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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.

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Closed Shops

There is a lot of talk lately about the evil, nasty unions. But they are not the only closed shops in town. Many professions refuse entry to those who do not possess the proper credentials: lawyers, engineers, teachers. Used to be that a person could apprentice to masters in these arts, and when the master had determined that the apprentice was sufficiently practiced so that he wouldn’t embarrass the master when representing his office to the public, the master would declare the apprentice to be fit and capable to perform the duties of the profession.

Nowadays, the state requires that aspiring whatevers attend school, for a pre-determined amount of time, take a minimal exam, pay the required fee, then voila! the student is magically transformed into an expert, and allowed to hang out a shingle. Book learning has become all. And by book learning, I mean the payment of vast sums of money to attend class and take tests. The practicum, the nuts and bolts of each profession, have taken a back seat to the rote pedagogy. But this system does do its job—not to prepare students for the professional life they are about to enter—but to keep the number of possible aspirants to a particular profession to a minimum.

You think there are lots of attorneys now? Just imagine how many there’d be if the rigors of three years of law school weren’t thrown in their path. If apprentices were permitted to contribute to their upkeep somewhat while in the throes of mastering a new way to deal with the world. The same holds true for teachers, engineers, scientists. Amazingly enough, we have come to accept that years spent in the classroom are better preparers than are years spent in actually doing the work.

The current common wisdom is that everyone needs a college education in order to be successful. In addition, the push is for schooling to begin earlier and earlier. But more schooling does not necessarily equal more competence, more ability. In fact, in many cases, it seems that quite the opposite has occurred. What more sanctioned schooling does do, however, is provide the establishment with many more years of opportunity to mold and create the kind of citizenry that is most amenable to the thinking and tactics of persuasion of the powers that be.

The ostensible reason given for the  need for more schooling is standardization. Just a glance quickly gives the lie to that concept. Even within a school district, the opportunities available to each student are quite varied. Within a school, even more so, depending upon how individual students are tracked and guided. Even if the methods of teaching and the materials available to each student were somehow able to be measured and doled out precisely, every student is different, and will achieve a different outcome. No, it doesn’t seem that the actual goal can be competence for all.

The next time you wonder about the power that the unions have over industries like construction, automobiles and the like, consider the power the non-acknowledged unions have over the professions, as well. Gone are the days when professionals were deemed competent based on their output. Gone are the days when a master would not dream of holding out his apprentice as skilled unless and until the apprentice could perform up to the master’s standards. Now, students are given a certificate of completion, and their potential employers (and clients) can only hope that they know what they’re doing.

What we have done to the education system in general, we have also applied to the professions in particular. Years spent, or misspent, listening (or not) to lectures have been substituted for actually doing the real thing. When we are contemplating how to deal with the power of the unions, let’s not forget those invisible closed shops that exist all around us.

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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.

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Union Matters

Image courtesy of sakhorn38/freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy of sakhorn38/freedigitalphotos.net

If unions are so useful, why is their membership going down?

I can’t believe that we have considered ourselves free when only 23 states have been right-to-work.

Have unions been useful? You bet your sweet bippy they have. There was a time when frightened immigrants, who didn’t know much of the language, and less of the law, were threatened, forced, and fired upon when they attempted to band together to negotiate better pay, safety measures, and reduced working hours with a management who up to that point had held all the cards.

And who can forget the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire? Women locked in factory rooms, sewing all day, and when a fire began in all the fluff floating around, they were trapped. This sort of thing is still going on in countries all over the world, where the local workforce is illiterate, desperate, and has few other options.

Unions perform a useful service for those who don’t feel powerful enough to confront management on their own. Those who can easily or fairly easily be replaced—those in  positions where there are hundreds, if not thousands, of potential employees waiting in the wings. Where employees, both current and potential, have a tradition of disempowerment—never having been in control of their own lives.

