A Rant about Education

I love the idea of merit pay. In my own job as well as education. I mean, who wouldn’t want more pay because their projects or work is better than their peers. What’s funny about the idea of merit pay in general is it never really works as people envision it. I remember having that magical idea blown away the first time I was managing people and had to do annual merit increases and performance reviews.
The idea is simple. Your employee has objectives they have to achieve in the job. Sometimes it is simply doing their job. Others it is more defined by the performance objectives than the job description. For example, “repair computers” is a job description you might measure an employee against especially if they aren’t doing it well. “Perform computer repairs with an average 30 minute turnaround” is more of a measure of that task. You have stats determining how that is done. You do that by measuring each repair and doing the math to see, if on average, the objective is met.
All nice and good, right. They get a great review. They are an exceptional employee. They deserve a big salary bump to acknowledge it, right?
Well, kinda.
Most high tech industries I have talked with over the years have a pool of money for the raises. And, to make sure that it is distributed fairly among all of those exceptional employees, they average the raise. For example, each year, HR would inform managers that the average pay increase had to be 5%. If you have 2 employees, this means they either both get a 5% merit increase thus making it easy. Or one gets a 10% increase while the other gets 0%. Or you play with the numbers until everyone gets a fair amount and you don’t feel like you are giving a good employee an extra $5 in their paycheck, thus sending them the wrong message. In the end, most managers over the years would simply give everyone a 5% merit increase just to be fair. Or hope they have someone so totally maxed out of their pay grade that they can’t get a merit increase because they may have done a great job, but they aren’t ready for a promotion yet. This lets you play with the numbers a bit.  In the end, no one truly gets a merit increase. They get whatever raise can happen with the pool of money they have been given.
Now, let’s apply this merit idea to teaching.  If you are an elementary school teacher, you have 20-30 kids in your class. Each one of those would have to be a performance objective since even as a group, they are still individuals. Or do you do an average in the  class? Not a good move since each kid has their own needs, and you want the teachers to teach them all. (Hell, there is a law to ensure kids get equal education.)  So, it would have to be an individual objective for each kid. A baseline would need to be done at the start of the school year to determine where they are at with the reading, writing, and arithmetic. It would need to be compared to educational developmental standards for that age group. Except, not every kid fits into it. Some have diagnosed learning disabilities, others have ADHD, others may be on the autism spectrum, others may be outside of what is considered normal for that age group.  So, what does the objective become? Get them to level for their age and grade level? What if that isn’t possible given how low they are, their learning disability, or their other factors? What about the kids who are above level already?  And what do you do for middle school and high school teachers who teach 5 classes of 20-30 kids per day?
And how do you get parental commitment to this process? I mean, my husband has taught at two different schools: a low-income, inner city school and an high-income school. Both present their own unique challenges. The inner city school had parents who really, at the end of the day, were sending the kids to school for two reasons: free daycare and free lunch. That educational crap was simply the price of admission. And, as long as the kid went there and didn’t get into trouble, the kid was doing good from the parents standpoint. Did these kids do their homework? Only if the kid decided to do it.
By contrast, the high-income parents want the best education for their kids but often are the barrier. If their kid didn’t study or lied about doing their homework, they are telling the teachers the test was too hard. They are trying to find the loophole for getting the work turned in late for full credit. They are working with the school principal to get the letter grade changed to pass-fail so that it doesn’t stunt their kid’s mental development by seeing that D on their report card. My husband has a girl who is repeating a grade this year. Her parents are making excuses why she can’t do the homework, etc. My husband finally pointed out to them that this is the 2nd time with the material. She isn’t even trying at this point as she isn’t getting the basic info right. The parents gave a blank stare and started with the excuses again. So, how do you either get the parents into the process in a positive way or get their influence out of it?
So, how do you setup (successfully) a way for the teachers to get measured? Standardized tests? Studies have shown that some kids have a learning style that does not accurately reflect on those tests. Also, what do you do with the kids who are low. They may get an average, but for this kid, that may be fantastic whereas the score for a different kid may be seen as not so good given where they are. That doesn’t work.
For the sake of argument, say we find that magical way of setting and measuring objectives – what do you give the teachers doing well? What is their “merit increase”? Districts around here are in a pay freeze and have been for a while. So, there is no merit pool. And when they do give cost of living adjustments, they give about half of standard cost of living. So, now you are tossing a $5 bill at these people doing fabulous jobs. Not much motivation to do well. Simply keeping their jobs? As someone once told me when I got into management, this IS a volunteer army. At the end of the day, they start getting pissed, the passion that kept them there will drive them away just as quickly. And if they are fabulous teachers – someone will snag them.
Unlike the private sector, you don’t have much outside of the “keeping their jobs” to reward these people – these people who we all want to be the best of the best. So, how do you get rid of the bad teachers (which IS at the end of the day the goal with all of this) without fucking over the good teachers in the process?
Here is the problem – education as an institution is the problem. It no longer fits into society as it was designed hundreds of years ago. Education was considered one of the pillars in society – standing right there next to “family” and “church”. But, as society changed, families changed, church attendance dropped, education did not change.
Look back 100 years ago. You saw families as having two parents. Mom was usually at home. Dad worked a steady job. The neighborhood watched out for the kids. Extended families were tight. And people attended church on Sunday.
Today, this is not the case. As families evolved to a point where that has many different configurations and meanings. No one is likely home with the kids. Extended family isn’t a street over but likely across the country. And neighbors are not necessarily people you would trust to watch out for your kids. And who goes to church on Sunday in this audience? Yeah, me neither.
But, during all of this, school stayed the same. It’s funded basically the same way. The hierarchy is the same – school board here, superintendent there, principal and teachers. Sure, there may be no school counselor or full-time nurse, but the structure is still there. And as society shifted, this did not. But, what society looked for the school to provide did change. Some of it for the best, some of it is to cover what isn’t being accomplished at home or at church.
Do I think we were better off 100 years ago? No. I’m happy with the evolution personally. But, what I am saying is that education cannot be about standardize tests or No Child Left Untested, I mean, Behind. Running down the people who have to work within this antiquated institution doesn’t fix it. Because most teachers believe it is a farce.
And even though a good chunk of the teachers I know hate their own unions, they also feel like they would be fucked without them. Why were unions created in the first place? Because as individuals, the workers had no power over their pay, work environment, safety, etc. But, when they stood together – they had to be listened to. I do not believe dissolving the teachers unions would do any more than put districts into situations where they could unfairly fuck over the teachers. And I’m not talking the teachers who deserve to be fucked over.

