RESPONSIBILITY

Florida, in a fit of apparent jealous rage over the recent attention lavished upon the educational system in Texas, has tried to one-up their brazenly ignorant friend to the west. Because we are so fond of making "tough choices" in this society (especially in the South) the Sunshine State decided that it was about time to try to knock those fat-cat bankers and real estate speculators a peg.

Oh, sorry. I misread something. Replace "bankers and real estate speculators" with "public school teachers." Enough of their high-on-the-hog living, it's time to take away tenure (making them at-will employees, sort of like gas station cashiers but with your kids for 7 hours per day) and make their pay merit based. Bad standardized test scores = lower salary. Brilliant. I'm sure it will save trillions.

Fortunately Charlie Crist vetoed this train wreck of a bill, but regardless I think it is worth talking about why teachers have tenure and why tying salaries to student performance is ludicrous.

First, regarding compensation, let's be honest: nobody gets into teaching to get rich. Very few of us are make big bucks by private sector standards even at the post-secondary level. So the salaries aren't too big of a deal even though Florida's are already $5000 below the national average. Florida teachers are doing better than a lot of people these days. That said, people teach for the same reason one becomes a civil servant – job security.

We already have a teacher shortage in this country, and people simply aren't going to do this job without the possibility of tenure. The reasons are not complex. The job kinda sucks. It's rewarding at times but often it's just hard and time consuming. Granted, it's not "hard" compared to jobs that subject one to hazardous conditions or manual labor, but it's not easy. It takes over our lives. When we're not in front of a classroom we're at home grading and formulating lesson plans. In my case, it requires most of my time to handle three classes, and K-12 teachers teach a hell of a lot more than I do. And they are also burdened with surrogate parenting some or all of their students, depending on the location of the school. So teachers accept the 12 hour days and the salaries that range from good to "meh" to pretty bad in exchange for some job security. I can't imagine who's going to line up for 12 hour days, "meh" salaries, and at-will employment. If that's going to be your job description, why would anyone choose to deal with 150 asshole kids every day to get it?

Don't misunderstand me, I don't believe that there would suddenly be no teachers without tenure. The job would be considerably less appealing, though, and only the current Recession-era lack of alternatives would keep talented people from pursuing other opportunities.

Then there's the merit pay issue. Holy crap is this a stupid idea.

It's an appealing concept on the surface – no performance, no pay – usually generating the most enthusiasm among people whose salaries are in no way dependent on their performance (like state legislators, for example). Imagine, however, that at age 10 my parents sent me to a world-famous coach to train me as a tennis player. I have absolutely no talent whatsoever for tennis. A really good coach could maximize whatever meager skills I have, but I would still suck at the end. And I would suck even more if during non-practice hours my parents fed me nothing but Twinkies, beat me, and deprived me of sleep. That would substantially limit what the coach could get out of me, no?

No one wants to admit this within or outside of the profession, but there really are substantial limits to what we can do for students. There are a lot of students who can be "reached" and a good teacher can and should reach them, improving their performance and making them love learning. But let's be honest – not all of the baby turtles are going to make it back to the ocean. This is particularly true given that the influence teachers have over students is limited. With sufficiently terrible parenting, some students aren't going to learn no matter what. We get students for an hour or two per day. If they go home to eight hours of video games/TV, homes that have no reading material in them, parents who haven't (and possibly can't) read a book in their lives, and parent-child learning that consists mostly of how to lie to a parole officer, commit credit card fraud, or tend to a meth lab, what does society expect us to do? If a kid is deluged with young Earth creationism, Glenn Beck, and the collected works of the Michigan Militia, what I ask him to read isn't going to matter.

I think most semi-conscious people realize both of these things but punishing public servants is a hobby for a growing segment of this country. Our attitudes toward one another are so bitter and so mean-spirited that public support for an idea like eliminating tenure boils down to "I don't have job security, so fuck you. You shouldn't have any either." It is entirely independent, in other words, of the rational consideration of why tenure exists and what role it plays in the profession. And while it is both tempting and convenient to blame our continuing slide into mass stupidity on teachers, the reality is that you are teaching your kids more than any state employee ever can. If your kid is one of the many who qualify as totally ignorant and disinterested in becoming less ignorant, look in the mirror. In a society that exalts anti-intellectualism and every variety of denialism and hostility toward science, teachers are trying to bail the water out of a sinking ship; at best we can manage to keep it afloat, and it's not realistic to expect us to make it go full speed ahead.

