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Saturday, April 13, 2002

Education: The Readers Strike Back

I touched a raw nerve in my previous post on government schools. I've received mail from children of teachers, friends of teachers, spouses of teachers (but curiously, not teachers themselves), all dressing me down with various levels of geniality for my claim that teacher pay is overestimated based on their nine-month teaching schedule. I calculated that the average government school teacher makes $30 an hour; apparently the correct figure is roughly $2.25 an hour. None of the people who wrote to me argued that every teacher works this hard, but most insisted that I have dreadfully underestimated the number who do.

This reminds me of my favorite statistical axiom: the plural of "anecdote" ain't "data." But I have no data to argue against this claim of overwhelming teacher exertion, so let's assume that it is true (I don't doubt, in most cases, that the teachers with whom my letter writers are acquainted do in fact work as hard as claimed). This suggests dedication, which is laudable.

What it doesn't suggest is results. Simply put, we can spend a lot of time on something, and still not create much value. (Anyone who thinks otherwise should watch any of the movies Kevin Costner has directed.) And on this point the data is alarmingly clear -- U.S. government teachers not only fail to produce, as a whole, satisfactory educational results, but many of them are incapable of passing basic competency tests (see also this example, or this one, or choose from a pathetic buffet of examples). So something has to give -- either most teachers aren't working the twelve-hour days many of my writers asserted, or working a twelve-hour day doesn't necessarily lead to positive results.

I know the two objections. The first is straightforward, and many of you expressed it in your letters: we don't pay enough, so talented people don't teach. Perhaps that's true. But you should face the implication of your assertion. You are essentially admitting that most teachers are incompetent, the best you can get on the cheap. The policy implication is not that we should simply raise teacher pay, it is that we should fire all schoolteachers and then raise pay significantly, followed by the application of rigorous hiring standards. Even though government school advocates make the inadequate pay argument, I suspect that almost none of them pursue this argument to its logical conclusion.

The second objection is that inadequate resources, bad parenting, rules that inhibit discipline, and a host of other environmental factors mean that the heroic efforts of teachers translate only into a rear-guard action, for which we should be thankful. I believe there is much truth in this. Yet, there is one troubling and inescapable fact that belies this excuse: variability across classrooms. Some teachers in very bad environments regularly manage to outperform their peers, even those who work in better environments. So even if most teachers work very long hours, the inescapable truth is that some do a much better job of educating children than do the majority of their peers, despite laboring under the same adverse conditions. My wife, for example, routinely led her inner-city Detroit students to the 95th percentile and higher on their CAT tests (compared to a city-wide average in the mid-60's), without engaging in the cheating that is widespread and rarely reported, and without working the fourteen-hour days that many of my letter writers asserted.

Now, it is perhaps the case that removing the aforementioned negative factors would enable most teachers to do a competent job. This is by no means assured, however, because it is unclear that most teachers are adequately trained to do a competent job. Schools of Education are dominated by academic quacks who not only have no classroom experience, but no coherent theory or model of education either. Look at the syllabi and texts used in a college Education curriculum. Look at the curriculum vitae of the professors, and their journal articles. If you have the chance, listen to them lecture. Even if you have only a rudimentary knowledge of the practice (as opposed to the academic field and ideology) of education, this will be enough to generate alarm, if not revulsion. It is simply delusional to imagine that someone lacking both a theory of and experience at a task can train someone else, in a setting removed from that task, how to do the task himself.

Yet this is precisely what we assume, and so Colleges of Education turn out scores of students, who would have been better served studying an academic field, to be quasi-mentored by whomever happens to be teaching in the school to which they are assigned. In some instances this works well -- after wasting the bulk of four years on an Education degree, a young teacher has the good fortune to land among accomplished teachers from whom he learns a valuable practice. In many more instances, it seems, the young teacher simply learns an unvaluable practice -- how to ladle out pre-existing material to uninspired youngsters following a somewhat regular schedule and interspersed with periodic tests. This routine is loaded with paperwork and rote activity, workshops and summer courses, and tremendous stress from disciplinary problems. It is hard. When combined with what is perceived as low pay and what in some cases are terrible working conditions, it requires a dedication to children that is admirable. The expenditure of time and the possession of dedication do not guarantee, unfortunately, that students realize even a reasonable fraction of their potential.