So here is the quandary. How do you improve the system within the system? I don’t personally think you can. I personally think the system needs to be blown up. Not by giving vouchers. Not by getting corporate sponsorship to fill in the monetary gaps. Not by converting to all charter schools. I think we need new ideas in education. I think new ideas need to be embraced, not shunned. I do think principals need more power. I think they need hiring AND firing power that exist outside of the unions. I think that money and savings needs to be looked at like you would any business. Today I do not believe they are.

I do not believe there is a magic bullet to fix it.
Nor do I believe there is one group or another to blame.
I DO believe we are all to blame because we allow it to continue without any real dialog.
I mean – assigning blame is a fun cathartic exercise, but it NEVER fixes anything.

And for the record, my husband says:
“Despite the fact my students achieve near the top of the performance scale, I believe the teachers who work with kids at the inner city schools deal with a tougher challenge and should get more money simply because of that – and not by what their kids achieve. They face a rougher road than I do.”

Discuss amongst yourselves.

10 Comments Add yours

  1. IveyLane says:

    I was having this conversation with a group of teachers, some of them friends of mine, on St. Patty’s Day and they are pretty incensed about it. Now, we’re in Florida which has some of the worst performing schools in the nation for a variety of reasons, and at the base of the argument I agree with your overall position — using the standard of “student achievement” doesn’t work because the teacher has absolutely no control over the most critical components of the process — parental involvement, student inate ability, and student inate motivation.

    But the main outrage this group was fired up about was that the new pay matrix would not make the prime base pay on the level of education the teacher had attained. “What?! You mean I won’t be paid more for my masters degree?” and they were a little pissed that I wasn’t picking up the pitchfork and running with them to the State Capitol.

    As a person with a masters (in HR no less) and a business owner, it was more than a little irritating. There are many good reasons, like the ones you outlined, to oppose the new merit matrix for our school system, but their reasoning just got under my skin and did very little to garner my sympathy or support.

  2. Secretia says:

    Wow, you really thought this over a lot!


