Raising the Status of Teachers

Excerpts from Sam Dillon’s March 16, NYT article, “US is Urged to Raise Teachers’ Status”.

To improve its public schools, the United States should raise the status of the teaching profession by recruiting more qualified candidates, training them better, and paying them more, according to a new report on comparative educational systems.

• Top-scoring countries like Korea, Singapore and Finland recruit only high-performing college graduates for teaching positions, support them with mentoring and other help in the classroom, and take steps to raise respect for the profession.

• Teaching in the U.S. is unfortunately no longer a high-status occupation. . . . Despite the characterization of some that teaching is an easy job, with short hours and summers off, the fact is that successful, dedicated teachers in the U.S. work long hours for little pay and, in many cases, insufficient support from their leadership.

• On the most recent international tests (Pisa), the top-scoring countries were Finland and Singapore in science, Korea and Finland in reading and Singapore and Korea in math. On average, American teenagers came in 15th in reading and 19th in science. American students placed 27th in math. Only 2 percent of American students scored at the highest proficiency level, compared with 8 percent in Korea and 5 percent in Finland.

• U.S. education reformers need to adopt common academic standards, develop better tests for use by teachers in diagnosing students’ day-to-day learning needs, and train more effective school leaders.

• The top recommendation from the report—make a concerted effort to raise the status of the teaching profession.

• Teaching education programs in the U.S. must become more selective and more rigorous.

• Raising teachers’ status is not mainly about raising salaries, the report says, but pay is a factor. According to O.E.C.D. data, the average salary of a veteran elementary teacher here was $44,172 in 2008, higher than the average of $39,426 across all O.E.C.D countries (the figures were converted to compare the purchasing power of each currency). But that salary level was 40 percent below the average salary of other American college graduates. In Finland, by comparison, the veteran teacher’s salary was 13 percent less than that of the average college graduate’s.

• Only Luxembourg among the O.E.C.D. countries spends more per elementary student — but American schools spend disproportionately on other areas, like bus transportation and sports facilities.

So maybe we do have the best school system in the world if, like Fifteen a couple of weeks ago, you want to skip a day of classes, and take a school provided bus to the state basketball tournament.

I Wonder

Is there such a thing as “intrinsic motivation”? Apart from built-in biological compulsions to eat, sleep, reproduce? I’ve wondered this for a while and asked myself the question most recently as a result of excerpts from Robert Samuelson’s September 6th Washington Post article titled “School reform’s meager results“.

A few excerpts:

“Reforms” have disappointed for two reasons. First, no one has yet discovered transformative changes in curriculum or pedagogy, especially for inner-city schools, that are (in business lingo) “scalable” — easily transferable to other schools, where they would predictably produce achievement gains.”

“The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail. Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a “good” college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure.”

From that comprehensive list, only curiosity strikes me as something we would likely agree is mostly intrinsic in nature. We’re not very introspective when we talk about our intrinsic motivations. If we were more reflective I suspect we’d find our motivations are at best intrinsic/extrinsic amalgamations.

When I listen to people explain why they think they did well in school, they typically say, “I didn’t want to let my father/parents/grandmother down.” They weren’t naturally gifted. There were adults in their lives they didn’t want to disappoint.

Given that, maybe the key to education reform is strengthening families in ways that will lead to heightened parental expectations to the point where students are extrinsically motivated by them to work harder and achieve more.

Rethinking Report Cards 1

Grade-based report cards are a “regularity of schooling”. Regularities of schooling are those features of school life whose utility we rarely question, such as age-based grade levels, starting school in September and ending in June, and assigning students grades based upon the quality of their work (Sarason). Regularities of schooling result from teachers being far too busy to stop and reflect on the advantages and disadvantages of the daily practices they inherit from the veteran teachers they replace and way too busy to envision promising alternatives.

The question, “Why are we doing this, this way?” is rarely asked, nor the natural follow up, “Is there a better way?” The unspoken answer, “Because it’s always been done this way.”

Similar limits of time result in parallel regularities of consumerism, church life, health care, marriage, and, I suspect, every sector of life and the economy. On those rare occasions when we have spare time to thoughtfully evaluate the usefulness of our personal and work life activities, we tend to fill the quiet empty spaces with television, internet surfing, and related noise/activity.

We aren’t disciplined enough to stop, reflect, envision, and thoughtfully implement promising alternatives to the regularities of our personal and work lives.

Why have grade-based report cards stood the test of time with hardly any variation despite radical changes in the world in which we live? What purposes do grade-based report cards serve? If they were to be radically redesigned, how might teaching and learning be revitalized? What form will the pushback against updated alternative report cards likely take? I begin answering these questions tomorrow.


The Panacea for What Ails our Schools

A five-day in a row “Back to School” series.

The panacea for what ails our schools. Depending upon who you read/talk to:

1) more rigorous course requirements (especially in math) coupled with high stakes standardized exams like in Japan;

2) firing incompetent teachers determined largely by students’ scores on standardized exams;

3) wireless laptops, smartboards, smartpens, and related personal technology;

4) small schools.

File these ideas under “one good idea quickly implemented will fix things”. In actuality, reinventing schooling will require decades of intelligent, caring, hard working people piecing together good ideas and adapting them to differing contexts.

But I’ll play along with the conventional way of thinking. The “big idea” that I believe has more potential than the four listed above to serve as a catalyst for medium and long-term positive change? Radically redesigned report cards. More on that tomorrow.

Schooling versus Education

I appreciate the fact that recent comments, like T’s “education is overrated” one from today, keep provoking additional thoughts.  

I’m guessing T was thinking more about schooling than education. If I’m right, I wholeheartedly agree that schooling is overrated, in part because of how little time we spend in school. K-12 students are in class for about 6 hours a day for 180 days a year. If you take the other 10 hours (allowing 8 for sleep) and multiply them by 180 and then add 185 times 16 hours, you discover students spend about 23% of their time in school. It would be less if we adjusted for time spent at lunch, between classes, at sports assemblies, and in classrooms where teachers struggle with classroom management. 

Let’s round down to 20%. The remaining 80% is sometimes referred to as the “societal curriculum” or the positive and negative things students learn from the media, travel, their families, their extracurricular activities, their part time jobs, their religious youth group activities, their summer activities, etc.  When I use the term “education” I’m referring to schooling and the societal curriculum. 

T is a state trooper extraordinaire. My guess is his schooling at the academy was helpful, but his trooper education really began once he got behind the wheel with veteran co-workers.

I’m also guessing T’s critique of schooling would involve far more than how little time is spent in school. He might argue lots of people who learn how to “do school” well lack some combination of mechanical intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, financial discipline, real world with-it-ness, and integrity, and I would wholeheartedly agree.

One example among hundreds. Mid 90s and I’m observing a student teacher in a Greensboro, NC high school. Fifth period, standard or remedial English. A student from my intern’s first period Honors English class enters to deliver a note. While handing over the note he asks, “Mr. T, what are you guys studying?” My intern replies something like, “We’re just working our way through the third chapter of Catcher in the Rye.” To which “gifted” student brazenly replies, “Oh man, we finished Catcher in the Rye last week.”

I immediately thought to myself we refer to that student as “gifted” only if we use the narrowest of definitions. That student seemingly read texts much better than he read group dynamics. Of course we want young people to learn to do both, but one could argue reading people well is at least equally as important as conventional reading comprehension.