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.

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