Sunday, October 7, 2012

Bad Teacher

You may have heard the gotcha NPR story about lighting a fire under teachers by giving them a bonus and threatening to take it away if students didn't show measurable improvements in math:
The teachers were given a bonus of $4,000 upfront — but it had a catch. If student math performance didn't improve, teachers had to sign a contract promising to return some or all of the money.
If you threatened to torch a teacher's car if your kids' math scores didn't improve, the scores would probably go up. What does this really tell us? Nothing that we didn't already know. People are averse to loss.

How silly is the premise of this study. Samuel Johnson said no one but a blockhead wrote for money, and I'd say this is twice as true of teaching. It's not a high-roller game.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average yearly salary of a full-time teacher is $56,069. This is significantly higher than $44,402, which is the average salary where I live, and slightly lower than $57,574, which is the median household income in Ventucky Bakersfield by the Sea Ventuckywood this coastal California town.

To put this into perspective, here are average salaries in other professions:

attorneys: $112,760
blackjack dealers: $20,260
dentists: $146,920
funeral directors: $54,330
garbage collectors: $22,560
paramedics: $30,360
personal financial advisors: $64,750
police officers and detectives: $55,1010

(Information courtesy of the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

That and summers off make teaching look all right, I guess, in parts of the country where the cost of living is less than it is here--and yet, anyone who's spent more than five minutes in a (noisy, paint-splattered) classroom might understand that teachers earn their pay. (Many of them. Not the ones who spend the period painting their fingernails while students are supposed to be reading, or texting or emailing while students listen to audio of textbooks, or even talking on their cell phones while students run amok, and yes, I know of what I speak, these aren't idly selected hypothetical scenarios. Although to be fair, the fingernail-polisher was a substitute teacher; the others were all classroom teachers of many, many years' experience.)

But how many teachers do you know got into the work because of the pay? Is money really what motivates them?

Hardly. Money isn't the best motivator; what's best is "to pay people enough to take money off the table." When not worried about money from a survival standpoint, people are far more interested in challenge, mastery, and the chance to make a difference in the world, says Dan Pink in this talk for the RSA:

 Speaking of what doesn't work, I don't see that publishing reports of teacher performance evaluations will serve any useful purpose. Incompetent or willfully mediocre (or worse) teachers who got lucky and are established in schools in affluent communities where students tend to be high-performers will continue to teach badly and will point to high test scores to justify themselves. And then public humiliation won't transform the bad teachers into good ones, although it might be the final gnat-like annoyance that inspires a good teacher of at-risk, low-performing students trotting off to seek employment in another field.

My friend and colleague Carrie, who works at a test publishing organization, sent me this, from the NYT, about whether we expect too much from teachers:

Last year, at an Aspen Institute conference, the education historian Diane Ravitch was asked her wish list to improve schools. At the top of her list: universal prenatal care — which, of course, has nothing to do with the classroom. Or so it would seem. 
Of course, Ms. Ravitch wanted to make a point. As we slash services in deeply impoverished communities and reduce school budgets, how can we expect that good teachers alone can improve the lives of poor children? Poverty, of course, can’t be an excuse for lousy teaching. But neither can excellent teaching alone be a solution to poverty.

The problems in education are so much bigger than the person standing in the front of the classroom. But that's overwhelming and makes us feel bad. It's a lot more comfortable to play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey and stick teachers with the blame.

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