20 December 2010

NEA, AFT, and other dangerous / harmful acronyms

I'm a history teacher. I was trained in the modern era, so I'm not even a Mr. Hand style teacher; though I do love me some lecture. But I'm also trained as a political scientist and as an economist. Want me to prove it? Ok, I'll link to some especially boring articles now. (BOOYAH!)

Anyway, the confluence of those three areas of study is labor. (or, as Dr. Dick Johncock would spell it Labour) In America, the study of labor is really the study of struggle between the capitalist pigs and the noble labor unions. Don't agree with that summary? Read some Howard Zinn. 

Educators are not exempt from this struggle. In 1857, as the labor movement was just beginning to gain some steam, the first of the American teachers' unions was formed. It was called the National Education Association. It did important things, like fight for better pay and working conditions. In fact it still fights for those issues. It still rallies the troops against things like NCLB. However, it, like the vast majority of American unions, also has grown to large for it's own good. In my view, it too often fights for bad teachers, and too rarely fights for the good of all teachers.

Before you hop into the comments and start berating me, and providing examples of good teachers you know that were saved by the union, I want you to stop. Now, calm down. Think about every incompetent teacher you've ever worked with (or been taught by), and think about how they were protected by "tenure". That tenure, and the system of simply putting in years to get it, was negotiated by the union. And that policy has protected far more bad teachers than good.

So far, my claims are basically just conjecture. I have no good way to prove how many "good" or "bad" teachers have been protected by unions. The numbers are hard to come by. It is also hard to define "good" and "bad". That is a failure of the educational system, but also a failure of the unions. Why haven't the NEA and AFT tried to find a better way to evaluate teachers? Why haven't they fought for some form of merit pay that rewards teachers based on a real evaluative method, as opposed to test scores or supervisor evaluations?
The way I see it, the union is content to play the role of being the party of no. Whenever change is proposed, unions tend to simply react in a knee-jerk manner. 

So how can it be fixed?
Unions need to become more local. (for the record I tend to think this is true not just for educational unions, but for all unions) I understand that by becoming more local unions lose much of their political clout. However, most educational problems are the result of their local circumstance. One of the great failings of education is that we keep looking for national solutions. If there was a cure-all, we would already be using it. We need to recognize (at all levels, and from all political points of view) that the solutions for education must be more local. 
This isn't to say that some level of sharing of knowledge and techniques for improving student success from across the nation isn't good. It is undeniably so. This is to say that we, as educators must realize that every school, indeed every student is different. Only by becoming smaller and more agile; more willing to compromise at the local level to find solutions, will unions actually serve both teachers and the taught. 
Unions should still protect teachers, but they should do so with locally bargained rules. They should fight to reform evaluative practices so that schools can more effectively teach students. They should protect teachers' speech and employment rights, but not their incompetence. 
I know this sounds like a pipe dream. I know it is unrealistic to hope for national education unions to voluntarily downsize, but I'll hang on to that dream. 

Now, because I believe in reinforcing positive behavior, a video for your amusement.

17 December 2010

Friday U-boat, Finals Edition

Editor's note:

This u-boat, like all u-boats that were mean-spirited have been removed by request of the management

07 December 2010

Money, money, money

Roughly 18,000 years ago, there was a little rock and roll band that came from Liverpool, England. Perhaps you've heard of them. Now, there's a slim possibility I'm referencing them because they have had a massive impact on society or education.

Nope. I just wanted to put them out there because they recorded a little ditty that has become the clarion call for most educators. Are you a communist, and don't know what I'm talking about? Check out this video

You see, that song, and this post are about the same thing. They're about money. Public school teachers (and I speak with considerable authority here) are chronically underpaid. I haven't had a pay increase, even for cost of living, in three years. My first year teaching(2002-2003), I made $27,072. I would have made more managing a Taco Bell. (sad but true)

Often, reformers make the claim that if we could simply find a way to pay teachers more, we would attract better candidates, and all of the research shows that better teachers equals more learning. 

I'm not sure that's true, but that's a post for another day. Today, I want to talk about the money schools get (or in most cases, don't get) for spending on things that aren't staffing. 

Education is a fantastically expensive thing. In America, we make it even more expensive by using educational facilities to also build community and foster youth athletics. Schools are facilities that receive exceptionally heavy use. In many communities, they house more people at one time than any other building. They need to be heated and cooled, to serve the needs of an extremely varied population, and to foster that always hard to capture "school spirit". We expect them to be safe and to inspire creativity and learning. They house bands, and artists, host theater productions, and teach the basics of home repair and construction. They are warehouses for books (often tens of thousands of them) and computers. They are often lit and heated or cooled for 14 or 15 hours a day. 

They serve as the home for athletic opportunities for young men and women who could never afford those opportunities in a private club setting. They offer facilities for clubs that could never meet anywhere else. They have gyms, and weight rooms, and locker rooms, and facilities to feed a thousand teen-aged mouths a day. In short, schools are the greatest community centers ever envisioned; when they work properly. Even when schools don't work properly, they're still better than 75% of community centers.  

Schools do all of this on your dime. They are supported, in great part, by tax dollars. Generally those tax dollars are local. More and more often, local people are unwilling to support schools when the schools ask for more money. I personally feel that this is because schools are being held more "accountable". As I've addressed before, these measures are misguided, because the tests which are used to demonstrate accountability are deeply flawed. Now, it may be admirable to let the taxpayers see where their tax dollars are going.

