Teachers Sound Off on Tenure and Merit Pay on NBC's Education Nation

Educators Annice Brave and Kurt Kurtzhals, both members of the Illinois Education Association, participated in an NBC teacher town hall on Sunday as part of the network’s “Education Nation on the Road” tour. The hour-long, high-spirited discussion in Chicago covered teacher evaluations, high-stakes testing, merit pay, school funding, tenure and the role of teachers’ unions.

On the eve of National Teacher Day and Teacher Appreciation Week, Brave and Kurtzhals were joined on their panels by fellow teachers and an audience of educators from around the Chicago area. The moderator asked questions of the panelists and took comments and questions from the audience.

Brave, who is also the 2011 Illinois Teacher of the Year and a National Teacher of the Year finalist, approached the event with a little trepidation. Like many other educators, she was bothered by the negative portrayals of teachers during the 2010 Education Nation events.

“I didn’t like the tone of last year’s broadcast,” she recalls. “I was really disheartened by it, but I thought today’s experience was terrific. It was a positive and valuable discussion.”

Kurt Kurtzhals, an elementary school teacher in Lake Bluff, IL, who participated in the second panel discussion, agreed.

“It was great for teachers. What’s been missing in the media’s coverage of education issues is the voice of the classroom teacher. So it was nice that the panels today gave us a venue to speak our minds about these issues.”

The first panel focused on evaluation, testing and merit pay. When asked by moderator Tamron Hall if teachers should be evaluated solely by test scores, Brave responded: “Teachers can only control so much around a student’s life that affects a test result. Standardized tests cannot be the only measure – there’s a lot more what is happening at the school.”

When pressed by Hall that test scores, like it or not, measure teachers’ success. Brave responded to applause, “Test scores measure the communities and the students family life as well.”

When the discussion turned to the true value of having experienced educators in the classroom, Brave was unequivocal.

“I am a highly-trained National Board Certified Teacher. I understand my profession. I know what I’m doing. I mentor a young teacher just down the hall from me. Experience means everything.”

Another hot topic: implementing merit pay plans. One audience member, a teacher at a local magnet school, said he was opposed to the idea even though he would probably benefit. “We get all the high-achieving kids. It’s not fair to my colleagues in other schools.”

“I’m a finalist for Teacher of the Year,” Brave said after the town hall, “ so I’m guessing I’d do pretty well under a merit pay system. But I still don’t like it. It’s not fair and it breeds too much competition among teachers. That’s not a good idea.”

The second panel focused on tenure and the role teachers unions play in the education reform debate.

Kurt Kurtzhals told the audience that the tenure issue hits him particularly hard because he was denied tenure in his second and third year of teaching, which put a hold on his teaching career.

“I had a principal who wanted to get rid of me in my third year and was determined to make my life miserable,” Kurtzhals said after the town hall.” I had no protection.”

Due process, not a job guarantee – this is the truth behind tenure that Kurtzhals and teachers across the country have been trying to get across to policymakers and the general public.

“It’s just one issue,” Kurtzhals says. “But it represents the void that exists in the debate. Too many people who sit behind desks in big offices are making decisions who have never spent any real time in the classroom.”

“So the event on Sunday was refreshing for me because teachers were given the microphone. Who knows? Maybe it’s the beginning of a trend.”