Saturday, June 07, 2008

In praise of teachers?!?!

Chester Finn, Jr. has a piece in Education Gadfly about teachers, and for me it brings about an unusual experience. Any time an "expert" writes something about education, especially about teachers, there will be something I think is completely off base. Finn's piece is different. While I might quibble with a couple of things, I can't argue that he's too far off the mark.

Finn's article is titled "In Praise of (and sympathy for) Teachers." Now, I don't think too many of us are looking for sympathy, but we are looking for respect, and Finn certainly gives us that in his piece.

June has come, the school year is ending, and it's time for a word in appreciation of teachers. Observing a focus group the other evening that pulled together a dozen AP teachers from a strong suburban school system, I was struck anew by their intelligence, their selflessness, their energy, their patience, the depth of their commitment to their work and their genuine concern for the well being and advancement of their youthful charges. Bravo for them and the many thousands of others like them without whom our schools could not function and would not produce even today's mixed results.


Finn is praising what he believes are good teachers, but he certainly doesn't argue that all teachers are good. While Finn shows no sympathy for teacher complaints about "tight-fisted legislators, mindless administrators, mean-spirited federal programs, incompetent, uncooperative parents, and unmotivated pupils," he at least concedes that there is a basis for "some of them." He then goes on to discuss what he sees as the six real problems that afflict good teachers today.

1. An absurd and antiquated compensation system that pays bad teachers as much as good ones and phys. ed. teachers as much as physics teachers. (A recent survey reminds us that math and science teachers are the most apt to leave due to meager pay--compared to what they can earn elsewhere.) That system is controlled by large bureaucracies instead of individual schools; is skewed to favor time-servers at the expense of newcomers; and is coupled to archaic, non-portable pension plans.

2. A personnel system designed for the 1930's that ignores the tenets of modern management and the need to empower individuals--both principals and teachers--to reach agreement on their job assignments, placements, retention and such. Instead it entrusts such matters to rulebooks, rigid seniority systems and (again) large bureaucracies. The same HR system is blind to modern career trajectories and weeps whenever anyone exits the classroom even though the typical pattern of today's young college graduates is to try one thing for a few years, then another and then another.

3. A dysfunctional training-and-licensure regimen that, on the one hand, makes it slow, expensive and arduous for eager would-be teachers to enter the public school classroom and, on the other hand, burdens them with useless courses while failing to impart core knowledge of their subjects and the most effective methods of conveying those subjects to children. Superimposed on this is so-called "professional development" that much of the time isn't worth the paper it's printed on, much less the money that's spent on it.

4. Schools that, despite much blather about "professional" educators, give teachers surprisingly little control over fundamental decisions about their work. Yes, it's still partly true that once the classroom door is closed, the teacher is queen of her domain. Yet that teacher often has little or no say about who is in her class; what textbooks will be used; the curricular scope and sequence; the quantity of homework (if any); the grading scale; how to communicate with parents and much more. At the same time, that "professional" may not even have her own classroom and desk and almost surely lacks her own work phone number and email address. (Okay, she has summers off, but not working isn't a mark of professionalism either.)

5. A host of forces (including, let's face it, teachers' own desire for smaller classes) have conspired to swell America's teaching workforce to three times its 1955 size even as student enrollments have risen by just 50 percent. Hence even though we're spending tons more money per pupil, teachers' pay has barely kept pace with inflation. We've rashly opted for more teachers rather than better-or better-compensated-teachers. Then we wonder why we're not getting platoons of the best and brightest to work in our public-school classrooms. Teachers--great ones, especially--should earn more, but that's destined not to happen, at least not to any appreciable degree, so long as most "new money" goes into hiring more people.

6. Finally, we've devised such narrow "accountability" systems for schools, and built those atop such shoddy standards and simple minded tests, that teachers may legitimately be forgiven for not wanting to "teach to" those tests and for feeling shackled and blocked from teaching things they love and yearn for their pupils to love, too. Mindless accountability arrangements foster mindless instruction and, in time, mindless, robotic instructors.


Although Finn talks about both, I think he overemphasizes the issue of teacher compensation and underemphasizes the issue of retention. It's possible that I look at it this way because of my experience. For most of my first fifteen years, I faced the very real possibility of being cut because of financial problems in the school district I was in. In fact, that's why I ended up moving to Warroad. I think most people who have ever faced the chopping block would agree that how high your salary is definitely drops on your list of priorities when you're never sure from year to year whether or not you're going to have a job. Young teachers having to face being cut, no matter how good they are, happens all the time, and it is a much bigger problem than who gets paid how much.

While we would all like to earn more money, I think good teachers tend to be less motivated by financial incentives than people who go into most other professions. Someone who becomes an insurance agent, for example, probably has making a lot of money as an important goal. People who want to be good teachers don't think that way. They go into teaching because they want to work with kids and do something worthwhile. Quite frankly, the teachers I've known who have been most interested in higher salaries usually haven't been very good teachers. Some of them end up going into administration. While raising salaries for the best teachers might bring a few talented people into the field, I don't think it would have the great effect that Finn and many others believe.

One thing that I think very few non-teachers understand is that there is great incentive in teaching to perform well because of the very nature of the job. There are few things more humiliating than to stand up in front of twenty-five to thirty adolescents and know you are bombing. That audience is not very forgiving. There are very few occupations I can think of that would be worse to be bad at than teaching. Maybe professional boxing.

5 Comments:

Blogger Mrs. C said...

I was determined not to yap at you all the time but since no one has commented yet, I'll go ahead anyway.

Your analysis of teenagers is spot on. I know more about Patrick's teachers now than I did when he was smaller. As my interactions with his teachers decrease and I allow him to have almost full autonomy in his education, I find Patrick's "reviews" of which teachers are great and why becoming more objective. These young men and women are truly NOT interested in how cool you are but in how well you can guide the class while allowing for some student input. He has many positive things to say about almost all the teachers he had this year. The one exception was a Spanish substitute who did NOT control the class and the class did no real work for over a month. The administration finally caught on and fired her, but it may be that she knew the material well and was just unable to maintain order.

6/09/2008 3:18 AM  
Blogger troutbirder said...

Lots of good thinking here. I think there is a lot to your last paragraph. I used to ague to schoolboard negotiators (with only a little hyperbole) that the profession (at least in small districts) is largely self-cleansing, in spite to tenure and seniority laws.

6/14/2008 4:27 PM  
Anonymous Linda said...

You said that teachers you have known that are interested in higher salaries aren't very good teachers, and that some of them end up in administration. I think that this is probably true in many cases, but there is a teacher in my district who I was shocked to learn is completing his degree in administration. He obviously loves his job as a teacher and is a good one, but he has kids to get through college. I can't imagine that he would like or be suited for a job as an administrater.

6/18/2008 8:48 AM  
Blogger The Special Ed Concierge said...

As a parent of a child with disabilities, I have spent years trying to figure out how some of the educational settings my son was in were disasters. While most of my son's teachers were very professional, some were not. My wife and I used to marvel at how a teacher could be so unprofessional.

The following paragraph makes sense. It is quite plausible that a teacher of disabled students could be insulated from "looking bad" to their students. A "slacking" teacher could get by with "slacking" until a parent with true advocacy skills came along, at which point something would have to give. Couple this with a site administration that "protects the teacher", then all hell breaks loose.


"There are few things more humiliating than to stand up in front of twenty-five to thirty adolescents and know you are bombing. That audience is not very forgiving. There are very few occupations I can think of that would be worse to be bad at than teaching. Maybe professional boxing."

7/12/2008 4:01 PM  
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