Brookins Head Shot*Andrew Cuomo, the governor of my state, recently gave the state of the state address in which he proposed reform to the public education system.

A major portion of his vision is holding teachers accountable for helping their students achieve and eventually terminating them if a teacher displays incompetence.

On the other hand Cuomo would like to allow for financial bonuses to those teachers whose students do achieve highly.

I appreciate the bind that politicians find themselves in when areas that are comparatively affluent do not achieve in areas where affluence should give an advantage. This is true with the United States among the nations of the world, and more specifically with New York among the states of this country. New York has the third highest GDP in the United States but ranks 38th in high school graduation rate. If I were governor this would concern me as well.

As Cuomo sees it, the problem is that teachers are not doing their job well enough. In the days since Cuomo gave his speech (January 21st, 2015) there have been various teacher voices to assert that the problem doesn’t lie with them. But the truth is probably somewhere in between.

In the world of K-12 education student achievement is the result of three entities being on the same page: the student, the family unit, and the teacher. If one of these components is pulling in a different direction, it takes a Herculean effort by the other two. Think about the effort a student and teacher have to put in to overcome a chaotic home situation; think about how difficult it is for a teacher and parent to get a kid to learn who doesn’t care; consider that when good parents believe their child’s teacher is substandard they demand a different class – proof that in their eyes the effort would be so big as to not even warrant trying. If two of the three components are lacking, the odds that the student will have a stellar academic career are next to zero.

One issue is that teachers have too much job security. In truth teachers proven to be repeatedly ineffective should be able to be fired more quickly. And effectiveness in one year does not automatically result in effectiveness the next year. Good teachers know that different students respond to different things. Cuomo’s education reform aims at rectifying this issue.

But another, equally problematic, issue is that student/parent engagement is lacking in many situations. Teachers can assign homework but cannot ensure that the student does it (as kids get older, even parents can’t make a kid do something they don’t want to). The student and parent components are just as important in student success. Unfortunately Cuomo does very little to address this. And in truth this is the harder issue to correct. No one will (and I’m not suggesting anyone should) proclaim that students who consistently fail to do their homework should be taken away from their parents (the equivalent of firing the parent). But in most instances teachers aren’t the only ones who need to be held responsible.

Circling back to the issue of financial incentives…

This sounds great in theory. But allow me to throw a few monkey wrenches into the setup. How do we account for an average or even below average teacher who benefits from a student population that is highly affluent? Specifically teachers in certain parts of New York have to put in less effort to have their students achieve on a satisfactory level than their colleagues from districts of a lower socio-economic status. To return to the parent part of the equation, even though parents have the right to pay for private tutoring teachers should not get credit for parents this parental effort when student achievement increases. In addition, how do we assess teacher performance for those grades and subjects where there isn’t a statewide exam? Specifically how could an art teacher earn a financial bonus?

I believe that Governor Cuomo has identified a real issue for New York and begun the very important conversation about how to address the issue but I’m not sure the proposed solution is feasible yet.

Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War.  His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.