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58 Responses to “RESPONSIBILITY”

  1. Tim Says:

    What's in a name: I see your point. But, yeah, I really don't think the schools are the core of the problem for the failing students. NCLB, to me, was really an unnecessary reform. I still believe we as a society need to focus on the issues more socially, keeping kids from feeling disenfranchised and teaching them the merits of completing school, accessing and working towards goals, etc. This of course needs to be very individual. Hire more counselors, maybe, for struggling districts.

    I'm not a fair tax fanatic. Estate Taxes really only help widened the rich poor gap. It's an inefficient tax to administer. You could set it up so that you only taxed estates valued at over 200k or something, but that would require a lot of bureaucracy which is expensive to maintain for something that doesn't occur very often, because those are only 5% of the population.

    That allegory from Washington, was meant to be compared to estate taxes, not to Income. Everybody there supported it, it was "Populist". Wealthier people didn't mind pocketing a few extra dollars, and poorer people were able to get their cars licensed finally and stop getting pulled over. It worked GREAT in WA.

  2. jeffteaches Says:

    Sorry, Tim, if I accused you unfairly of being a Boortz freak, but I just spent several hours having my ear bent by one.

    I spent a little time researching the estate tax, and I wouldn't accept sweeping, grand statements like "Estate Taxes really only help widened the rich poor gap," but I do agree that it seems ineffecient to administer and costly to collect. It also can be double or triple taxing. But the fact is that these taxes mostly apply to people inheriting at least a million somolians! I don't know if your figure is correct of 5%, but it is not most of us.

    Okay, we agree that students need to understand the value of knowledge…not just school. Plenty of people have learned much never taught them in school, but they had some kind of motivation.

    Americans, you and I, all have strong opinions about schools and teachers BECAUSE WE ALL SPENT SO MANY YEARS INSIDE THOSE INSTITUTIONS! But that doesn't make us experts. My HS chemistry teacher was the biggest douche-canoe, a Burt-Reynolds-wannabe who never prepared, didn't understand the material, and just used the teaching position as a stepping stone to administration. Amazingly, as an administrator, he was an even bigger douche-canoe!

    But private schools and charter schools and catholic schools and schools that accept vouchers also have these losers. As adults we tend to remember the useless teachers, yet here we all sit, typing and debating and disagreeing, all evidence of higher cognitive skills which I would guess most of us learned in public schools.

    And as an experienced HS teacher, I can tell you that many people don't have miserable high school experiences because the teachers or institutions are poor; they are too immature or spoiled to appreciate the opportunities that are available.

  3. beau Says:

    Not a teacher. I was taught a couple o' things way back in the day though. Had the option of gearing my studies towards teaching at one stage. Now feel I missed the boat a bit. Not because of pay/ conditions/ etc. Just because all my teacher friends can now construct the everlasting fuck out of a compound sentence, and then use it to knee-cap my pissweak arguments. Bastards.

    To those of you who ARE teachers,

    Thank you. You probably don't hear that anywhere near enough.

    (you'd probably also prefer that thanks in cash form, but…)

  4. Jordan Says:

    It's amazing how many of you fight eagerly to defend Ed's pile of shit. He is, by and large, an interesting writer, this post, in my opinion, excepted.

    As for discounting his opinion because he's a teacher… the entire fucking thing I wrote before that line addresses why his opinion is wrong, and that line merely addresses why I think he might have something of a biased stake in the matter.

    Every other profession has some measure of accountability. It may not be merit pay, but if you do stupid shit you will be fired. Tenure means you can actively got give a fuck, and still retain a job. It's great that people who teach love it, could make more money elsewhere, whatever. But having anything without any accountability (outside molesting children or throwing them off a roof), is fairly fucking stupid.