So, I get it. Unions are a force for good where they are needed. And they have gotten the U.S. 98% of the way to equaling the playing field between those who have the ability to exercise power individually and those who need a backup. What seems to be happening, as with many other socially progressive ideas, is that the focus continues to be on the remaining 2%, while other areas of the globe are still crying out for real reform.

We are spending massive amounts of time, energy, and money on attempting to bridge the gap between what we’ve got and utopia. It costs more and more to move the marker those last few incremental spaces, and the cost, in dollars and in lost freedoms, goes up and up.

It’s as though the current crop of do-gooders see all of the humanitarian strides that have been made in the past and think, “I want to do that!”. But they are living in the wrong century—or the wrong country. There is still plenty of injustice in going on in this old world of ours, but no matter how inflamed the news anchors and pundits get, most of it, the vast majority of it, occurs outside our borders.

As the great philosopher Sergeant Hulka opined in Stripes, “Lighten up, Francis.” The world that you are living in ain’t so bad. You want to make a big difference in the world? You want to change the face of humanity? Twenty-first century America is not the place to go. Most of the people here lead better lives than even the richest, most powerful people on the planet led just a century ago.

We have access to more entertainment, more knowledge, better food and more secure and comfortable housing than Franklin Roosevelt had. For all of the talk about a decent wage, union members are living pretty high on the hog. For some reason, liberals always want to compare their standard of living to the top 1%. Amazingly enough, it falls far short of that.

Why don’t they compare that standard of living to that of just a century and a half ago, when most people either struggled on farms, or sweated in factories? Or to the world outside the U.S. today, when most people either struggle on farms or sweat in factories?

Why is the standard the top few percent, who are of a different ilk altogether than those who need a union to make a living? It’s not logical to band together to set minimum and maximum wages and working hours, then to compare yourself to those who don’t follow either. The proper comparison is between union members and non-union employees who do the same jobs. And the unions keep saying that their members are doing better than those who are not represented.

Which is why I am confused. If unions are still as valuable as they were when they began, why is their membership declining? Why are they so upset when a state says that union membership is not necessary to find a job? You’d think, if they were performing a necessary service, everyone would jump on the union bandwagon without having to be coerced to do so.

The unions claim that they are merely protecting themselves against the free riders—the people who take advantage of the deals the union is able to make, without contributing to the pot. (That argument sounds vaguely reminiscent of the one used to deploy Obamacare). It is the free riders who are destroying the system. If that’s the case, then let them. Allow enough people to quit the unions that the unions lose the clout they once carried.

Then wait and see. If employees find that they are once again powerless to prevent management pressure to lower wages, remove safeguards, and hike hours, then unions will rise again. On the other hand, if unions have outlasted their usefulness, we’ll find that out, too.

There is nothing wrong with experimentation. There is no shame in going through cycles, swinging the pendulum, whatever you want to call it. For some reason, the liberals, the progressives as they call themselves, have decided that the way they happened to find this planet is the way it ought to be forever and ever. Why is what happens to be going on at the time you were born the be-all and end-all? If unions are the bee’s knees, let them prove it. Engage in a little scientific endeavor. Liberals are big on science, right?

Experiment. Let stuff happen. Let the cream rise to the top, and all that. And if you want to improve the lives of millions of people through collective bargaining, I hear Asia calling you.

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Less is More

Image courtesy of Boaz Yiftach

As often happens after an emotionally trying post like the one yesterday, I like to pull back and shoot for the larger picture, to remind myself that the quest for a world where people mean what they say and say what they mean and everything isn’t a big power grab is possible.

And, as often happens, I find the potential for greatness in education. I know that it’s a sig of my blog, and so often seen can be easily dismissed, but it’s true: the only tool that we humans have is our brains, and if we don’t train everyone to use them, we won’t have much of a shot against those who would rather just control the world than try to make nice with everybody.

So, the latest concept. Or, more precisely, the latest iteration of something that’s been bugging me for years. If the purpose of education is to teach children to become useful members of society, then why are they sorted according to age instead of talent and proclivity? Why is it that so many concerned citizens can’t see that the main purpose of age-sorting is to better allow for indoctrination, because it removes the older role models  younger people would ordinarily look up to?