  3. Hubman says:

    I blame school administrators. Education, just like every single other career field, will have its share of sub-par performers, measured any number of different ways. But make no mistake about it, the school administration KNOWS who those sub-par teachers are, but they’re also scared of the unions and of properly documenting why they consider a given teacher sub-par. Veronica works with several unions in her job as a HR director- it’s not easy, but union employees can be fired, it just take solid, iron-clad documentation as to why.

  4. Osbasso says:

    You went there, didn’t you? 😛

  5. Emmy says:

    Ivey – I would have been annoyed as well and pointed out the solution will not solve the root problem. It’s like the idea behind No Child Left Behind and the ‘fully qualified teacher’ requirement was meant to draw the more qualified people out of their current fields and into teaching. Didn’t work because they didn’t understand the problem they were trying to solve.

    Secretia – since these things affect my family, there tends to be a lot of discussions about it in our household 🙂

    Hubman – absolutely! And by administrators I don’t include principals because they are usually stuck in the middle of the issue with no power. The most control they have is to switch around staffing to drive the bad teacher out as the admin office and HR won’t help. Then the bad teacher floats. Totally fucked up process simply because ‘it’s’s hard’

    Os – at least I’m not writing about health care 😛

  6. Coy Pink says:

    The issues raised in your post are among some of the reasons we decided to homeschool our girls. But even if all those problems were fixed or the education system was changed, I’d still keep my kids home with me. I love being with them and love watching them learn. I’m very thankful that we have the luxury of making the choice to homeschool.

  7. Dana says:

    OK … I don’t live in a two parent household, but I *do* go to church on Sundays … well … Saturday night, but I *do* go!

    I’m going to go a bit off-topic to start, but will swing back around. I promise!

    I attended a seminar last week-end (From Emotions to Advocacy) and they talked a lot about the public school model – how it was based on a factory model – administrators the factory bosses, teachers the production workers and students the raw goods. Kind of creepy to think about, but it makes sense.

    Now, back to your point about compensation. If a school really did reflect a factory process, compensation would be easy – raw goods in, finished product out – easy to measure. But …

    I think my greatest issue with teacher compensation isn’t so much the salary and other compensation, but the concept of tenure. In a competitive global market (which teaching is) there should be no “guarantee” of position based primarily on time in position. That’s just goofy!

    I agree with you – the only way we’ll see change is to change the model which sounds simple, but the bureaucracy of education (and it is a bureaucracy) is so deeply rooted in our society it would take nuking the Department of Education to facilitate the change needed.

    We’ve seen what legislation does. NCLB had good intentions but has created more problems than it has solved. The unequal distribution of school funding only muddies the waters further.

    It’s a mess.

  8. Oh baby! This is a topic I’ve pondered a lot of the last decade. I have no answers but here are some of my thoughts.

    While I agree that there is an issue with unions protecting the bad teachers, in our unfortunately tort-happy, accusation implies guilt whenever little kids are involved society I for damn sure want a strong vocal union covering for me when some shithead’ kid claims I touched them because I failed them.

    People need to understand that being good at a subject is a far cry from bring good at teaching. Legislation to ensure that people have degrees in their subject matter, especially in math or science, virtually ensures that you het butter incompetents or saints as teachers. And frankly, there are a lot more incompetents out there.

    Sure nearly every kid can learn virtually every subject to a level of mastery, but not every kid can do it with the same level of effort and dedication. It’s not the education system nor any particular teachers responsibility to make up whatever gap between ‘norm’. And you’re kid exists. Sure some do and suceed admirably, but I’ll reference my earlier statement regarding saints and incompetents.


  9. Dana says:

    It’s not the education system nor any particular teachers responsibility to make up whatever gap between ‘norm’. And you’re kid exists.

    I really hope I am interpreting this comment wrong …

  10. Why would you hope that? I’m not sure how you interpreted it and while it was perhaps a bit overstated, the fact that LAUSD spends 12% of it’s budget and nearly twice the $/student on special-education students, matched with double-digit growth rates in that category and an ever increasing willingness of parents to litigate (rightly or wrongly) when they feel their autistic childs needs aren’t being met is undeniably a problem in public education. I’m not advocating elimination of special Ed, but any attempt at a solution needs to address revamping that portion of education, and very likely requires a much narrower and more precisely-defined statement of responsibility.

What do you think?

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