    The information source that a few of you are bitching about, was this. "Eric Hanushek, a Stanford economist, found that while the top 5 percent of teachers were able to impart a year and a half’s worth of learning to students in one school year, as judged by standardized tests, the weakest 5 percent advanced their students only half a year of material each year." http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/07/magazine/07Teachers-t.html?pagewanted=all

    Some teachers are so fucking bad, they only manage to do half of the job they're supposed to. Some are so fucking good, they do 50% more. First half should be fired, second half should get a cookie. Why is that such a fucking landmine? Because it's hard to figure things out? That's a fucking copout because the alternative solution, doing nothing, clearly leaves tons of shitty teachers in place.

  5. Amanda Says:

    I'd like someone to suggest an accountability measure which takes into account all of the complex pieces that come into play when considering success in education.

    The hard truth (as I mentioned in my previous comment) is that we aren't dealing with the cream of the crop in the first place. Students that are studying to be teachers now are from a much different demographic than teachers who have been in the field for 25 years. We can't force the highly intelligent women to move from their chosen professions back to teaching. We have to figure out how to make our situation better, not say "I want the perfect teacher or nothing!"

    Also, depending on the representative demographics of their classroom, excellent teachers may only be able to get through half a year's worth of information because that is the speed at which the students can handle that information. In other scenarios one teacher may not be able to get through all the information because of the learning needs of their students, while the teacher next door received all of the honor students due to the practice of homogeneous classroom setup (i.e. one teacher in a grade level team gets the honors students, one gets the average ones, one gets the lower performing ones) and so was able to get through a year and a half to two years worth of information.

    How we label "BAD TEACHERS" is based on what we've heard in the media but it doesn't take into account all of the pieces of the puzzle. I am a proponent of accountability measures, but they have to be pilot tested on several different samples and they may not be generalizable across the entire United States. I still believe in tenure for teachers because most states require teachers to teach for 3-5 years before they are offered tenure, and that is the amount of time that research shows is required for a teacher to exhibit their abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. I think we also have to keep in mind that tenure for public school teachers has a different definition than tenure for university professors. You are not immune from firing if you are a tenured public school teacher. At the least you are just free from being fired for no provided reason.

    It's a landmine because we don't know the qualitative elements behind those statistics. Are the teachers bad? Are the students little shit-stains? Are the parents absent? Present? Overbearing? Is there lack of funding? Lack of administrative support? Lack of professional development? We don't ever hear these things. All we ever hear is "Kids perform bad on test, teacher must be bad, fire teacher." Education in our country is so much more complex than that.

  6. Robert Says:

    I second Amanda's points. Here in Oakland CA, the flatlands schools in the poor neighborhoods get the feebs and burned-out husks, while the hills schools get the crackerjacks. There are reasons why this is so; the district doesn't do it to punish the students. But the Dance of the Lemons, as we parents call it, means that crappy schools tend to stay crappy, while good schools tend to stay good – unless acted on by an outside force. Firing the 'bad' teachers is not the outside force that we need here.

  7. Aaron Schroeder Says:

    Charles,

    To fire one-half of teachers for not fulfilling curriculum requirements and incentivize the other half for fulfilling those requirements seems like an awfully imprudent criterion for teacher merit pay. It simply encourages the 'lower half' to teach through the curriculum, regardless of whether students are learning anything. If you really want teaching to be a market as other professions are markets, you have to pay attention to what sorts of behaviors you're incentivizing. And this is the real problem with merit pay for teachers: no one knows how to quantify what "good teaching" really amounts to, and so no one knows what sort of behaviors we ought to incentivize. I mean, is it getting students into college? Is it higher scores on some arbitrary state examination? Is it completing the district's curriculum? Or is it talking to a student whose parents are alcohol addicts? Or giving students advice about college? It's hard to see what sort of measure will be able to account for these sorts of variables, despite their being integral to a teacher being an excellent one. One notes further that you haven't suggested such a comprehensive measure, either.

    This is simply to reinforce Ed's original point, of course, that picking out a criterion or set of criteria against which student learning might be assessed is a near-impossible task, given the many, MANY factors involved in learning. And if you want to absent parents from responsibility, then it's going to be in the state's best interest to just raise the kids, already. Walden II anyone?

    Or perhaps you have more useful suggestions that you just haven't mentioned yet.

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