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!


Nicholas Graham said...

I completely agree with your post!

Kenny said...

Thank you, but that is hardly as fun to argue with ;) Everyone who reads this blog is apparently in education somehow!

Max said...

Well, Kenny, I certainly disagree with that last post. I have never taught or TAed, so my opinions are highly ignorant and fraught with untested conclusions.

The best teachers pull as many students as possible into each lecture. If you want to actively ignore a teacher in a non-disruptive way, I suppose that is your right, but a good teacher can find a way to motivate that attentiveness you described in your post.

Kenny, I would like to hear your thoughts on the tenor of the debate surrounding teacher salaries and how to get rid of "bad teachers" and motivate "good teachers." I personally imagine that the character of the lazy tenured-teacher is a rarely realized as the myth of the welfare queen, driving around in her pink Cadillac fueled by government handouts and the tax dollars of true-blue hard-working citizens. Is this scapegoat a threat, Kenny, or a smokescreen?

Frank said...

Great post and comments. I have had years where everybody passed the AP calculus test and years where very few have. Conclusions to be made? Not sure, but I tend to agree with you, Kenny, that what came before the kids who met me was more important than what went on the year they had me as a teacher.

Max, I absolutely loved your comment, and tend to think that the horrible math instructor who has tenure is much more realized than the welfare queen, at least on the high school level. With so few math high school math teachers who even have a minor in the subject, the majority are now certified through quicky programs that focus on methods and not on math, the net result being that the depth of knowledge is not there, at least initially. And yes, many of these teachers figure the math out and become proficient, but you would be very surprised at how many do not, relying on their tenure to save them, which it does. I am not saying that these type of teachers are the majority, for thankfully they are not, but I do believe that there are a higher proportion of them out there than any of us would care to admit.