best practices in the field in order to provide a bolder, more courageous path forward for our schools, teachers, students, and communities. Leadership matters. It’s time for Lewis to walk the talk.

Clifford M. Wallace is a Kentucky educator and former superintendent in Williamstown, Ky. Leigh E. Wallace if a former Kentucky educator who now lives in Wisconsin.