Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Merit Based Salaries for Teachers and The Importance of Control Groups

I feel like my blog has sort of become me complaining about my life. This is not what I want it to be, mostly because I don't think that is either interesting or thought provoking. Last post may be excused because it provided an excellent example of Sartre's existential dilemma, but my complaints today are more mundane, as such, they shall be relegated to the end of this post.

With the US falling behind in educational achievement, our public school system has come under heavy scrutiny. Even more so as the documentary, Waiting for "Superman" hitting the pop culture radar. One of the controversial "fixes" proposed is tying teachers' salaries or bonuses to evaluations of their merit. I, as a semi-educator, view this suggestion with a little trepidation, not that I have any illusion that it will affect me one way or another.

My biggest problem with merit based pay is that teachers are not responsible for the quality of their students, for the most part. Perhaps my perspective on this is skewed by coming from the field of mathematics, but much of my students' success or failure is predetermined by their level of preparation when they enter my classroom. Unlike the private sector, I cannot weed out people who's performance I become responsible for if they have no business being in my classroom, except by failing them. This leads to me often trying to cobble a rudimentary working understanding of integral calculus for some of my students on top of a mathematical background where they still fear and distrust fractions and do not actually understand exponentiation. I think there are some Biblical verses condemning what I do (Matthew 9:16,17), but the task of reteaching almost the whole of mathematics to my students is daunting.

Granted, if one makes certain assumptions about the uniformity of mathematical backgrounds from class to class, then comparing educators in the same school teaching the same subject might yield some results as to the comparative efficacy of those educators. However, comparing educators who have students prepared by one school as opposed to another seems bound to confuse the individual educator's merit with that of the system that has prepared their students.

Finally, education is not a passive activity like watching the television. In order for students to get more out of it, they must put more into it. Mathematics may have come easily to me, but I was (almost) always actively trying to understand what was going on. When you understand the background, each new layer of complexity becomes relatively simple to understand, if you try. For example, on a recent exam, my students were asked to set up a partial fraction decomposition problem. Not recognizing that (x^2-4) factors was, at a glance, strongly correlated with not knowing to put Ax+B in the numerator over an irreducible quadratic factor. There is no reason that these concepts should be linked, one is a rather subtle question relying on mathematical skills they should already have, namely factoring, and the other is a simple fact about partial fraction decomposition that they ought to have learned in my class, yet, the two mistakes were almost always made simultaneously.

Granted, it is a lot easier for me to take college students to task for not investing in their education than it would be to criticize cute little elementary schoolers. My point, however, is not that we should blame the student's for their own academic successes and failures, but rather that we need to create the proper support for students to encourage them to invest in their own education from an early age. This is not something teachers can be responsible for alone, I believe, as I have said before, that our educational apathy is a cultural institution, and that students are often receiving deeply negative messages in the home and in pop culture about the value of education.

Ok, that is my two cents on that. As mentioned, I have some other thoughts on education kicking around, which may make it into a post. In regards to my own life, as mentioned we recently had a test, so grading that took up a bunch of time. Taking even more time was the Group Theory assignment due Monday, that our class just turned in today. Between those two tasks, I have been rather stressed recently, but they are now over, so I can focus on my other problems. Prominently featured among those are the fact that my laptop bricked Monday, so I have to decide what to do about that. Additionally, while sprinting to catch the bus this afternoon I caught my foot on an uneven spot on the sidewalk, causing me to slam right-side first into the sidewalk/floor of the bus. To catalog my injuries, I have a couple stubbed toes on my right foot, from catching on the sidewalk, a skinned right knee from the sidewalk, a tight pain in the middle of my right ribs, where my chest collided at a frightful speed with the edge of the bus entrance, and a skinned right elbow from the bus floor. Aside from a slight tenderness in my left elbow, which didn't bleed at all, my left side is in fine shape. This occasionally leads me to exclaim in surprise and appreciation at how much pain the left side of me is NOT feeling, which illustrates the importance of a control group!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

October, and the Crushing Weight of Existence

Well, today is the seventh of October. I did not want a week of October to pass by without a post, so it seems I am logically compelled to post today. As you may have noticed, I failed to keep to my MWF updates, even after F became "weekend." So, I am setting a less strenuous schedule for myself this month. In short, I shall update at least once every seven days, about a topic of my choosing. I have quite a few posts about the education system and education in general running around in my head, in embarrassingly unpolished format unfortunately, so that may become this month's impromptu subject. This is fitting, as many of the people I imagine read my blog are educators.

Since just updating you upon my plans for updating this blog in October seems like a terrible cop out on my part, I am also going to post something that I wrote elsewhere, about my experiences walking home today.

I finished the book I was reading, Sophie's World, today, which I think warrants a celebration. In what I read today, the existentialists were covered, and the author talked about Sartre's notion that as beings that exist, we owe it to ourselves to do SOMETHING with our existence. Oddly enough, both of the books I have read this school year have inspired this thought in me, as it has been nagging me since I finished Deadline, by Chris Crutcher. I imagine that I was previously aware of Sartre's thought on the subject, because we talked a bit about existentialism in a Feminist Philosophy course when I was an undergrad.

Anyway, as I was walking home under the darkened sky, I almost began crying at the thought of how much I would never understand. Then, as I almost was home, it occurred to me that my dissatisfaction may be because I have lost my faith in mathematics. I remember being quite upset in high school when I realized that there were open problems in mathematics, that is, statements that we are fairly sure are either true or false, but we cannot prove certainly to be one or the other. However, I stuck with mathematics, as it seemed the best method to make sense out of the chaos by which we are surrounded.

Now though, I inch out along a slender branch, toward the tips of a tree of mathematical knowledge, seeking the budding areas where soon new growth will occur. My problem is no longer that these areas of uncertainty exist, but that in reaching them, I have lost sight of the ground from which I began my climb. In an attempt to gain an advantageous viewpoint of my surroundings, I have instead become so myopically focused on the tree I am climbing that I have lost track of my surroundings entirely.

The natural follow up question I asked myself is, would studying philosophy become a remedy to this myopia, or merely a repetition of the mistake that I have already made once? I suppose that since philosophy often concerns itself with the larger picture of what is and what should, it may be more conducive to keeping the vastness and wonder of existence in focus. However, I do believe that more than a few great philosophers have found themselves staring into philosophy and discovering an ever hungry void of uncertainty that has scarred them to the soul.

Anyway, since I have no dependents, nor partner, nor expectation or inclination for this to change in the immediate future, I have great freedom, what Sartre might describe as terrifying freedom, to shape my life at this point. It seems only fitting that I take some time to reflect on what I owe it to myself to do with that freedom. Of course, if you have any suggestions, fill free to leave them, I obviously am not making too much progress upon my own.