Tag Archives: schools

Tenure Bender

Caught Michelle Rhee on Real Time with Bill Maher the other night. She’s the reform educator who closed low-performing schools in the Washington, D.C. school district.

One of the comments she made was that, when she visited a school early one morning, she found classrooms with five students, seven students, three students in them. Wondering where all of the students were, she chanced upon one classroom with thirty students in it. Leaving the school a short time later, she found herself walking behind a couple of the students who had been in that classroom.

Tapping them on the shoulder, she asked what was going on. The students told her that, while their first period teacher was worth the effort of showing up, their next teacher was not worth the effort of staying. Rhee said that, while people noticing these kids hanging around instead of attending class might think they are not motivated, she took away something entirely different from this encounter.

Rhee said that what she realized was that, these students were motivated enough to get themselves up, dressed, and to school in time for the first class of the day. Once they were there, though, they weren’t motivated enough to stick around. In other words, they were being savvy shoppers of their time.

Rhee’s comment on the whole situation was that teachers make a difference. I have something to add to that. Since even students in the worst schools can figure out whether they are learning anything or not, let’s chuck the whole tenure thing, the whole standardized testing thing, and let the students decide whether a teacher is worth his or her salt, or salary.

Set up each teacher with a classroom of thirty students. At the end of six weeks, if the teacher can’t manage to retain at least twenty students in class, that teacher is fired immediately. All of the other teachers keep their jobs until the next semester/quarter, when the process is repeated. And repeated, and repeated, each year.

Instead of tenure, where teachers keep their jobs until they are forced out, make them provide something worthy in order to keep their jobs. Impossible! you say? Anecdotal, you say? The kids will pick the teachers who make life easy for them? Not so. I will repeat my main point: children are programmed from birth to learn. Given their druthers, they will learn.  They must learn. Learning to be productive in the society in which people find themselves is the only way for the species to survive. It’s in our genes. Students will gravitate to the teachers who teach—it’s human nature. That desire must be stomped out of them.

Look at the Khan Academy, which is a corollary to the main point. We lost teaching when we went from requiring teachers to know their subject to requiring teachers to know how to teach. Sure, aspiring teachers need a few pointers on how to engage a class, how to deal with unruly children, and how to create an effective lesson plan. But those pedagogical aspects have overrun the absolute need to be fully conversant with the subject you are trying to get across to the students. Know your stuff, and the teaching will come. Know everything about teaching, and you still can’t teach celestial navigation if you don’t know it.

And Michelle Rhee? She didn’t get tenure, she got fired.


Filed under Critical Thinking, Education, Politics

School’s in session

Although study after study confirms that the single most important element to success is what we used to call “grit”, before quietly dealing with whatever obstacles came your way became un-p.c., our education system is still geared toward rewarding “hard work”, no matter how unproductive, and “self-esteem”, no matter much that warps a child’s sense of quality.

Given a level playing field of intelligence, the person who focuses more on the job to be done, the methods of accomplishing that task, and what the final outcome is to look like, and who then applies himself to creating that final outcome, will do better than the one who says, “I’m smart, they told me I was smart, I can use the ‘think system’ till my brain hurts, then tell them I worked really hard, and I’ll get the lollipop.”

It’s good old-fashioned industrious endeavor that makes a difference in this world, not luck, not being rich, and certainly not waiting for someone else to lead.

Given an unlevel playing field, where one person is much smarter than another, the one who focuses on the job to be done, the methods of accomplishing that task, and what the final outcome is to look like, and who then applies himself to creating that final outcome, will do better than the other—no matter the native intelligence of either. And if it’s the less intelligent one who is doing the applying, he will get smarter in the process.

Our education system is all about labeling children, and putting them into “tracks”. Once a child is labeled, it’s almost impossible for him to move into another track. The argument in favor of this system is that those children in the lesser tracks can “get the help they need.” They don’t need help—they need the opportunity to attempt, the chance to fail (especially to fail badly), and the encouragement to try again, until they succeed. What they get is the assumption that they will fail, and the door shut in their face if they attempt to succeed using some means that has not been pre-approved.

Success in the current system is defined as the ability to parrot back the pre-packaged dogma that has been propounded by the authority at the front of the classroom, who is parroting what some textbook author has decided is the wisdom of the day. True success is learning enough about a subject to question its assumptions, apply critical thinking to the answers that are given, and deciding for oneself whether the answers make sense. Not much opportunity for that in today’s schools. Even if a teacher wanted to give his students the opportunity to go through that learning cycle, there’s not enough time in the day, what with all of the standardized testing, and the prep for the standardized testing, and whatnot.

