Sunday, June 28, 2009

I'm Back, Take 2, and (Quite Possibly) the Beginnings of a Long Rant

Well, I know my non-existent readership has been wondering where-oh-where did I go. Well, as a wise man once said, "Bitches, I'm back!"

In my opinion a lot of the major problems plaguing American education are structural. These are basic, underlying issues that, unless addressed, will result in the persistence of a substandard education system. These problems are too myriad to cover in one post, and, as the title of this post suggests, will probably stretch over several.

One big issue is teacher compensation. I have to say, when I first started in education, the way in which teachers are compensated was totally foreign to me. This involves the so-called "lockstep salary schedule." The lockstep salary schedule consists of a matrix, with years of experience running along, say, the left side of the matrix, and levels of educational and professional accomplishment running along the top. You find where your years of experience and education intersect in the matrix, and bam, that's your salary for the year.

Sounds reasonable enough, right?

If you carefully examine the history of how teachers are paid, a subject that books have been written about, it is clear why the lockstep salary schedule came into existence. When public education first began, if you were not a white male, you were discriminated against–given the worst classes and paid the least. From that perspective, having salaries be public and standardized, and removing all possibility of unjustifiable tinkering, was a huge advancement over the whims of short-sighted and bigoted administrators.

However, the same argument can't be made now, and the lockstep salary schedule is an anachronism that has outlived its usefulness. I can't think of another profession where things are done the same way as they were 150 years ago. What the lockstep salary schedule does is to provide no incentive to do a good job–and every incentive to just "get by". Essentially what the lockstep salary schedule does is to promote the mentality of "All I have to do is not get fired, and I get a raise next year"–and every person in education who is honest with themselves knows exactly that is what it does, whether they are willing to express this sentiment or not. With those sorts of incentives in the system, is it any wonder we get suboptimal outcomes from our schools? There's a substantial body of research that clearly indicates that among the most important contributors to student success are not high-priced consultants or administrators, catchy but untested ideas thought up by some ivory-tower education school egghead, or computers and technology, but as our very own president has stated, the "person standing in front of the classroom."

Clearly there needs to be a huge overhaul in how teachers are compensated. I will be the first to say that the lockstep salary schedule promotes the retention of shitty teachers, because there is no financial incentive to do a good job. I can think of several teachers at my school who, on a good day, I am thoroughly embarassed to have to stand next to as my coworkers. (The sobering thing in the context of the education system at large is that by all accounts, objective and subjective, both from within the school and without, the quality of the faculty is excellent.) I have seen some teachers waste what little instructional time we have showing useless movies, or bloviating on their personal histories.
I know of teachers at my school that showed "Dumb and Dumber" to their classes, or would order students to go get them coffee and donuts, and even told students this would affect their grades. Stories like that make me sick. It frankly pisses me off that the worst teachers at my school are paid the most, and are not accountable in any way, shape, or form. At some point we as teachers must police ourselves and get mad about these pathetic excuses for educators. We can't demand to be treated as professionals and simultaneously abide the existence of the fools to whom the old phrase, "Those who can't do anything else, teach", applies.

Of course, there's a second part to that last saying which is that "Those who can't teach go into administration." While I, and any teacher who is willing to be honest, must acknowledge the existence of incompetent teachers, there's often little mention made of incompetent administrators, of whom there are always an abundant supply. This is often because administrators are often paid more than teachers, so the incentives in place led those who liked teaching the least and who wanted more money to go into administration. I certainly don't appreciate the moronic MSM whipping the public up into the frenzied herd mentality of "throw the bums out" when it comes to teachers when in fact, administrators are often the source of the problem as well.

One thing is clear, though–the lockstep salary schedule has got to go as part of reforming teacher compensation. Experience is worthless as an indicator of teacher quality if said experience is all bad. Ditto with educational achievements and a large amount of professional development, with a few notable exceptions. A lot of teacher credentialing programs are (borrowing this phrase from a very wise person) "pure–D bunk and bullshit" and of no use whatsoever. The programs themselves are sometimes more important as lucrative meal–tickets for marginal educational faculties.

So what should replace the lockstep salary schedule? A number of different ideas have been advanced. Denver's ProComp system is worthy of further study and deployment with suitable modifications to adapt to different systems. A legitmate concern of many teachers is that the dismantling of the lockstep salary schedule merely opens them up yet again to the caprices of some incompetent or wrongheaded administrator. Additionally, the thorny issue of how to rate teacher performance is also a great question. Both of these issues can be solved by expansion of the charter schools, which often set their own compensation and retention policies (more on charter schools in a future post). Those schools that find compensation systems that are most attractive to teachers will attract the best teachers, and force other schools to adopt such attractive models, or lose faculty, student enrollment, and consequently, funding. But I digress.

By far the most intriguing possibility in terms of new teacher compensation schemes is what is going on in the Washington, DC public school system. Essentially, the proposed contract, still under negotiation, states that teachers are given a choice of forgoing tenure and possibly earning over six figures–or keeping tenure, and still getting a ~ 30% raise over five years. The key element is choice–no existing teacher is being compelled to forgo tenure. Predictably, the NEA, AFT and their associated shills and useful idiots in the MSM and political world have vehemently opposed this idea, despite professing their desire to do what is best "for the children." (Always be suspicious when you hear people who have opposed change claim to do so "for the children.") It remains to be seen how this drama will play out--but don't be mistaken: the forces of obstruction and ignorance are strong and are unlikely to yield unless given the raspberry.

