Sunday, May 15, 2011

Show Me The Money

One of the hottest discussion topics about, but not so much within, education is merit pay.  The standard line is politicians are pushing the idea, teacher's unions oppose it.  A closer look, as it usually does, reveals that things are rarely that simple but in the hopes of generating discussion I will, as one teacher, share some thoughts and invite response.
Generally the topic of merit pay is part of a larger discussion that features one of more of the following additives; lower pay overall, with some few teachers getting the higher pay for better performance and or doing away with the idea of due process so that teachers, and it's always stressed that we're talking about "bad teachers" can be fired more easily.
Let's address those ideas first - compared with other professions that require a similar amount of education before beginning and then continuing as long as you're in the profession teaching is already floating somewhere about the bottom of the list.  After completing certification courses teachers must continue to take graduate level coursework to maintain certification, it's an ever changing profession that requires constant work to keep up with new curriculum and practices.  Teachers also spend a great deal of money on materials for their classrooms not to mention all the time outside of the work day spent on creating materials to be used in the classrooms.  Those who remember the days of textbooks and assignments like "Read chapter 12 and complete the essay questions" should spend sometime in a modern day classroom.  Musty old textbooks are gone and replaced primarily by teacher created and updated materials.
In any of the school districts where I have worked over the last 15 years, in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Colorado teachers can be fired for a variety of reasons.  If a principal wants a teacher out there a many ways to get rid of them.  Once  a teacher has put in a sufficient number of years (this is usually between three and five) of good reviews then they're afforded due process before losing a job.  In other words a principal needs to spend some time evaluating the teacher in the classroom and documenting what the problems are, and steps to correct them.  If a teacher fails to correct the issues at hand they can be let go.  What is not in place in most school districts is the opportunity for a principal to fire a teacher without any evidence of wrong doing or poor performance. Remember, that principals are human too, they are not completely impartial observers.   How many people would like to work in a field where you could fired for no particular reason with no recourse?  I would assume that anyone arguing against "tenure" is also willing to have their job taken away at a moment's notice for no reason, if not then they're being quite hypocritical.
Paying teachers more for excellent work has a logical ring to it.  I would love to see teachers who have put extra effort into their work being rewarded.  In most districts teachers who put in longer hours, mentoring other teachers, or offering classes for the community are able to earn more money for the extra time but as yet there's not really any system in place (aside from various awards from various non-profits or corporations) that rewards the teacher who is just better than their colleagues.  And so, why not?
The first question would be how to determine just who these star teachers are.  What would you use? Test scores will reward primarily teachers who work in affluent districts.  I have worked in super affluent districts and extremely poor neighborhoods and had test scores that were quite different although my teaching skills were the same, so what would I have been rewarded or punished for?  A student who comes to school from a background where there was little or no literate behavior is at a severe disadvantage.  We know that reading with your children from birth continuing through childhood is essential.  Doctors tell us that children should not be exposed to television and computers before two or three years of age.  Studies also show that more than about an hour of screen time a day is harmful and that children should be exposed to literate discussions and thinking in the home.  A student coming to school without that background is like a person who smokes several packs of cigarettes a day coming to the doctor to complain of chest pains and difficulty breathing.  How may doctors would be willing to be paid based on how healthy their patients were, or would the dentist accept less money if their patients had too many cavities?
Some have said that we could deal with this situation by comparing the test scores from the beginning of a school year to the end of the year.  That leans in the right direction, but again, what to do about the student who has no support system at home and is not progressing?  What about parents who say "I'm not really concerned with test scores, I'm sure they're doing fine"?  I've heard that exact statement from parents of a child who rarely if ever completed any work.  Would it be fair to have my pay based on the results of that child?
One of the important concepts in education is that of "scaffolding" or building on knowledge that has already been gained to develop new ideas.  It's important for teachers to assess what a student knows to find the connections that will allow a student to progress, for example, from addition to multiplication in math.  The teaching practice is all about scaffolding in terms of instruction and it's a fair term to describe how one teacher adds his or her own contributions to a students learning.  Something that a first grade teacher teaches a student may not really bear fruit until two or three years later.  Having often taught in the upper elementary grades I find that students are always having "ah-ha moments" where something we're learning connects to something they studied several years before.  So who gets rewarded for that piece of learning?  Myself? I'm building on what has been taught before.  Do I share it with all the other teachers who came before? Well, isn't that the basis behind the idea of paying teachers a fair salary and not singling out individuals?
So far I've not heard any viable ideas for merit pay that takes into account the complex nature of teaching but would glad to hear about any that are floating around out there.
Perhaps someone reading this may come up with a brilliant way to implement the idea.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Dancing in the Streets

I was not dancing in the streets when I heard that Osama Bin Laden had been killed but my mind raced back to the streets I walked on September 11th, 2001.  On that day I walked out of PS 116 in Manhattan with several co-workers.  The nasty smell in the air caused us to take a detour into a paint store to buy some masks to wear to protect our lungs from who knew what.  I thought back to the co-worker I barely knew turning to me in tears and crying against my chest as we watched the first tower fall together.  I thought back to the people I met as I walked south toward the Brooklyn Bridge who were covered in white dust.  I remembered that beautiful, pure blue sky with a seam of grey smoke that ripped through the air.  It's an easy trip back in time to the afternoon sun against a hastily raised stars and stripes over a vacant lot in Brooklyn.  I can feel the warm handshake of the man who owned the middle eastern restaurant under the apartment when I lived, inviting me in to share food with others from the neighborhood.  I can still see the thousands of pictures posted in Union Square, the candles and makeshift alters.
Ten years later, I'm still walking those streets.  The news still sings the song of death.  And now that the mastermind of killing is dead, who has come back?  I wanted no revenge.  I've read several articles that all said "It's only human to want revenge" so what does that make me?  Is this justice? I think perhaps it is.  It's the justice that Bin Laden created for himself.  In my opinion he embraced and celebrated the world of hatred, death and destruction and he followed the trail to it's logical end.  He lived by the sword and perished by the sword.  If there is something good to be gained from his death beyond his inability to spread hatred any longer it might be a warning to others who would tread the path of hatred and death, no matter what their ideology, to reject the gospel of hate.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

