MY SON looked up from his Cheerios one morning last week as I made his lunch at the kitchen counter. "We get grades this year," he said.
His tone was unnaturally even, the way it gets when he's trying to cover a rising panic. I understood his worry. Sometimes the classwork is a challenge, but he is heartbreakingly tenacious and, against all odds, loves school.
I thought about him as I read that the Denver teachers' union recently approved a pilot program that ties merit raises to students' test scores. The premise is that the higher a class' test scores, the better the teacher must be.
I can think of a few other ways to interpret jumps in test scores: The higher a class' test scores, the better the teacher might be at teaching test-taking.
Or: The higher a class' test scores, the better the teacher might be at directing learning-disabled children into other classes.
The goal of the Denver experiment, of course, is laudable. They're trying to find a way to improve education. Test scores provide a tangible accounting of student performance and thus seem a logical measurement by which to rank teachers.
But have we produced better students simply because they are more adept at filling in multiple-choice bubbles with a No. 2 pencil? If one believes that part of the problem with public education is unmotivated teachers -- and clearly that's the message behind this Denver proposal -- then let's motivate them. Let's treat them like professionals. Let's not ask them to monitor food fights in the cafeteria and to wear neon traffic vests and wave stop signs in the crosswalks.
Let's give them the resources to keep up on the latest educational research. And let's pay teachers as if our children's futures depended on them.
Retired teacher Frank McCourt, author of the much-lauded "Angela's Ashes," got it right in a recent New York Times commentary: "It's my dream that teaching become the glamorous profession," he said.
"The ones who are in the public-school system are heroic. There should be a Teacher Hall of Fame. It should be the biggest event, bigger than the Oscars -- 'Ms. Smith of P.S. 13 has just made a breakthrough in teaching the dangling participle. She gets Teacher of the Year!' "
As my son finished his Cheerios, I told him I didn't care about grades. "You know what we care about? How hard you work. That's the only grade that matters to us."
I know grades can't truly reflect my son's performance any more than test scores can truly reflect his teacher's.
Judging a teacher's worth by students' test scores is like judging a preacher by how well his flock quotes Scripture. You might find yourself flush with orators, but there might not be a holy man in the bunch.
Joan Ryan is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.