Posted 27 February 2006 - 07:34 PM
I just wanted to chime in on this debate.I see a couple of fundamental problems with education right now. One of them is the problem with a merit system, in my opinion, is the question of how you decide what merit is.(a) Is merit what you get when 100% of your students pass a given test or meet certain criteria? An earlier poster mentioned the idea of inner-city schools being a potential problem here, but I'd like to cite another: even within a given school, who teaches the lowest of the low?I tend to periodically teach the lowest level course we offer at the high school. I really enjoy teaching these kids. A lot of them have it in their heads that they are wretched mathematicians. There may be some truth to what some of them say, but on the other hand, a lot of them have absolutely shattered confidence. Restoring their confidence and getting them to a good spot mathematically is something I really look forward to every time I teach that course.But I will tell you those kids, as a whole, will still score lower on the standardized tests than any other group in the school. They were far behind to start, and while they've made good progress, they're still well behind their peers.Would I teach that group given the choice, if I knew there was likely a pay cut in it for me? I'd have to be pretty darned dedicated to take on that group. I don't know that I could afford to do it.(b) Is merit what you get when your kids show the most improvement? This, in my mind, has the opposite problem.© Ultimately, the process of education is a long one, and not something that happens overnight. Therefore, the idea of impromptu visits being the best measure of how well someone teaches is laughable.Daniel talks about the teachers who put a drain on the system because of union protections. I've seen two such teachers in my teaching tenure.The first of these teachers was affectionately called the "Blockbuster Lady". She got by by showing Blockbuster videos. She used to grade kids based on how attentive they were to the movies (which incidentally, had nothing to do with the subject matter). After awhile, her department got ticked that a lot of her kids didn't know the prerequisite skills, and demanded that she at least give the course level final exam. She did, the kids all failed it (every single one of them, which is a talent), and that finally terminated her position. She was six months of retirement, and reportedly had been doing this for over nine years.The second was a tougher case. He talked the talk. He could even walk the walk with administrators present. But without administrators present, this teacher would feed students answers, he would teach them how to do all of their work in the calculator without thought by transferring programs to calculate slope, distance formula, and the like to their calculators. And while everybody knew that this guy was a big problem, it took them 12 years to finally move him down to the middle school level, as they still didn't have grounds to fire the guy.Are there bad teachers out there? Absolutely! But are unions the problem? I'm not so sure.I'm also in a school that has had 140% turnover in our department in the last four years. I am the second most experienced teacher out of eleven, and I am in my fourth year at the school. I am the co-department chair in a department that has exactly two teachers over the age of 35. I've seen teachers hired for our school who don't speak English fluently, teachers hired for our school who don't have a degree, teachers hired for our school who aren't old enough to drink, teachers hired for our school who party with the students on weekends, teachers hired for our school who teach the math incorrectly, teachers hired for our school who leave their classes unattended during exams and whose students post record high exam scores, teachers hired for our school who don't know how to speak to students effectively, and teachers hired for our school who are unable to inspire. Most of these have been lucky to last a few weeks, or even a semester.And why do we hire these teachers? Because in math, they're the best available. You should see the people that we refused to hire.And this is at a school that routinely ranks in the top 50 in Newsweek magazine due to the number of students who take AP exams. They even do well.I really think a major problem at the schools is recruitment of teachers. I think if you were able to recruit higher quality teachers, then a lot of the need for union protections would go down. I think if you were able to convince people to join the educational field who were of high quality, you would see a lot of the problems reduced.One of the things that I believe will have to happen is a change between the amount of money teachers are paid based on subject matter. As it is now, a lot of math and science teachers can make significantly better money elsewhere, and the disparity is getting to the point where it makes it harder and harder to pass up. (I recently got a job offer for three times my current salary, and probably only turned it down because they wanted me to start within two weeks, during the middle of the school year.)They say that over half of our teachers quit during the first five years, and a lot of it is because it's hard. The expectations don't change much for a first year teacher versus a wily veteran, and I think a lot of first year teachers lack the experience and educational know-how to match the veteran's saavy. It takes time to develop the kind of skills that make you top-notch.Let me suggest that one way you could get more teachers to stay for longer periods of time would be to be willing to pay off student loans or college tuitions for teachers who have a certain amount of service in the classroom (I would propose five years). I think it does run the potential risk of teachers doing their time, but if you also guarantee that teachers don't get tenure until five years have elapsed, I think it would prevent some teachers from mailing it in. It's difficult for me to suggest this, though: two years ago, I received evaluations that were extremely negative and almost to the point of being blatantly false. That administrator very well could have had me fired, and if it weren't for our department chair who recognized the quality of my teaching, it's very likely that I would no longer be teaching today. Ironically, the administrator herself was coming under fire; she was nearly fired for her inability to evaluate teachers! She ended up leaving on her own, but not before she nearly ended my career.Let me suggest that merit pay in and of itself isn't the answer, unless merit pay also means more pay for the teachers who do well. This means more money into the system. Even if you allocated your merit pay similar to the distributions that you have now, your top paid teachers are only going to be grossing somewhere in the vicinity of $50,000 - $60,000 in this part of the country. Let me further suggest that the unions would never allow it, even if it were to work.Let me suggest that student products are a little different from your typical manufacturing style products, in that the students have a mind of their own. Let me suggest that these students are further different from a corporate trainer, in that the employees in a corporate training system have the paycheck as their motivation, and a certain code of conduct that is to be upheld by the company, lest the students be fired. On the other hand, excuses are now running rampant in our public schools for why Johnny Doe is behaving the way he does, and the solution to Johnny's problems is to medicate and provide him with self-esteem.We certainly wouldn't be asked to build a car out of defective materials; why do we sometimes ask ourselves to build a model perfect student when all of the parts aren't there to do it with?Let me suggest that most private schools are successful, in part because they have a say into the students that are admitted. Even some charter schools have this; the first school that I taught at was a charter school, and we rid ourselves of a lot of ne'er-do-well's as soon as we possibly could. Suddenly, our grades had improved and our number of suspensions/detentions decreased dramatically? Coincidence? I think not.Even when most public schools kick a student out, that student still usually gets recycled within the district to other schools. It nearly takes incarceration in our district to get a student out for good. What would a private or charter school do with this child?I think sometimes we also need to take a look at education and realize that the problems are deeper than we give them credit for. We're all so keen on sound bite solutions that sound good, but that often do nothing, and we're not trying to fix the actual problems. That's what "No Child Left Behind Is", that's what the new "65% Spending in the Classroom" group is, that's what a lot of things are.And, oh, by the way, a lot of high school football programs are self-sustaining from their revenue. Not all of the, but ours is. It also pays for six other sports at the school. Not bad for something that's sucking away the funding for the classroom.I've talked way too much here. But I guess I had a lot to say.Time to get back to grading.