Teaching's pecking order: prestige assignments

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School administrators' hands are generally tied when it comes to handing out retention bonuses, paying higher salaries in shortage subject areas, and particularly for rewarding high performance. So what's left besides a pat on the back and a hearty "job well done"?

Offering teachers plum assignments has long been one answer. Even within suburban schools, not to mention between variously advantaged schools within districts, assignments can vary in their perceived prestige.

A discrimination and demotion lawsuit in Hagerstown, Indiana, provides a picture of the perverse effects of this default reward: After two years of positive performance reviews teaching seventh grade English, Sharon Lucero was rewarded for her success by being reassigned to 12th grade honors English, a definite step up in the teaching pecking order. Unfortunately, she bombed and was put back in the lowly seventh grade, her original assignment. She stayed in the same building, with the same colleagues, and there was no pay decrease involved, but the reassignment must have really stung--enough for Lucero to file a lawsuit against the school board and pursue it for five years. Finally this summer, the judge ruled against her on all charges.

Regardless of the merits of her case, Lucero was aggrieved by the fact that she was reassigned to a lower grade. The lower the grade taught or the lower the academic ability of the students being taught, the lower the value of the teacher. This status hierarchy may not be objective, but it is widespread, and it is bad for students.