I was astounded to read recently about a history professor (!), who, when questioned about what had occurred at a trial in the 1920’s, went to what the authorities had written about that trial to find the answer. He admitted that it took him awhile to figure out that, maybe, just maybe, the appropriate source might be the trial transcript itself!

We have gotten so hung up on the idea that the experts have spoken, and that’s the end of the matter, that we have gotten away from the concept that we all have the right to question, to discover, to investigate, to learn. Even though study after study has shown that we learn best by doing and by questioning authority, somehow we just can’t seem to learn that important lesson.

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Money as Motivator (We Haven’t Learned Yet)

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/freedigitalphotos. net

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/freedigitalphotos. net

I don’t think that I am the most well-informed of people (I’m lucky if I have an idea of what the weather looks to be like on any given day). I certainly don’t have a staff to keep me up to date on the latest intel on any given subject (though my son will obligingly point out my lack of knowledge in any particular field where I come up short). So it distresses me when I find out that I seem to be better informed than those who have been chosen to dispense our money in what I had hoped would be the most efficacious ways.

Case in point: a little less than a week ago, I discussed how to motivate and demotivate people, in the aptly named Motivation vs. Demotivation. This was not something that I came up with out of my own warped idea of how things work; this was based on research. Research that is not merely published in some arcane journal, no, this research is readily available to anyone who has access to the internet and YouTube. This research strongly suggested that money as motivator only works if the task is tedious. That same money is actually counter-productive to creative insight.

In the November 24 – 30, 2012, issue of The Economist, a publication that I (had) thought was filled with well-researched, up-to-date information, I see the following article:

Bonus Time

On November 14 members of the Newark Teachers’ union approved…a new agreement…It introduces, for the first time in New Jersey, bonus pay. Teachers can now earn up to $12,000 in annual bonuses: $5,000 for achieving good results, $up to $5,000 for working in poorly performing schools, and up to $2,500 for teaching a hard-to-staff subject….Chris Christie, New Jersey’s governor, and Joseph Del Grosso, the head of Newark’s teacher’s union, both agree that Newark’s contract could serve as a model for other school districts.

I certainly hope not. There is a bright spot, here, but not for the right reasons. The article goes on to say,

The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest union, which is not affiliated with Newark’s, is adamantly opposed to bonus pay…[because] not every district has the funds Newark has.

I guess the right result, even for the wrong reasons, has some merit. And let’s not learn anything from past experience:

[Newark is not] the only district to introduce merit pay. New York experimented for a few years with schoolwide, rather than individual, performance bonuses, but abandoned the idea in 2011…Bonus pay began in 2010 in Washington, DC…but…the District has yet to improve its worryingly high teacher-turnover rate.

Another ray of hope, quickly dashed:

Performance-based pay is still controversial…Branden Rippey, a history teacher in Newark, worries that the idea…will ultimately undermine the union.

Oh, well. We’ll see where this takes us:

Mr. Christie…declared that the day when the union ratified merit pay…was “by far…the most gratifying day of my governorship.”

The reason that Newark is able to incentivize this way is that:

Two years ago, thanks to Cory Booker, Newark’s impressive mayor,  Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s billionaire founder, donated $100m to help improve Newark’s schools.

Washington, D.C. also “gets useful extra money from private donors”. I think that the interesting experiment would be to allow the private donors to attach strings to their donations. Let the funders perform the experiment. Grant them the power to make the rules. I’d like to see how the schools perform under the strictures normally only imposed on private industry.

There are those who are horrified at the thought of running a government institution like a private business-for-profit, but I can’t see that the results could be any worse. After all, why are the schools under-performing in the first place? Why is there such high teacher turnover? Why are there schools and subjects that are hard to staff?

The government does not seem to be doing a very good job of allocating resources, for whatever reason. If Mark Zuckerberg has a few extra hundred million lying around fallow, (and somehow he had the wherewithal to achieve what the entire government of Newark has been unable to accomplish) and he wants to give school improvement a go, where’s the harm in allowing him to set the goals, and setting the means for achieving those goals?

After all, it is the Mark Zuckerbergs who are the end users of the products of the school system. Shouldn’t they have a say in how their future employees are educated? Aren’t they the ones with the intimate knowledge of what skills and knowledge will be most useful in the workplace? Don’t they have some idea of the best way to incentivize their workers to get the best product out of them?

