Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Gimmicky solutions are no solutions at all

My dad pointed out this beautiful column by Newsweek's Anna Quindlen. She argues that, get this, teachers aren't paid enough.

While the idea is not unusual, the eloquence employed in its defense is:

In recent years teacher salaries have grown, if they've grown at all, at a far slower rate than those of other professionals, often lagging behind inflation. Yet teachers should have the most powerful group of advocates in the nation: not their union, but we the people, their former students. I am a writer because of the encouragement of teachers. Surely most Americans must feel the same, that there were women and men who helped them levitate just a little above the commonplace expectations they had for themselves.

At the end of his book ["Teacher Man"; Frank] McCourt, who is preparing to leave teaching with the idea of living off his pension and maybe writing—and whose maiden effort, "Angela's Ashes," will win the Pulitzer—is giving advice to a young substitute. "You'll never know what you've done to, or for, the hundreds coming and going," he says. Yeah, but the hundreds know, the hundreds who are millions who are us. They made us. We owe them.


Amen. And it's not enough, Quindlen writes, to do what is presently fashionable and propose some modest, limited "merit pay" plan:

Unfortunately, the current fashionable fixes for education take a page directly from the business playbook, and it's a terrible fit. Instead of simply acknowledging that starting salaries are woefully low and committing to increasing them and finding the money for reasonable recurring raises, pols have wasted decades obsessing about something called merit pay. It's a concept that works fine if you're making widgets, but kids aren't widgets, and good teaching isn't an assembly line.

McCourt's book is instructive. Early in his 30-year career, he's teaching at a vocational high school and realizes that his English students are never more inspired than when forging excuse notes from their parents. So McCourt assigns the class to write excuse notes, the results ranging "from a family epidemic of diarrhea to a sixteen-wheeler truck crashing into the house." Pens fly with extravagant lies. You can almost feel the imaginations kick in.

The point about tying teaching salaries to widget standards is that it's hard to figure out a useful way to measure the merit of what a really good teacher does. You can imagine the principal who would see McCourt's gambit as the work of a gifted teacher, and just as easily imagine the one who would find it unseemly. Tying raises to pass rates is a flagrant invitation to inflate student achievement. Tying them to standardized tests makes rote regurgitation the centerpiece of schools. Both are blind to the merit of teachers who shoulder the challenging work of educating those less able, more troubled, from homes where there are no pencils, no books, even no parents. A teacher whose Advanced Placement class sends everyone on to top-tier colleges; a teacher whose remedial-reading class finally gets through to some, but not all, of a student group that is failing. There is merit in both.


Indeed there is. This column is a keeper-- one to come back to when making arguments for increased teacher pay and against short-sighted, quick-fix, widget-centered solutions.

Teachers need a better salary; spare the gimmicks.

4 Comments:

Blogger Malcolm Kirkpatrick said...

How much should teachers be paid? As much as necessary, and not a penny more. Money spent on teacher salaries is not spent on books, computers, lunch, or security. Money spent on school is not spent on parks, roads, or environmental protection. Taxes collected are not available to taxpayers for groceries, medicine, or rent.

Good teachers are underpaid; abusive teachers are overpaid with their first dime, but the current system cannot accurately discriminate. It makes no more sense to pay all teachers the same salary, whether they teach Biology, Physics, Electronics Shop, English, Math, or History, than to pay diesel mechanics, auto mechanics, hydraulic mechanics, and jet engine mechanics the same, just because we call them all "mechanics".

Supply and demand. The argument from sentiment, that teaching is important, misses the point. Oxygen is important, but how much did you pay for oxygen yesterday?

To count those people who attribute their success to school, in measuring the value of teaching, is to count only the "credit" side of the ledger; in Hawaii, juvenile arrests fall in summer, when school is not in session. Across the US, the rate of juvenile arrest for rape is negatively correlated with the age at which States compel attendance at school (later is better).