The problem is that many admirable things are also stupid. You see, people will only look at the numbers, and won't think about all of the things that schools are doing for that money. I think schools are a great value. American schools routinely spend less per student than other developed nations, expect our schools to do much more (especially extra curricularly), and we still manage to score in the top 20 versus our peers. (according to this data, we rank 43rd in the world per pupil spending as a percentage of GDP). So really, public schools are a great value. 

But, because people are stupid (see the hair-dryer corollary), they don't think about the value. They think about the $6 extra dollars a month that they'll have to pay on their property tax. I actually work with a teacher who voted against a bond which would have completed our building. Why? He felt as though he already paid enough in taxes. Seriously. So, thinking about those higher taxes, and not the benefits of them, taxpayers often defeat school funding bills.

People need to be protected from themselves. I think education is like politics, which in turn is like sausage making. No one really wants to know what's going on, unless they understand. For example, my building uses $10,000 worth of paper a year. You (and many people) might think that is a lot, but it's less than $1 per student per class. This a prime example of facts that average people don't need to know. They will freak out about this expense, without thinking about the second half of it. Schools are generally pretty good with money. It's just that the job they're doing is expensive.

Listen, I don't want the schools to have hallways paved with gold. I don't need a Hogwarts. But I think schools should have enough money to not worry about the amount of money they spend on paper.

Or on the furnishings for the teachers' lounge; which should of course be cashmere couches. Oh, and while we're at it, there should be a masseuse there too. And free gummy bears.
Now that would be money well spent.

03 December 2010

Friday U-boat, ed. 6

Today, we journey into the realms of history and religion to find our U-boat

The Question: Who was the Procurator of Jerusalem, and who was the most famous person he had crucified?
The Answer: Profit was the procurator of Jerusalem, and he killed Jesus.

Hope you are enjoying the consumerism of the season!

01 December 2010

Lucy! I'm home!(schooled)

This post was originally going to be about the problems posed by schools that either cannot or refuse to adapt to changing technology. I feel that this is a genuine problem, and one I can speak at great length about (I currently can't get into the building I work in since my "key card" has simply stopped working, and I'm not allowed to have an actual key to the building).

But recently I've decided there's a bigger threat to education. English bears.

English bears? No, that's not me, that's Stephen.

My rant? Homeschooling.

Homeschoolers are parents who "opt out" of sending their children to school, instead opting to teach them at home. They often buy special curriculum, and if they meet very basic requirements, then their children don't get dragged to truancy courts. I honestly don't know all of the specifics, but I'm sure there are laws which allow these parents to do this legally. 

I suppose I don't dislike a parent's choice to raise their children as they see fit. If you don't trust the public schools, or schools in general, you should have the right to educate them at home. 

Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

You see, as I've pointed out in this space many times before, schools teach much more than just academic subjects. Schools teach social skills. Homeschoolers will often point out that they get together with other homeschoolers to socialize their children. On a very basic level, this is true. However, it can be safely ventured that a group of people who all object to the same schools are almost certainly from similar ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds. Thus, thought their children socialize, they don't get many opportunities to socialize with people who are different from their own family.

This is one of those things that public schools do really really well. For whatever failings they have, public schools have generally in the last 50 years, done a really nice job of teaching children to co-exist with other children who are different from them. We remember well in this nation the ugliness that happened when those schools were integrated. Much of that ugliness was because parents didn't want their children to go to school with children who were different from them. (Don't know what I'm talking about? Click Here).  

I'm not calling homeschoolers racist. But I do think that they are short-sighted. Whatever "evil" they are avoiding by teaching their children at home is surely lesser than the evil of children who are unable to co-exist with people who are different from them. Please understand that racist and intolerant children exist in public schools, but in most cases, the schools can attempt to modify their behavior to a level which is acceptable in polite society.

But there is a bigger problem that the socialization problem. That problem is the problem of what these students are taught. Many homeschoolers teach at home because they object to the curriculum of their local public school. This is supremely unfortunate. Children are a terrible resource to waste.

I don't care if you fervently believe the Earth is only 6000 years old, or that the world was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster. Those beliefs are fine for you to have and to hold. I don't even mind if you want your children to believe those things. I do mind if you won't expose them to other options. If your kid sits through "the Earth is 6000 years old" church with you every Sunday, and sits through Science class, I think you should trust them to make the "right" decision, if you've raised them properly. You shouldn't have to resort to hiding the other options from them if your view is correct.

I'll go further. I think you're hurting the country if you're teaching your children at home, and you're teaching them politicized history. I know that you're out there, and I know that you'll deny it. History is full of room for interpretation, but many homeschoolers will either venerate America, or denigrate America more than they should. Just because you believe something, does not make it a fact. (although I believe that last statement, and it is a fact). For a democracy or republic to function properly, its citizens must share at least a basic common history. The more people teach the fringes, the more damage is done to a building block of our nation's stability.

Again, you can teach your version, but please allow your children exposure to other versions, so that they can be well rounded.

I've got a good rule of thumb. If parents want to homeschool their children, we should allow it, as long as those parents are "highly-qualified" to teach each subject their child must take. I'll even let the government determine what "highly-qualified" means. I won't even require a teaching license. If you have a Bachelor's in each of the subjects that you want to teach your children, I'll let you do so; no matter how crazy you are.

If you don't, let's leave it to the professionals. Because if we don't leave it to the professionals, you end up with this:
And nobody wants that.