Merit pay could revive child labor

This forced work in sweatshops, in factory farms, or in the illicit sex and drug trades is roundly condemned as “child labor.”

But what happens when you put about a million children in first- through eighth-grade classrooms across the state of Georgia and force them to work under conditions where their individual teacher’s salary will be determined by the children’s performance on a state standardized test or other metric?

Is it child labor?

Whom the children would be working for at that point — and what they would be working for — becomes unclear.

United States child labor activists in the early 1900s were concerned about children laboring in factories and fields from morning until night. They claimed that such labor eclipsed opportunities in childhood to be involved with both physical recreation and mental stimulation.

In other words, the child was being exploited for the economic benefits of others while the child’s interests and well-being were outright neglected.

Activists sought to end this practice and argued for a free, compulsory education for all children that — presumably — would not exploit children for the economic benefits of others.

Child labor laws made it illegal to work youth during traditional school hours for these reasons.

Today up to a million children in Georgia — all below the legal age limits for work — board a school bus before sunrise and can still be found slumping over “homework” well after nightfall. Physical recreation during school hours — that chunk of time during the day when it is illegal to “work” youth — has all but disappeared.

Child labor activists in the U.S. were concerned about the physical health, emotional well-being and intellectual pursuits of children.

They saw the working conditions of child laborers as worse than unethical: Long hours, no breaks, no recreation and no space for rich intellectual endeavors were considered to undermine human potential and the long-term health of a larger society.

Ask a child how she spends her seven-plus hours of school each day and a similar list of unethical practices may be compiled.

Tell that child’s teacher that her salary will depend on the testing performance of that child and chart the negative consequences on children’s working conditions in schools.

Teachers — workers in the system controlled by bosses above — will be exploited. Students — the “producing” workers in the system whose production of test scores will determine reward for those above them — will be exploited.

Business owners and supervisors worked children for long hours with no breaks and no recreation (and no choice in the matter) because they assumed they would benefit economically from the intensity of the child’s labor.

Some may have recognized these practices as abusive, but the economic incentive was too seductive. What was best for children and their overall education and well-being was neglected under conditions of child labor.

The neglect of children’s social, emotional, physical and academic needs inside schools where they spend most of their waking hours for most of their childhood is likely to become accepted practice under merit pay legislation linked to test scores.

How do we want adults in school to see our children?

Is it OK with parents if other adults look at our child and see them as potential “assets” for raising their salaries or potential “deficits” for lowering their salaries?

What kind of pressure might a child feel when he learns that his teacher’s earnings are connected to his test scores?

How hard will a teacher push a child if she or he is trying to create a higher “profit margin” in test scores?

Are we willing to sacrifice children and the rights they won through child labor laws in the early 1900s?

The focus in education has centered on big debates about teacher and school accountability for too long.

These debates exclude children’s experiences of policy and the roles they are forced into every time new legislation passes.

Putting our focus back on children has the potential to remind us who matters in these debates and the prices children are paying for adults’ thoughtless actions.

Merit pay linked to test scores is a move toward implementing a 21st-century version of child labor.

Multiple measures of success for children, teachers, and schools can put us back on track. Schools were not meant to be factories where children toil, indeed, compulsory education for all was viewed as the antithesis of child labor.

The ethical treatment of children should be a measure of success for teachers and schools, alongside multiple measures of children’s academic growth and overall well-being.

Stephanie Jones is an associate professor in the Department of Elementary and Social Studies Education at the University of Georgia.

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