From: Hyman and Penroe, __Journal of School Psychology__.
"Several studies of maltreatment by teachers suggest that school children report traumatic symptoms that are similar whether the traumatic event was physical or verbal abuse (Hyman, et.al.,1988; Krugman & Krugman, 1984; Lambert, 1990). Extrapolation from these studies suggests that psychological maltreatment of school children, especially those who are poor, is fairly widespread in the United States...."

"...It is almost certainly more damaging for children to be in school than to out of it. Children whose days are spent herding animals rather than sitting in a clasroom at least develop skills of problem solving and independence while the supposedly luckier ones in school are stunted in their mental, physical, and emotional development by being rendered pasive, and by having to spend hours each day in a crowded classroom under the control of an adult who punishes them for any normal level of activity such as moving or speaking. (DfID, 2000, pp 12, 13)" Quoted in Clive Harber, "Schooling as Violence",p. 10, __Educatioinal Review__V. 54, #1.

[Roland Meighan, "Home-based Education Effectiveness Research and Some of its Implications", __Educational Review__, Vol. 47, No.3, 1995.]
"The issue of social skills. One edition of Home School Researcher, Volume 8, Number 3, contains two research reports on the issue of social skills. The first finding of the study by Larry Shyers (1992) was that home-schooled students received significantly lower problem behavior scores than schooled children. His next finding was that home-schooled children are socially well adjusted, but schooled children are not so well adjusted. Shyers concludes that we are asking the wrong question when we ask about the social adjustment of home-schooled children. The real question is why is the social; adjustment of
schooled children of such poor quality?"

"The second study, by Thomas Smedley (1992), used different test instruments but comes to the same conclusion, that home-educated children are more mature and better socialized than those attending school." ...p. 277

"12. So-called 'school phobia' is actually more likely to be a sign of mental health, whereas school dependancy is a largely unrecognized mental health problem"....p.281

9:37 AM  
Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Ummmm, okay there fella.

To respond to the original post, since I am way too tired to respond to the commenter above right now, having tried to keep 100 sixteen-year-olds focused on discussing the role of technology on warfare when all they wanted to do was gape out the window while white fluffy frozen precipitation swirled around in some unique way they had never seen before, let me just say, Amen.

My dearest friends in the world are both teachers in another state. One is sixty-five years old and is in no position to retire. I am over twenty years younger than he is, and I make more money than he does-- and what I make is no king's ransom.

This has been on my mind lately, especially as I consider the extended demands made upon our lives even as many of my students take a step back from their responsibilities to themselves. Perhaps it's just the winter doldrums, but right or wrong, we live in a consumer society inwhich, especially at this time of year, one's purchasing power becomes the standard by which one's value as is judged.

4:52 PM  
Anonymous Scott Emerick said...

Effective Professional Compensation models for teachers can exist without gimmicks. I believe very strongly with the sentiment expressed in this article that the political will to pay teachers more rests largely with the potential for the American public to believe their own stories about the Teacher Who Made a Difference. Also would agree that a basic business compensation model can not account for the multitude of complexities associated with teaching diverse learners well.

However, our experience at the Center for Teaching Quality and conversations with teacher leaders from across the country indicate that professional compensation systems can be built to recognize and cultivate effective teaching practices. The Denver ProComp plan provides an excellent examples of how to build such a system over time with the input and support of real teachers. The result is a complex yet effective system that will pay teachers more and differently based on developing new and relevant knowledge and skills; earning higher ratings on a much-improved teacher evaluation system; teaching in hard-to-staff schools and subject areas; and
improving student achievement (based on numerous measures, including but not limited to test scores).

Would agree with the auther and with Doug that there are certainly potential gimmicks and pitfalls when people attempt to provide quick and simplistic fixes to teacher compensation. But would disagree that all professional compensation systems that pay teachers based in part on performance are inherently flawed. It is difficult to build teacher compensation systems that recognize and respond to all the complexities of teaching, but it is not impossible and we now have compensation models to prove it.

8:50 AM  
Blogger urbansocrates said...

All teachers are not worth paying top dollar. Some are not talented. Some are lazy. How do propose to sort them out?

7:31 PM  

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