While everyone is busy congratulating themselves on the passage of our groundbreaking new teachers' contract, one that allows for teachers' pay rates to be tied to their students' performance for the first time, it is important to realize just how little this innovation will impact the real problems in our school system.
After all, it is not like most teachers have been holding back their teaching efforts in the hope of winning a pay raise. While we probably have the best urban school commissioner in the country and he has things moving in the right direction for the first time in anyone's memory, what is really holding our system (and city) back right now are the privations our teachers and students face every day in the classroom, and this new contract will have no effect on those problems.
First of all, our buildings themselves are decrepit, dreary and unsafe. My school, for instance, probably spends more money bringing in unleaded water to drink than almost anything else. And even the easy fixes are ignored; like every school in the city has a flat roof but hardly any have money-saving solar panels.
Besides the run-down buildings themselves, our schools generally lack all but the most basic tools needed to prepare our students for work and study in the 21st century. If you could see my classroom on Wednesdays, Internet lesson day, I am sure you would be outraged watching Baltimore's best and brightest young scholars forced to share a handful of barely functional laptop computers. A fix in this area would raise the students' performance levels, guaranteed. For example, if I could have my Government students take practice state exams on-line every week, their actual scores would surely skyrocket. But for now that is just a nice dream.
For me, what is worse is knowing that if you just cross over the city line you will find schools fully supplied with the latest instructional technology: completely outfitted computer labs, state-of-the-art television studios, classrooms with smart boards and HD projectors; it is like they are the Jetsons and we are the Flintstones. But worst of all is knowing that even when my students work hard and make it into a top college right now, they are still at a distinct disadvantage because they will be competing for grades against kids who are already technologically savvy.
In short, it seems clear to me that we must to correct the glaring deficiencies in our city's schools before we can even begin to evaluate individual teachers' performance without holding them accountable for the system's failures. For me, this type of capital investment is a no-brainer. By wisely investing in our schools, we can raise property values citywide and improve the overall business climate. And wouldn't it be nice if people with kids were moving to our city for the best free education in the country instead of having to flee it for greener educational pastures on the other side of an invisible line?
J.B. Salganik, Baltimore
The writer teaches Social Studies in the Baltimore City Public School System.