Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Fix This

I was drinking some cocktails with my buddies [Eisenstaedt] and [Brandeis] the other night, speaking of things both grand and middling, and maybe to forestall my endless mocking of the beer [Brandeis] had selected for the evening -- these 11oz cans wrapped top to bottom in plastic so it looked like he just walked in carrying a six-pack of Danon fruit-on-the-bottom -- talk turns to education. [Brandeis] asks me what I'd do to "fix things" if I were given sufficient money and power to enact my vision.

Deep breath.

We need to first get past this idea that there is a single educational system out there that is in need of fixing. There isn't. If you're White, if you're (non-Southeast) Asian, if you're affluent, if you're living within commuting distance of a major city, but remain cartographically separate from the metropolis, things are just fine. This may be obvious, but accepting and fully understanding the essential cleave is critical to mounting any kind of reform.

ME: You tell people you're a lawyer and what's their first question?
[BRANDEIS]: What kind of law do you practice.
ME: Right. And that's fine, but for teachers, it's the wrong question. For teachers, it's not what you teach, it's who.

Then I say this: Pay every teacher much, much more. A lot more.

Start at like $100,000 more a year. Screw it. See what happens.

Not because we deserve it. Not because we work so hard. Not because we love the kids so. Not because it represents reparations for generations of self-inflicted deprivation in pursuit of some noble ideal. No, no, no, no.

Do it because it might help bring about the change we're all working toward. I don't believe the education system -- either version of it -- has a problem that can't be realistically addressed with the simple influx of more talented people into the system. This is one of the reasons the charter exodus seems like such a waste: How could all this disastrous inertia possibly stand up to the vast talent level that is currently splintered and tangential? What bureaucracy or burdensome system could possibly resist the reforming might we have kicking around, unfocused?

More talent will yield better results. And talent is attracted to two things: 1) challenge, and 2) prestige.

Teaching has enough challenge to choke a goat, but we've inaccurately communicated the challenge, constraining the sweep of narrative with tales of annoying parents, unwieldy kids, paperwork, pop-in evaluations, grade deadlines, administration-required photocopying (you know who you are), and the meeting that runs two minutes past contract. These are petty annoyances that come with the territory, and by continually pushing them to the forefront of the conversation, we mask the true, vitalizing challenge of this profession. We never get around to talking about the rigor of instructional design, lesson delivery, assessment creation, the creative demands of teaching nineteen different ways, nor the vision and skill necessary to motivate, manipulate, and empower.

We talk about teaching too much in terms of standardized testing, scripted (or not) curriculum, and just wanting to (cue: heartfelt sigh) touch young lives. Too much about stamina and the ability to work with all those poopy principals. We do not speak of it enough as the mechanism that ensures meritocracy, as democracy's safety harness, as the toolbox of social and economic mobility.

If we reject the surface-dwelling-and-complaining model and learn to truly discuss the challenges in this profession, we still encounter the trouble with prestige. Career paths are prestigious occasionally for the awe-inducing job titles, but increasingly for the money. Money equals respect and admiration, at least in the abstract, and teaching is hurting big time here. If we drastically increased the pay scale, for teachers, for admin, for district office managers, this equation could be changed. What would happen if you could make as much money teaching second grade as you could investing people's money, or googling, or developing commercial real estate. What then? What if you could make as much money principaling as you could lawyering? What if you could make as much money superintendanting as you could venture capitaling? Seriously, what then?

This is a complicated, multi-faceted job requiring an array of skills to do well. It should be discussed and compensated as such.

That's what I told [Brandeis], and however it looks in the harsh light of sobriety, it sounded pretty damn good during that period in which I had been dramatically over-served.

Clearly spurned by the force of this blog, the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research has published a report entitled "How Much Are Teachers Paid?" The report, which claims that teachers work about 36.5 per week (I think I hit that number by Wednesday), asserts that teachers are paid more than other "professional speciality and technical worker[s]." The authors then use this glaringly flawed low hours-worked figure to calculate a relatively high hourly "wage" number, making it appear as if teachers are making substantially more per hour than they really are. The study fails to look at whole wage, wage relative to training, nor does it factor in post-tax classroom expenditures, only a tiny fraction of which are tax deductible.