We need to decide that, either the school system is the place to prepare the next generations to meet the challenges they will face as they progress through their years of earning a living and providing for themselves and their families, or that schools are merely way-stations, providing not much more than babysitting services, and that the real education takes places outside their hallowed halls. We can’t have it both ways, and it’s a shame that people like Mark Zuckerberg get suckered into funding the status quo.


Image courtesy of digitalart/freedigitalphotos.net

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So, the teachers in Chicago are on strike. They don’t like accountability; they need more money; because of all of the problems the students face at home, the teachers think the students are too difficult to teach. I think this is a prime opportunity for charter and private schools to pick up the slack. As the mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste.”

The teachers are trying to prove how indispensable they are. What they are proving instead, is how dispensable they are. Maybe this school district, the third largest in the country, ought to be the experiment for the rest of the country. Since the parents have to drop their children off somewhere, they might as well try enrolling them in the local charter and private schools in the district. If enough students are removed from the public school domain, the teachers will be better able to serve those who remain. And the teachers will get an effective pay raise, because they won’t have to teach as many students.

DSCN0614Especially with the increase in online classes, the teachers for new students in the charter and private schools don’t even have to be on campus: students can take classes from teachers based anywhere in the world. Chicago already has a virtual charter school—students only need access to computers and a place to study in order to be up and running.

Not every student has access to a computer; nor does every student have a safe place to learn. 350,000 students is a lot to absorb in a short period of time. Each of these arguments has merit. But a solution doesn’t have to be a total solution to have some effect. If even a small percentage of those students affected by the strike move out of the system, that will be a sufficient amount to test the validity of alternatives to traditional public schooling.

The unions may not have gone on strike in 25 years, but a time of recession, when 23 million people are out of work, is not necessarily a time to complain about the size of your raise. Even if it is, with so many people out of work, at least one of them will have some idea of how to take this lemon of a situation and make lemonade. In the meantime, it is, as usual, the children who end up suffering for the sins of others.

The students, the very people the teachers are supposed to be helping, are now being ill-served by their supposed protectors. Whenever teachers’ salaries are discussed, whenever building new schools is the subject at hand, the cry is “For the children! It’s all for the children!” The average amount paid per pupil per year across this country is more than $10,000—that’s just slightly less than the poverty guideline for a single person in this country. That is, if each student were given $10,000 per year, he would almost be able to obtain his own food, clothing and shelter without government assistance, let alone a mere education. I’d say that the taxpayers are holding up their end of the bargain. If that amount is not trickling down to the teachers, they ought not take their grievance out on the very people who are struggling to get by. And those people are the ones who will be most affected by this strike. People who have money find it easier to obtain childcare in emergencies like this one. The people who will have to take days off work, leave their children home alone, or scrounge up alternate care, are the ones who can least afford it. And they are not the ones who will be paying any extra taxes.

So once again, accountability and responsibility are taking separate roads. The people who rely most on the school system to be up and running are the same ones who can least afford to find other means to educate their children, and are the ones whose children are most in need of being educated. But they are not the ones who will be paying any increase in teachers’ pay.

That is why it would be interesting to see what would happen if all those people who could afford to take their children out of public school, would do so. Ease the burden on those who don’t have any alternative,who must rely on the public education system, shackled as it is by government regulation, bureaucracy, enmity between city officials and the unions, all of the years of band-aid fixes stuck one on top of the other. Ease the burden on the teachers, so that they have more time to spend with those who need it the most. If you have the option of removing your child from the traditional public education system, of placing your child in a charter school, a private school, a virtual school, or even of homeschooling your child yourself, don’t you have the public duty of doing so, for the sake of those who do not have those options?

That doesn’t mean that your taxes will be any less. In fact, they will probably go up, because—well, I can’t think of a good reason right now, but I’m sure that someone will come up with one. So think of it as your civic responsibility: there are so many options out there, you have the duty to come up with a way to remove your child from the public school system if you can, so that others less fortunate can have better access to the facilities that they would otherwise be lacking. Before there was public education, many children were educated privately—public education was instituted as a way to keep the poor, the down-trodden, out of the mines, the sweathouses, the mills, the fields, everywhere that young ones were being exploited. Then those who could afford to educate their children privately decided to take advantage of government-funded schools. Isn’t it time to give those schools back to those who need them, and find accommodations for those children who are better off elsewhere?

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