osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

An Apology

I owe Mabfan an apology for getting a bit overflown with rhetoric in a recent post and implying that he was dissing lawyers, something that I know he did not mean to do.

My more substantive arguments, briefly, below.

You can see Mabfan's original post here. http://mabfan.livejournal.com/303043.html Mabfan taught at a private school for a number of years, before leaving to focus on writing.

The actual thrust of Mabfan's post was an op ed on the problem of Hollywood perpetuating the myth of the "hero teacher." Good teachers selflessly sacrifice and can change the universe with their awesome spirit and powers. Other teachers are just phoning it in. But the only choices are "hero" v. "phoning it in." Real investment in education requires crating a way to have sustainable teachers who are good folks and professionals doing a job and receiving sufficient compensation that they don't feel that teaching is taking a vow of poverty.

My problem is that this usually devolves into the idea that we could do education reform as a series of downloadable patches, with the patches being money. Raise teacher salaries, invest more in education infrastructure, improve the safety of our schools, etc. etc. and all will be well.

After dealing with teachers and education systems for a number of years, I don't beleive that. We keep dumping more money and more money into the system. And it isn't working. DC spends more per student than any other jurisdiction, and it has one of the crappiest schol systems in the country by every relevant measure, including customer satisfaction.

I'll also add that, frankly, I don't think teachers are necessarily underpaid. I recognize this is a heresy. Let me put it another way, K-12 teachers are not any more or less underpaid than the vast majority of civil servants. Just about anyone working for government is underpaid. Nor do I see a convincing argument that raising teacher salaries is actually going to make on ioata of difference to what I personally care about -- creating an educational system that produces educated people capable of contributing in a positive way to our society.

What is needed is not patches. What is needed is radical surgery. The entire system of public education in this country is founded on late 19th and early 20th century notions of mass production. Worse, because the subject of the education system is so critically important, it is a political and emotional football. No level of politics lacks for a collection of ignoramouses confident that they have a solution for what they perceive ails the system. The whole No Child Left Behind Act, for example, is what happens when you take a horribly complex question (what are the appropriate goals for education, what are the appropriate benchmarks for this, and how to we create policies that motivate proper behavior) and dump it into the political blender with two parts ideology and three parts self-interest.

What is tragic is that there *is* a considerable body of academic work in a number of fields deigned to address these questions. Everything from trying to alter schedules around natural biorythms (while fitting into the scheduling demands on parents in the 21st century) to reexamination of methods to reexamination of the basic curriculum to whether dress codes are good or bad is subject to intense study, scrutiny and debate in a variety of academic disciplines. Much of this work is based on actual research in real world settings, comparative studes, and so forth. Some of it eventually trickles into the system. But most policymakers remain worefully ignorant of any of this.

Another heresy: I do not believe that teachers are especially qualified to develop these changes. For one thing, it is a terrible conflict of interest. For another, I am all to familiar with the fallacy that those who work in a system are the best at setting policy. I don't trust lawyers to be the only ones to make law, nor doctors or nurses to be the only ones to set medical policy, nor bus drivers to manage all aspects of public transportation.

Rather, what teachers have is relevant experience and perspective that is one aspect of developing sound policy. A system designed without teacher input is doomed to fail. But a system designed only by teachers is doomed to fail. For these reasons, I am bitterly opposed to the way in which most teacher's unions operate in the education reform debates.

Third heresy: We need to question the prevailing wisdom that teachers are underpaid. The problem of appropriate compensation for teachers is one that cannot be decided by looking at other professions or at annual salaries in a vacum. This has nothing to do with the unpaid overtime and materials costs teachers are contributing. The problem of employer capture of productivity is a widespread problem for our society at present. We have salaried people in every profession working unpaid overtime at wages that are laughable, while corporate profits soar. I understand while teachers want to solve this problem for themselves. But I do not regard it as a different type of problem han salaried doctors working unpaid overtime in HMOs or office supervisors working unpaid overtime.

Fourth heresy: We need to consider what it means to be a teaching professional before we figure out appropriate compensation. Consider one proposal -- we grant loan forgiveness to to teachers in an expectation they will work for a set number of years, then leave for better paying pastures. What impact if I restructure the compensation system so that I encourage relatively high turnover after four or five years, rather than operate on the current assumption that teaching should be a lifetime career?

Before answering, consider that many other sectors in our current industrial society have undergone a similar transformation. It used to be that all lawyers expected to stay at a firm and make partner. Now only about 10% of an entering "class" at a law firm exect to make partner. The average American is switching jobs with increasing frequency. Sometimes staying within a particular career path, sometimes moving out. Many employers now actively plan for this sort of turnover and migration.

Would this work better than our current system? It would have the advantage of bringing in new teachers with more recent training and theory, preventing burnout, and attracting highly intelligent and motivated people who would not object to the overall lower earning capacity because they do not view teaching as the ultimate cap on their earning potential. Does this offset the potential downsides of instability and "brain drain" if experienced teachers move on? Got me, but it is not a question to be answered without some serious consderation and examination.

All of this is outrageously complicated by the complexity of the reality. Resources are distributed inequitably. There is a natural reluctance to use our children as some sort of living social sciences laboratory. The demands of even a small geographic area favor solutions that can be implemented widely, but research continues to suggest that maximizing educational outcomes will depend on a highly individualized and granular strategy. We have no consensus on goals, on benchmarks, or on approrpiate funding models.

But I have had enough negative experiences, for myself and by proxy, with the current education system to conclude that just installing patches in the form of more money is a sure loser. And I am highly suspicious of a wide variety of claims on which such simplistic solutions are based. The myth of the "hero" teacher is certainly pernicious. But the myth that simply giving teachers what they ask for is somehow going to produce better educational outcomes -- when we don't even have consenss on what those outcomes should be -- is, IMO, far more devestating.
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