The real flaw here, however, is perpetuating the notion that because teachers work relatively little, their pay is not only satisfactory, but actually higher than it ought to be. Which is great, except you'd never here that same argument applied to commercial airline pilots. Now those guys barely work at all. Taxi the plane to the runway, take-off, and then chill for a few hours while flight attendants bring you coffee until it's time to land. They put in a few hours, maybe, each day. The navigating computer does the rest. They're printing money, but no one would ever accuse them of being over-paid based on total hours actually worked.

Why? Because what pilots do during their actual working hours of taking-off and landing is fundamentally, critically important. As in, life or death important.

Teaching is no different.


Blogger Amerloc said...

And even now, over coffee, it sounds pretty damn good.

6:17 AM  
Blogger Ben Guest said...

I agree completely with your post. In addition to being attracted to challenge and prestige talent is also attracted by money. Pay teachers more and more people will be interested in teaching.

6:29 AM  
Anonymous Dan Meyer said...

Teachers don't make much money.

Teachers then popularize the notion that their job is "a calling," that "passion" is prerequisite, that they are "artists."

Jerry Undergrad, though possessed of a tenacious, analytic, and adaptive personality, decides that since he feels neither called, passionate, or artistic, teaching probably isn't for him.

Jerry Taxpayer comes to regard teachers much in the same way he does clergy. Passion is their reward. It's on them to absorb the financial burden of their calling. Maybe toss 'em a tax credit or two.

Teachers don't make much money. Repeat.

I don't know which of these events is the chicken and which is the egg.

4:27 PM  
Blogger Polski3 said...

Lawyers monitor themselves (State and National BAR Associations)

Physicians monitor themselves.

Teachers are monitored by administrators, district office minions, love-of-research-over-reality edubureaucrats, state departments of education, politicials of every ilk.......

How often do politicians monitor Lawyers or Physicians (or engineers, accountants, etc.)

In short, teaching is NOT considered a "profession". Its a job to be licenced and monitored by those who do not do the actual job.

There also needs to be some accountabilty for effort, attendance and behavior for students and parents, not just laying it all on the schools.

Good start on "How to Fix" education. Which beverages will herald page 2 of your discussion?

5:54 PM  
Anonymous Ch. said...

I disagree. Teachers should indeed be paid more, but it is too risky a move to throw all the (theoretical) money into salary.

First of all, it is beyond unrealistic to expect the Gov't to shell out anywhere close to enough money to pay the kind of salary you're suggesting.

Second, look at the equation: give teachers more money to compensate for their impossible workload and crummy physical environment. But what if we addressed the other side of that equation? What if we threw money at the workload and the physical environment?

I, for one, did not go into this profession expecting to make a lot of money. But I do make a decent living. However, my living CONDITIONS while at work are not acceptable. I would prefer a pleasanter classroom and a smaller courseload to a larger salary.

Doesn't that sound like something Sacramento could actually do?

Plus...better working/living conditions would really decrease the incidence of BURNOUT, which seems to be a major issue (at least at the school where I teach).

7:16 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

DAN: I think you've got the progression down pretty much right.

POLSKI: We did that, teachers, the lack of self-monitoring. We did that to ourselves. When we were willing to collectively bargain contracts that protected the worst among us, those who should be manning cubicles, we put ourselves at the mercy of outside forces. We decided not to have those self-monitoring organizations, and have repeated that decision time and time again.

And still, your choice of verb is accurate and revealing. We aren't evaluated in any meaningful way, aren't held accountable to what we do, or do not do. We're just monitored, like a bunch of fish endless swimming laps in the pet store fish tank.

CH: I didn't suggest we give teachers more money to compensate for their workload. I suggested we give teachers more money in order to attract more talented people and break out of the cycle Dan articulated a couple spots up in the comments. That is, I think, a substantial difference.

As for availability of funds, we can just stop funding consultants, outside providers that suck (yes Sylvan, yes SCORE, I'm talking to you), and just for shits and giggles, maybe we can tap into that missile defense system that doesn't work for some extra bucks.

8:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Liz from I Speak of Dreams here.

Great post -- I also like what you and polski3 said about self-monitoring. There's little internal quality control.

IMAO, we should be comparing the practice of medicine to k-12 education (especially k-5, in my view). Show me the proof that approach A is better than approach B!

10:57 AM  
Anonymous T Bag said...

Pay to attract excellence. Identify excellence in results. Reward results with more pay. The pay brings 'em in, the pay sweetens the pot for results. Meet the challenge earn the prestige.

7:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hmmm. What kind of lawyer?


9:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Besides, if teachers continued to spend a comparable part of their salary on their classes - imagine what wild field trips we could afford for our classes with 100 000 more per year! I mean, teaching would be more exciting just because of the possibilities opened by access to such a budget... H.

10:40 PM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

If you're White, if you're (non-Southeast) Asian, if you're affluent, if you're living within commuting distance of a major city, but remain cartographically separate from the metropolis, things are just fine.

You can simplify this greatly by just saying "If you're smart, things are just fine." Because it doesn't matter if you're white, black, asian, rich or poor, if you're smart the current system is capable of educating you because smart kids can learn even when the instruction is half-assed.

On the other hand, if you're not smart, it doesn't matter if you're white, black, asian, rich or poor, you likely won't be served well under the current system unless you're lucky enough to have gotten early on an excellent teacher who happened to stumble upon the right curriculum. (OK, I'll concede that the dummy kids of the affluent may have some extra options if mommy and daddy can afford a tutoring service.)

Also, the Manhattan institute's numbers for other professionals ("By comparison, white-collar workers (excluding sales) work 39.4 hours and professional specialty and technical workers work 39.0 hours per week.") are similarly low compared to actual hours worked and they don't get summers off, to boot. The point is that teachers are paid comparably to the wages of other professionals with similar education. For this reason, I suspect your "pay the teachers more" plan ultimately won't change the quality of teaching except in perhaps some specialty fields like math and science.

All in all, a nice post as usual.

1:09 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Hi Ken,

No doubt if you're smart then you're fine. Thing is, if you're not so smart, but you do fit into those other groups, then things are pretty much fine, too. You got backup.

I'm not thrilled with the Manhattan Institute's methodology in coming up with that number. See, they asked district office officials how much teachers worked. Now, I don't want to don my Che Beret too visibly here, but I don't think folks over there (whether you call it the D.O., central office, or downtown) have a firm handle on the hours worked. Or even any handle at all. This stands in marked contrast to the nominal supervisors of accountants, airline pilots, and so forth, who I believe, have a much clearer understanding of the time commitment in those professions. Let's also not forget that it's hard to fake it while teaching. The same is not true in cubicle work, where e-mailing your buddies looks like e-mailing your clients, and the NCAA live webcast of March Madness basketball games comes with a "boss button" which causes a random spreadsheet to appear on screen. I think a lot of the reported hours worked in the category the M.I. put teachers with have inherent down-time your don't find in the daily workload of a classroom teacher.

I agree that math and science are key areas where more pay could work. I'd also like to see more stringent requirements in K-1, and correspondingly high pay. Those folks should be hardcore experts.

6:21 PM  
Blogger Chris Lehmann said...

You certainly won't get an argument from me about paying teachers more, but I also do wonder about ch's comment... I think that working conditions and teaching load are even more important.

I wonder... all those teachers who leave the profession in the first five years -- a lot of them, in my experience, were really well on the way to become great teachers but just felt the workload was crushing. And I may be remembering the survey wrong, but I think many of them listed "job conditions / satisfaction" as a more powerfully reason to leave teaching than salary was. And a lot of the ones who leave are the really, really top folks you want to recruit, because they are the ones who can go get other jobs after a few years "slumming" in the classroom.

What about a compromise? Let's say that if we want to attract the best folks to our profession, then we should call for a 25% pay raise in all urban districts and a reduction of teacher-load so that no core subject teacher has more than 100 kids on their roster.

There'd still be plenty of challenge to go around, but now, we'd have a fighting chance of meeting them... AND the opportunity to go home to something other than a futon.

Thanks for a great post!

9:35 PM  

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