History Lesson

Many people know the old saying "Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it"  I was happy the other day to discover that several students in my current fourth grade class had recognized that quote.  I think however that it can be misleading.  I feel that history not only shows us the faults to avoid, but helps us understand the present.  Following up on my previous post about the "birther movement" I'm again intrigued to hear so many explanations for what people were "really saying".  More than one friend has told me that they never doubted President Obama's birthplace as the USA and that they were simply "concerned about how much money he was spending to hide his past".  Apart from the inaccuracy of the statement (he never spent money to hide his past) I wonder why people can't admit that maybe they got it wrong.  Do we really need to be "right" all the time?  Any teacher will tell you that we learn from mistakes, but what if we never admit to having made one?  The current situation reminds me of a moment from history, the myth of the "Lost Cause".  For those not well versed in American history and Civil War history in particular, the "Lost Cause" was a story that grew up after the war's end that cast the Confederacy as a noble group of citizens who were protecting their sovereign state's rights and that somehow by seceding from the Union they were fulfilling the dreams of the founding fathers.  The lost cause mythology also goes on to demonize the work of Reconstruction and show groups like the Klan in a sympathetic light.  It's on full display in movies like "The Birth of a Nation" and "Gone With The Wind". Of course any look at the writings and speeches of Jefferson Davis and other leaders of the south reveals that their purpose was to continue slavery.  It makes sense that people would develop some story to help them cope with what had happened. Not only had they gone to war and split the country in order to continue enslaving fellow human beings but they had lost, and not only did they loose the war but their lands were devastated.  Imagine the realization that your farms, your cities, and large numbers of your friends and families were gone for that purpose.  And so, while the "Lost Cause" is a false myth created to help people pretend that they served a noble cause I can understand why some might cling to it.  Reality on that scale can be painful.  What I don't understand is why those of the "birther" movement create myths to explain their involvement with that discredited doctrine.  No one has lost their home for taking up the racist cause of the "birthers".  Now that the ring-leaders are being seen, even by many on the conservative side of the political spectrum, as ridiculous at best what can be the problem with learning from this and moving on?
I believe it's best to live with the thought that you never know where you will next find the truth, or better yet, "a truth" because I think it's like pieces of a puzzle.  You're never finished collecting pieces of the truth, but you have to pick them up to use them.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

What He Said.

The other day in the newspaper I read a sad story about a young man who was convicted of a "hate crime" specifically making racial slurs while physically attacking another man.  The story said that the young man's father said "My son is not a racist" as the verdict was read.  I had several thoughts about this; one was that we live in a sound bite society, and a good quote will always get repeated in the news, especially if it's short and doesn't require too much thought, and another thing was that no one had said the man was a racist.  He was convicted of making racially offensive threats.  It would be like a person being arrested for drunken driving and saying "I'm not an alcoholic".  I recall that President Bush when being interviewed about his recent memoir said his major regret was being called a racist by "Conway" West.  Actually Kanye West said that "George Bush doesn't care about black people".  Now, that statement is a provocative statement for sure, and you could easily argue that President Bush's handling of the crisis of Hurricane Katrina was not enough evidence to form a complete opinion of his views on race.  But, and this is an important "but" he was not called a racist in that situation.  It makes me wonder if we're becoming a society that refuses to accept any critique of our actions.  More recently some people have reacted with righteous indignation to the idea that the so called "birthers" the people who doubt that President Obama was born in the USA, is a Christian, "deserved" to have attended Columbia and Harvard, etc., are following a racist agenda.  It seems clear to me that the movement that challenges the validity of the president's birth certificate, his faith or his college grades is without a doubt racist.  Anyone who is supporting those theories is supporting a racist agenda. Does that make the individual person a racist in all aspects of their life?  Are the major cheerleaders of that movement from the carnival barkers to "reality" TV stars, to elected politicians more guilty than the average person at home listening to the lies? I don't know that those points are really that important.  More important, I feel, is the way people seem to want to avoid any critique of what they've just said or done by claiming "I'm not a racist"  Maybe while we've become a much more coarse and crude society, perhaps we've also become too polite or timid to be honest.  Do we need to put a disclaimer on a film like "Gone With The Wind" that says "This movie is based on, and promotes a false view of history, based primarily on the myth of the 'Lost Cause' which purports to give reasons for the Confederacy's starting the Civil War being something other than to continue slavery"  No, I think most people understand that those stories are fantasies.  I'd like to think we don't need to put disclaimers on news coverage of the birthers and their clan that this is all racist nonsense.  But maybe they're the ones who need the disclaimers something like "By supporting this line of thinking you are supporting a racist idea, you may or may not be a racist in all aspects of your life, but you might want to take a good look at your beliefs."