Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Education Remuneration

A while back, as I opined against merit based pay for educators, Max commented as follows:
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?
Since I am a big fan of comments, I try to address requests made therein, either further along in the comment stream or in an... eventual... post of its own. This one seemed worthy of the latter.

Let me first note that I may be guilty of the same arrogance in success of the ex-smoker scoffing at how addicting cigarettes are, but no matter how personally invested in their classes my teachers seemed, they seemed uniformly willing to encourage my exploration if I showed an interest in the material. As my sister recently reminded me, I had a class where I would turn in an entire semester's worth of work two weeks before the end of the semester, because it was accepted late up until that point, but in that same class I would enjoy the discussions, ask questions, and learn quite a bit. This, perhaps, colors my view of merit based pay and apathetic tenured-teachers.

I think that it is much more important to motivate students to learn, something a teacher has limited control over, rather than to motivate teachers to teach. However, I would like to change some aspects of the teaching profession. Most fundamentally, I would make teaching qualifications much more demanding than they apparently are. Requiring mastery in a subject before one is permitted to teach it would serve the purpose of giving teachers greater ability to explain to their students in a coherent and well informed manner and, as with any increase in standards, serve to weed out those who view teaching as an easy, fall back, career.

Along similar lines, I think making salary decisions based on demonstrated mastery of their subject, rather than highest level degree achieved in general, would be beneficial. My impression thus far, having spent the better part of 20 years in scholarly settings, is that the only people who don't consider Education classes a joke are people who teach Education classes. Encouraging deeper knowledge in a applicable field seems more useful and likely to further weed out roustabouts. Replacing pedantic Education classes with some manner of apprentice/mentor relationship seems like a worthwhile consideration as well.

Of course, considering that we experience teacher shortages as it is, one might ask how is it even possible to continue raising the bar? And here the issue of salaries come in. If we want to attract more people with a good educational standing into the teaching field, we need to better compete with the opportunities that they have in other fields. Granted, the calling to be a teacher may, in some measure, balance against the money one can make in other endeavors, but being able to support one's family is pleasant.

There you go Max, I hope you feel better soon!


Nicholas Graham said...

Kenny, I love your honesty and open ideas on all subjects. I would also like to add my perspective of the field of teaching and teachers, with a focus on replying to some of your comments.

It seems like many of your views steam from the idea that more knowledge in a subject will naturally increase one's teaching ability. What is teaching ability? Is it your ability to communicate ideas? Is it your ability to motivate unmotivated students? Is it your ability to convince motivated students to peruse a career in that subject? I think we need to know this first before we can asses a teacher's ability.

From what I have seen, knowledge, by itself, does not naturally make one a better teacher. I think it helps motivate students who are also driven by knowledge, such as yourself. I can tell you, I have known some extremely knowledgeable people who, unfortunately, lacked the ability to effectively communicate that knowledge.

To support this idea in our current educational system you connected the "increased mastery of their subject" to salary.

If we are to reward teachers for becoming "masters in their field", then isn't that counter to focusing on teaching? Not to mention, how does one test "mastery"? I hope you are not considering standardized tests.

I have talked to professors here in Japan, and many faced a dilemma in their career. They could choose to teach in a high-ranking university, where one would be considered a master in their field but would be pressured to produce research and reports more than teach students; or to teach in a lower-ranking university, where they could focus on teaching but unlikely be recognized in their field. If it were you, which would you choose?

Increasing knowledge and education standards for teachers with a connection to salary based on perceived mastery: this ideas seem a bit idealistic. I'm not saying your view is bad, but perhaps it isn't practical in the real world.

Frank said...

Kenny says: I would make teaching qualifications much more demanding than they apparently aren't.

Frank says: When we moved to WA I needed to take something called a west-B test to get certified here. You would not believe how easy it was, I mean as in 7th grade easy. Anybody who didn't pass could retake in 60 days, when in reality, that person should have been banned from the profession.

Kenny says: the only people who don't consider Education classes a joke are people who teach Education classes.

Frank says: I think this is the best thing you have ever written

Kenny said...

I don't know why Nick's worthwhile and interesting comment was marked as spam, certainly not because he disagreed with me ;) It is restored, I am sorry for the delay in addressing that issue.

I think my perspective on teacher qualification is predicated upon an underlying belief that teachers are there to make education available, not cram it down students' throats. A, "lead them to water but can't make them drink," type situation. Of course, it is entirely reasonable to accuse me of being heavily biased both because I, usually, am a fairly self motivated seeker of knowledge (if not doer of homework), and I don't feel terribly able to motivate my students if they lack internal motivation.

Frank, it feels weird calling you that still. Anyway, I thought you might enjoy the second quote, but you are not the only source that has voiced a similar opinion. The "aren't" in your first quote should be an "are."

Max said...

Kenny, you're usually a nice, smart and reasonable person. I'm kind of surprised, then, at how much I disagree with you!

First of all, though the teacher is the major resource in the classroom, he or she is by no means the only resource available. In grade school especially, it is more important to know enough about a subject to prepare the lecture and be able to handle questions than to have mastery of each subject taught. A teacher can only hope that a student's interest requires depth beyond their own knowledge. In that case, their skills as a researcher and as a mentor are much more important in guiding the student's curiosity.

And while we're on the subject of reasons that you are wrong, and continuing with the theme of other, more valuable good-teacher-criteria, teachers need first and foremost to be able to handle people. Whereas the previous example of why you were wrong was most prescient in grade/middle school, this example rears its ugly, fidgeting, acne-laden head in high school. And college, at least in lower division. With maybe less acne.

Kenny, Kenny, Kenny, I'm just so surprised that you didn't even notice this big flaw in your argument. It's almost like you left out all of these other really important criteria, choosing instead to argue for subject mastery in order to drive debate... oh...

Egg on my face.

Well, I've been bad at rhetoric ever since my boring high school rhetoric class. I mean, the teacher had his PhD in the field, but he didn't care about the class so much.

Kenny said...

Perhaps I am over stating my case, but I am just trying to say that I think a teacher's mastery of the subject is a more useful indicator of their competence than student success. In regard to your statement that teachers need only know "enough about the subject to prepare the lecture," I would like to theorize that the widespread fear and distrust of fractions is symptomatic of elementary school teachers only knowing "enough" to introduce fractions. In many ways fractions are more natural to work with than decimal representations, but you wouldn't know that due to the widespread antipathy and ineptitude that many of my college students have in regard to fractions.

Certainly, teachers need a certain level of social competence, but I think that even I am above that threshold, so it seems that most people ought naturally be able to pass this requirement. Note the most, please do not throw isolated cases of abuse back in my face.

I get the feeling your last paragraph is fictional, meant to reinforce your point, but I will respond anyway. If you found the course boring, I would imagine it had less to do with how much the teacher cared about the class than how much you cared about the class. Granted, I think that having a teacher who cares is more enjoyable and better suited for learning, but pales in comparison to the importance of the student who cares about the subject. Furthermore, from personal experience, I believe that it is a common myth that one can instill enthusiasm in one's students through one's own appreciation of the subject.