Wednesday, March 9, 2011

How Do You Determine a Teacher's Value? (hint: it's got nothing to do with how she looks, perv)

Right now on a talk show or news program somewhere in this country, people are arguing over what a teacher should be paid. They're not looking at the education system and what the strengths and failures of it are, they're not talking about what the inherent value of education is, or how we value it in this country. They're certainly not talking about student and parent responsibility.

Nope, they're just arguing over teacher salaries.

Which raises the question of, why?

I think the argument over what teachers get paid is an attempt to attach a value to what a single educator is worth, or more specifically, what they contribute to society through their work. The reason we have to look at what a teacher's value is to the country instead of to an individual is because of how they are paid. Taxes fund the government paid, teacher salaries so their financial worth is dictated by the "greater good" argument. If education were strictly privatized then teacher salaries would be determined by a market rate. But that's not the case, and the private school system cannot be used as a model for that because the requirements to be a teacher in a private school system do not align with the much more stringent requirements to be a public school teacher.

So, what is the best way to determine a teacher's worth? Unfortunately it is a difficult question to answer because there are far too many variables to address for a workable model to be feasible. Of course you have teacher ability, but you also have student ability, home support, quality of educational tools available, sense of student safety, peer group influence, strength of school, strength of school district, educational effect of extracurricular activities, etc.

Simply put, a good teacher effects students positively, and a bad teacher effects students negatively, but good luck proving either of those positions.

So if we cannot quantify a teacher's worth through a traditional numbers model, what IS the best way?

This is an area that would better lend itself to intelligent debate about the educational system than the eye-rolling, party line nonsense getting spouted out on daytime TV, but since it is currently not being discussed much I'll just tell you what I think. The worth of an educator in the public school systems is really a question of philosophy. There are many shades of how people feel about teachers, but for simplicity lets break it down into the two broadest camps -

1) Those who feel that teachers are part time babysitters who get three months of paid vacation a year.

2) Those who feel that teachers are the architects of our country's intellectual infrastructure.

I think we can all agree that those two job descriptions would lead to a massive difference in income expectation can we not?

Personally, I feel position 2 is correct, and that teachers are as crucial to the intellectual health of our country as doctors are to the physical and lawyers are to the legal. The main difference is that it does not feel like we have to pay teachers out of pocket so we are never forced to consider their inherent value. As with many things, if something seems cheap then we will treat it as though it is. A free education is such a phenomenal and generous gift that many treat it with about as much respect as a gum wrapper.

Further complicating things from a philosophical standpoint is that when a teacher is effective their work is largely invisible. Bad teaching is obvious, when students come through that cannot read or write, or pass basic math skills and then face a lifetime of accumulative failures because they were not adequately prepared to fit in with society as envisioned by the founders.

But good teaching, that sends out accomplished, motivated, self-starters who own their intellectual ability, put it to good use and succeed against doubters and long odds because of the strong sense of self confidence and reliance that a solid education helped to instill in them, that kind of teaching is not flashy.

We see the product, but don't make the leap to thank the craftsperson.

So teachers largely toil in secret, seeing their successes laid at the feet of their charges and seeing their failures placed squarely on their own shoulders.

Perhaps this is why it is usually the dedicated who choose this profession. After all, if this were truly a cushy cash cow, common sense would seem to indicate that those working long hours as middle managers and VP's would be equally drawn to the high living lifestyle of an educator. We should never ignore the obvious simply because it doesn't support our viewpoint. If teachers were overpaid lazybones, it would be a much more competitive field to get a job in.

The fact that most teachers do not actively complain about their income probably means that it is currently in a range that teachers find acceptable, maybe not ideal, but at least acceptable. Which in my opinion is a bargain since most working professionals with the education and experience of long term teachers make 6 figures. As a country we're getting a great bargain, and right now, in my opinion, some folks who haven't thought the issue through to its logical conclusion are going to cost us. They will either cost us in worldwide competitiveness by driving the best teachers out of education, or cost us in the pocketbook when teachers stand up and demand the full bill for what they feel they are worth.

At this point we must also look at the idea of merit pay. On the surface it seems like a pretty good idea. Maybe drop the base salary of teachers, but reward the best generously through performance metrics. Yes, many will argue that standardized tests are a poor measure and are racially and gender biased. That may be true, but we do need some way to measure student performance - and for now that's what we've got so I'm not going to broach that subject.

The problem with merit pay is a question of equality. If the merit is only determined by test scores then teachers in higher scoring test districts have a natural advantage that has nothing to do with their ability and everything to do with the population attending their school. This puts teachers in the schools serving students who need the most help at a distinct disadvantage and will drive highly capable teachers away from the students who need them most.

On the other hand, if you base merit pay on percentage of student improvement, it certainly would give you a good idea of how effective an individual teacher is. But it also puts the teacher in a higher scoring district at a disadvantage. If a class is full of 95th percentile students there is only so far they can improve. If a teacher has a class of non-English speaking students, the ability to raise their test scores is huge because the starting point is guaranteed to be extremely low.

What about a fusion of the two? Giving merit pay based on percentage increase in schools with a pre-defined low achievement rate, and based on test scores in general in pre-defined high achievement schools. Well, good luck with coming up with those details and not running into an unworkable set of racial and social obstacles.

Oh, and in case we forgot, what exactly are we going to do about Art teachers, Music teachers, P.E. teachers and so on. Shall we simply discount them because their subject may lack an easily measurable effect on student achievement?

So what do we do?

We could all just stop complaining about the high on the hog, rock n roll lifestyle of today's teachers and let common sense in regards to their value rule the day, but that seems unlikely.

So if they idea is to rework the educational system, change teacher incomes, or bring increased accountability to the whole process, can we at least be open to the fact that it's an extraordinarily complex issue instead of making teachers into financial scapegoats for the widespread and endemic spending of a government acting like a college kid with their first credit card.

Maybe the best thing we could all do is stop trying to passive aggressively punish the teachers we didn't like, and go talk to the teacher who had the biggest effect on your life. Sit down, thank them for all they did, and then explain to them why you think they're an overpaid fat cat.

But then again maybe it's too hard to apply critical thinking to a difficult issue when you can just turn it into a screeching match over what teachers get paid. If that's the case it probably does make sense to you for teachers to be paid less, because it is a damn shame that you weren't taught better.

1 comment:

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