More to come in this series.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

George Will WTF

One of the MSM columnists out there that I enjoy reading, even when I don't agree with him, is George Will. I appreciate the logic of his arguments, his consistency, and of course his outsized vocabulary (when was the last time you even saw-let alone read in a column-the word "asperity"?). Will, in my opinion, avoids the intemperance and shrillness that often characterizes debate on both ends of the political spectrum.

However, as the subject suggests, I have to wonder what prompted him to write this column. When I read it I was reminded of this classic, yet underappreciated, SNL skit:

Monday, May 4, 2009

I Officially Suck

Okay, okay, I know. I'm way overdue for a post. I know all of my (well, nonexistent) readers are in an uproar over this issue. Well, have no fear. Posts will follow shortly!

(cue cricket sounds)

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

It's the most wonderful time of the year...

Spring has sprung, April has arrived, and with both, the newest batch of college acceptance (and, regrettably, rejection) letters for seniors. I find myself (admittedly vicariously) awaiting this time nearly as avidly as many of my students. Perhaps it's the 250+ recommendation letters I wrote this year that has something to do with my anticipation.

There was both good and bad news this year, as always; and the usual expected acceptances and rejections, along with the rare surprise and, naturally, the what-the-fuck-were-these-dumbass-admissions-officers-smoking decisions.

One issue I think is overemphasized is the notion that "every student should go to college". This is one of those oft–repeated phrases that politicians and school board members in particular are known to bloviate upon. It sounds like a great idea. How could anyone possibly opposed to it?

Attention political hacks and associated carney-barker-hangers-on: have you considered the idea that perhaps some kids don't want to go to college right after high school? Lip service is often paid to the notion that students can create their own destiny, the-world-is-your-oyster and all that. That's all fine and good until a student muses about not going to college, at which time s/he is surrounded by naysayers stating that they will be forever condemned to a lifetime of low-wage exploitative labor and a ghetto or trailer-park existence, earn a reservation to one of the Circles of Hell, etc. etc.

Do any of these people consider the notion that at the ripe-old age of 17 or 18, that a kid might not know what they want to do with the rest of their life? That they might want to gain some life experience before deciding on what career path to embark upon? This is one of those classic issues where something gets repeated enough that eventually large numbers of people accept it as being the truth, without bothering to do any reseach into its validity, à la "Leopold!".

I find it amusing that the same people who demand that every student go to college often simultaneously decry the rapidly increasing costs associated with college. Well, now, let's scratch our collective heads and see if we can figure this one out. You run around telling kids they're doomed to failure unless they go to college right away; therefore more kids decide they should go to college. The (easily predicted) result: rapidly increasing demand, but accompanied by little, no, or even negative growth in supply. Now why might tuition be increasing? (As a side note, the College Board is among the most notorious of these misguided cheerleaders, in a thinly-veiled attempt to protect their near-monopoly/racket on college entrance exams. But I digress. More to come on the College Board, an organization for which I have worked on occasion, in later posts.)

A few summers ago I attended a professional development workshop at a company from which we purchase certain equipment. Some of their manufacturing facilities were on site and as we toured them we were told about the dire shortage of skilled machinists. This job requires attention to detail, hard work, and meticulousness, definitely–but no college degree. Oh, and by the way, I was told that the machinists there can make significantly more than I do, as a teacher with a bachelor's and master's degree–NOT in education–but in the field in which I teach. This was also in an area with a much lower cost of living than my own.

It is interesting that if someone were to DARE give these misguided college lemming-cheerleaders the, I mean voice an opinion that suggests that college shouldn't be de rigeur, they are attacked as being "elitist" (right up there with accusations of "selfishness" or "greed" that often indicate that someone's illogical and closely-held dogma that won't stand up to even the mildest scrutiny is being challenged). Further, it is ironic and amusing that the same people who accuse others of being elitist turn their noses up at the notion of junior college or vocational training.

"Now, I don't want to go off on a rant here, but...of course, that's just my opinion. I could be wrong."

For some (in my humble opinion) interesting counterpoints to the notion that all students should go to college, see here, here, and here.

Food for thought

Here is (in my humble opinion) a very well–written article from Steve Lopez in the L. A. Times about hiring/firing issues at the Los Angeles Unified School District in light of all of the recent budgetary woes.

Education is one of those things that tends to be tossed about and tinkered with by politicians, and to a lesser extent, journalists, angling for votes or more attention, respectively. It's always easier to spout off trite slogans than it is to come up with innovative ideas that might actually change things for the better. The types of silly hiring policies referred to in the article above that predominate in education are a major reason why (a) quantity is valued over quality and (b) younger people don't want to go into education, at least to work for a large urban public school district such as LAUSD. (Here is another article recently published describing the lengths to which LAUSD must go to recruit teachers.)

Also equally counterproductive: ridiculous and outdated lockstep salary schedules in which experience (not always good or quality experience) and education (oftentimes largely useless degrees, credentials, and professional development) determine how teachers are paid. If all teachers are paid the same, regardless of how well or how poorly they do their job, then what incentive is there to do go that extra mile? I think there are legions of un– and under–appreciated teachers who labor away in the salt mines of schools while their mediocre and incompetent colleagues get paid the same to read newspapers in class while giving students useless tasks. The real question is, why should those teachers go above and beyond if there's no recognition of their efforts? Actually, the REAL real question is how do the politicians and, quite frankly, the public at large, allow this state of affairs to persist and simultaneously wonder why students aren't staying in school (not to mention the substandard accomplishments of those students that DO graduate)?

Here goes nothin'....

I've at long last tired of merely reading other peoples' blogs obsessively, so I thought I'd give this a spin. I hereby stake a claim to my own puny little homestead on the Internet...with hopefully marginally informative and entertaining posts to come. Stay tuned!