Why is it so hard to reform schools, when there are so many obvious answers that would work so much better? Don’t remind me. I know, once government and anybody get into bed together, the original goal becomes suffocated by the new goal of continuation. And what better way to make sure that government will always be running the educational system than to make sure that it doesn’t work very well.

After all, if schools ran like well-oiled machines, churning out critical thinking geniuses, that paradigm could then easily be shifted, in toto, to private industry, and any old business could keep cranking out the young Einsteins. It is because the educational system doesn’t work, that it requires constant reform, that it must, perforce, remain under the auspices of the government, which will make sure that private industry doesn’t take advantage of our vulnerable children. As Bill the Cat would say, “Gaaaaak!” (Apologies to Berkeley Breathed for usurping his work, if he is a big fan of government-sponsored education).

Anyway, rant run down for the morning, here we go. The surveys are all in, and everyone agrees: the way to learn something is to spend time doing it. Seems obvious, right? You wouldn’t think it would take millions of dollars of studies to figure that one out. Ask any craftsman, any musician, any financial whiz, how they got to be so good, and to a person, they’ll answer, hours and hours and hours of study, of play, of working with and dealing with whatever their area of expertise is. They certainly didn’t become expert by sitting in a chair listening to someone lecture at them, telling them what the right answer is, telling them that there is a right answer.

Even those who accept that repetition and immersion and contemplation are necessary to master academic skills and creative skills don’t seem to grasp that the same is true for more pedestrian pursuits as well.

A. Not everyone is suited for college.

B. We need good plumbers as well as good mathematicians.

C. Both types of craftsmen need the opportunity to hone their skills.

D. Give them the opportunity.

In the November/December 2012 issue of Scientific American Mind, the findings of sports psychologist Daniel Gould were related:

He found that becoming a[n] [Olympic] champion…depended on an ability to focus, mental toughness, facility with setting goals, competitiveness, confidence, coachability, drive, optimism and emotional control.

None of those attributes requires an investment of $11,000 per year per student. The current focus of the educational establishment is more. More schools, more classrooms, more teachers, more books, more crayons, more computers—how about a little less?

Educators complain that they can’t be expected to teach students who come to school unprepared: hungry, hung-over, hating life. I’m not surprised. Even when I’m feeling good, I’m not thrilled about sitting at a desk, being alternately lectured to and lectured at. How about, instead of trying to always teach those students, teachers step back and let them learn?

The best way to learn mental toughness is to try and fail, over and over, until finally, you succeed—or not. It is the trying that builds the toughness. The success is gravy. Our schools have got it all backwards: they tell students that they are succeeding before the students even have a chance to try. Even the brightest student gets confused by the disconnect, and pretty soon, any motivation that they had to try is drained away by their continued “successes” and feel-good moments.

The essence of learning is feeling frustration, not feeling good. You don’t know that you’re not done yet, that there is more to come, until you feel that something is not right about what you are doing. And you don’t know that there is something not right about what you are doing until you’ve had a chance to do it. And you have no chance of figuring out what is not right until you’ve done it—lots and lots and lots of times.

We are denying our children the chance to fail. Anyone, no matter how rich or poor, how well-fed or hungry, or angry or sad, can fail. And should fail. Time and time and time again. The greatest gift we can give to children is to instill persistence. All children have the ability to succeed at something, if we just give them the opportunity. The educational community has brainwashed us into thinking that the key to success is more education, that more degrees equals a better life. Wrong.

More opportunity to practice, to become fully involved, equals a more fulfilled person, no matter the pursuit. Excellence is not limited to academics—it can be found in any endeavor, including plumbing, street sweeping and washing dishes. Success has more to do with mental attitude than it does with a piece of paper mounted on a wall. And it has nothing to do with how much information is poured down a person’s throat.

Want students to succeed? Give them less, let them figure out what to do with it, then get out of their way.

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