And this is the real issue. Set aside abysmal performance on standardized tests. Most of us are tempted to look at government schools and conclude that because most students emerge able to read, do math, and regurgitate some minimal level of factual knowledge, that they have been properly educated. This is dreadfully myopic. Children are sponges, they soak up knowledge. Most of them have the capacity to learn multiple languages, to master musical instruments, to acquire mathematical, scientific, writing, and problem-solving skills far beyond what they acquire in twelve years of government schooling. Instead of capitalizing on this enormous innate potential, our methodology of schooling causes us to teach to the bottom third in rote, monotonous fashion. We have learned to be thankful when our children graduate able to read the newspaper and work a cash register; we should be furious that they know little of other languages, of science and math, of literary classics, of music, of their own civilization's history.

What is needed, beyond the reforms which took up the bulk of my last post (and which were overlooked by many readers who accused me of bashing teachers), are two things. First, we need good models of education. They exist, but they have been largely purged from or marginalized in Education curricula. Second, we need to abandon the notion that teachers can be taught by non-teachers in an environment removed from the actual practice of teaching children. This means adopting an extensive mentoring model, which is far more than the semester or two of student teaching that Education majors in most states currently must undergo. Don't expect the oversupply of Education Ph.D.'s to champion this idea, because it would mean exposing many of them as incompetent frauds.

I'm sure I've angered some of you. I hope you will recognize that a critique of the results and practices of the Education profession is not synonymous with a critique of you or your loved ones. As I mentioned before, my wife was one of those deviant teachers whose results were astronomically above the average. I say these things because I respect her and the teachers like her who accomplish much with little. This system is absolutely broken, and more money to do the same things will certainly not fix it. Good intentions don't teach children, good teachers do. And all of the evidence indicates that their numbers are frightfully small.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Wednesday, April 10, 2002

Vehicle Adornment

Yesterday I saw a guy driving a Buick Regal with a license plate that said "Regal." I also saw someone driving a Pontiac Firebird with a big window decal that said "Firebird."

Of all the statements to display on your car, it seems to me that announcing the car model should be at the bottom of the list. The only additional information I get from that decal on your Firebird which announces that you are driving, well, a Firebird, is that you are an idiot. And the decal isn't even necessary to tell me that; it can be inferred from the fact that you are not embarrassed to drive a cherry-red 1985 Firebird in public, with Bon Jovi blasting from your cracked speakers.

And speaking of drivers who feel compelled to declare their personal contributions to the downfall of Western civilization, how much longer must we all endure these ridiculous decals of Calvin peeing on the various objects that people with eighth-grade educations hold in contempt? I am hard-pressed to imagine any other decoration one could adopt that could provide equivalent assurance of one's unfitness for reproduction. Whenever I find myself behind one of these mouth-breathers in traffic, it is all I can do to keep from dragging him from his vehicle, ripping off one of his arms, and beating him senseless with it, just to give him a taste of the world without social norms that he is helping foster.

My wife thinks I am insane. But I say the little stuff matters.

I suppose these are not mutually exclusive possibilities.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Tuesday, April 9, 2002


National Public Radio ran a report this morning about a set of campus protests scheduled to occur today at thirty U.S. universities. The target of the protests (insofar as these things have a target, beyond massaging the overinflated egos of their participants) is Israel's recent actions in Palestinian territory. The journalist interviewed one organizer at the University of Michigan, who described how his movement has "scared the pro-Israel groups," who in the past have been able to dominate campus debate because they are "rich with resources."

Right, the Jews own all the media. Haven't we heard this somewhere before?

The journalist went on to explain that pro-Palestinian students have been energized by the "recent violence in Israel." The "recent" violence. Let's translate. The pro-Palestinians who now spout platitudes about stopping the violence had nothing -- absolutely nothing -- to say over the past few months as their ideological comrades were strapping shrapnel-laden bombs to the chests of idiot youngsters and sending them into restaurants and shopping malls. Now that this barbaric behavior has inspired its deserved response, and only now, well, its time to take to the quad, sip some herbal tea while holding a "Zionism = racism" sign, and chant mindless rhyming slogans while skipping the political science class which likely as not inspired much of this wrongheadedness in the first place.

I guess there's some sweet irony in that last part. Many large universities seem intent on adding insult to injury by not only failing to produce students grounded in classics and scientific skills, but by indoctrinating them with all sorts of nonsense, all while charging escalating tuition. I hope the parents of prospective students are paying close attention.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Monday, April 8, 2002

Fix It

The Washington Post reports that average teacher salaries "barely kept pace with living costs in the 1990's," with current salaries averaging $43,000. Predictably, the teacher's unions are pointing to this as evidence that teachers aren't fairly compensated.

As you might expect, they are wrong. What journalists routinely fail to do when reporting government school teacher salaries is adjust them for time actually spent working. While the rest of us spend most of our summers earning a living, teachers have that time free. Given their nine-month work periods, that average $43,000 salary amounts to $29.86 an hour, compared to $15.80 an hour for the average American worker. When one takes into account the considerably more generous benefits that government school teachers receive compared to private industry employees, the compensation gap widens.

The teacher's unions are fond of claiming, however, that their compensation should be compared to that of other professionals, and not to average workers. So let's consider their claim. If they want to be paid like other professionals, then it is only fair to point out three critical areas where they are currently protected from the market forces that most professionals face:

1) Responsibility for results. Machine press operators, waiters, engineers, and other professionals have to create value for customers. This performance not only determines their pay, but their continued employment. Public school teachers are, however, largely shielded from such responsibility. Great teachers aren't paid more than lousy teachers, and you can count on one hand the number fired for failure to educate.

2) Accountability for failure. If a hospital wrongfully harms someone, his family can seek compensation. But consider that one-third of America's students lack even a basic proficiency in math (as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam), or that one-quarter of students are passed along to high school without basic reading skills. Unlike other professionals, the teachers and administrators responsible for this educational malpractice are protected from parents who seek redress.

3) Competition. If a grocer provides bad produce, her customers are free to choose another store. But most parents with children in public schools have no such freedom, and efforts to give them a choice are aggressively resisted by the same teacher's unions who insist that they are like any other professionals.

The great secret of public schools is that some teachers are absolutely masterful. My wife taught in a big-city school plagued by problems that most schools will never see, yet her students scored in the 99th percentile on national math and reading tests. Many of us probably know a teacher like her, who proves that the common explanations for poor performance -- inadequate parent involvement, old books, no computers -- while worth addressing, are excuses.

Excellent education can and does happen, even in bad schools. But hiding in the same system are teachers who deserve to be unemployed. Many Americans are tired of throwing money at the government school behemoth in hopes that some of it actually reaches and motivates the core of teachers who are excellent at what they do. So before we consider raising teacher pay, we should demand the following conditions:

1) Pay for performance. If the kids don't learn, the teacher shouldn't get a raise. This is the world most of us live in, and if teachers want professional pay, they should be prepared to live up to professional standards. Bad teachers fear this; great teachers don't.

2) Pay tied to expertise. Many Education majors will admit that much of what they were taught is useless in a classroom. In fact, Education professors are often a university's worst teachers and academics, yet somehow we have made them the trainers of our children's teachers. This is nonsense. If we are serious about improving schools, then we should reward people with training in fields like science and literature who devote their careers to teaching our children. If this sounds a death-knell for Education as an academic discipline, then all the better.

3) School choice. It is simply wrong to tax parents for schools, yet prohibit them from choosing where and by whom their children will be educated. This un-American practice is only tolerated because too many of us have become complacent. Yes, choice means that some principals and teachers will go out of business while others gain customers. This is a good thing.

4) Real Discipline. It is unfair to saddle teachers with students who are out of control. If we want to improve school performance then we have to address this problem, be it through corporal punishment, institutions for unstable children, or criminal charges against parents whose children commit school violence. It's time to stop letting bad parenting ruin schools, and return them to the function of education rather than social rehabilitation.

Remember this the next time the "it's all about the kids" sloganeers look to reach into your pocket for still more government school spending. They like to call them "public" schools. I say we, the public, should reinvest that word with its proper meaning. If they really are our schools, then we ought to have a say in how to fix them.

So find out where your next local School Board meeting is going to be held, and give them a piece of your mind. This problem will not be fixed until enough people like us make so much noise that our legislators have to listen. So make some noise, before yet another generation of minds is squandered.

Power to the People, baby.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

"L" is for...

Recent pathetic sight: a guy blasting the Thompson Twins' "Hold Me Now" from his Dodge Ram's souped-up stereo. I couldn't tell for sure whether he had a mullet, but I have my suspicions.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)