Class Warfare Blog

March 26, 2013

The Development of Educational Memes

An editorial in a local paper took on “education reform” today and there are a number of statements that I found comment worthy. For one:

“Elementary and middle-school teachers who helped lift their students’ standardized test scores changed the course of students’ lives, according to a 2012 study of 2.5 million students by economists at Harvard and Columbia universities. Researchers tracked those students over two decades and found that they had lower teen pregnancy rates. They attended college at higher rates. They had overall higher earnings as adults.”

I guess it is no surprise that good teachers are desirable, but as a scientist, one of the things I discovered about educational research is that it is of uniformly mediocre quality. I should hope Harvard economists would do better than average research but I wonder how they determined that it was the teacher that was the cause of the standardized test score improvements. Obviously the teacher was there while it happened, but was it just those individuals who got better scores or did the entire class in which those individuals were enrolled get higher scores? Was each teacher examined to see what the performance of all of their students improved or just that one individual? if it was just the individual or a small cadre of them, then the score improvement was an individual accomplishment and the primary praise should fall upon the individual. But if the whole class improved, then the teacher should get some of the praise (not all, just “some”). Having 2.5 million students attending those colleges to study makes for a very large sample size, but how many of them had the same third grade teacher in Kenosha, Wisconsin? The point is did just those kids take fire or did their teachers do for them what they did for the other students in their classes. (I can’t believe they went that far in their study because collecting records for all of the teachers encountered by 2.5 million students would be a mammoth undertaking, but I may be wrong.)

If that student was inspired by his/her teacher, great. If he/she was the only one or just one of several, what does that say about the quality of teaching versus the quality of learning?

“To aggressively cull mediocre teachers from classrooms if they don’t quickly improve.
And to find ways to reward the stellar performers. That is Job One for principals.”

Here’s another quote:

“A 2010 Los Angeles Times investigation found a huge gap between students whose teachers were highly effective and those who weren’t. The most effective teachers push students from below grade level to advanced in a single year, the newspaper reported.”

My comment: “a Los Angeles Times investigation” ah, a well-known research firm. Making any kind of conclusion based on a study done by investigative reports I think would be a mistake. One must also acknowledge that the quality of investigating reporting is at quite a low ebb. And, isn’t the definition of an effective teacher “one whose students do better than average” and the definition of an ineffective teacher “one whose students do worse than average?” So, this statement translates into: “there was a huge gap between students in classes that did well and students in classes that didn’t do well.”

Then comes the editorial’s conclusion:

“We hope principals use this new evaluation system the way parents demand: To aggressively cull mediocre teachers from classrooms if they don’t quickly improve. And to find ways to reward the stellar performers. That is Job One for principals.”

Ah, here comes the hammer, the meme is that the big problem in our schools system is sub-standard teachers and the way to “fix the system” is to reward the best and fire the worst. It sounds logical, but. . . .

Teachers as a group are not extrinsically motivated, that is they aren’t in it for the rewards. How many people do you know who get a college degree or college degrees and then want to work in a low wage area like teaching? As a counterexample, the sciences have been suffering from a lack of qualified graduates because so many mathematically inclined college graduates drifted over to things like business or finance where there was so much more money to be made. (Where do you think all of those exotic financial instruments that brought the world’s economy to its knees came from? Ah, our best and brightest.)

My thesis is that while salaries are important most teachers are in the education business because it fulfills deep seated desires to be useful to society. This is why you don’t hear college students talking about “cashing in” in a career in teaching and then retiring early. Those teachers thought to be so praise worthy (I have known a few) became really good teachers without any reward system and actually might find such a reward system a barrier to collaboration with other teachers.

I can relate to the comment “the most effective teachers push students from below grade level to advanced in a single year” in that I was a chemistry teacher at a community college that didn’t attract the most academically gifted students (they tended to go to other colleges nearby). We testing students upon entry and found them to be below average for students taking such a curriculum, so we had a similar goal: to take the students who came to us, whatever their accomplishments, and get them up to standards before they moved on to other colleges. We told the students this. We showed them the numbers. We enrolled them in the idea that if they worked reasonably hard, they would have nothing to fear when they transferred to university, and we were mildly successful at doing this (to the extent that our students were recognized as being acceptable to those institutions where other students from across campus were not). But it was difficult and hard on the students. And those students were adults who could be persuaded with logic and passion to try hard. They were also no longer required to be attending school; they could leave (and many did). This is a quite different situation from that of children trapped in classrooms they can’t opt out of.

This “teachers are the problem” meme also ignores infrastructure issues. For example, in Chicago this last summer, a whopping percentage of the classrooms had no air conditioning. Now, when I was a kid, I remember some quite sweltering classrooms (we had no air conditioning then, too) but that was only during the last couple of weeks of school before it let out in June. I also remember summertime temperatures in the 110+ degree range, but I wasn’t taking summer classes. I also wasn’t in underperforming classrooms trying to get students to achieve at rate greater than they were used to.

Now, I am not saying that effective management of teachers is not an issue, I think it is a big issue, but there are others. While I was in high school, occasionally a few students got into trouble by drinking beer or even (gasp) hard liquor. There was no drug scene then. There were no gangs in my neighborhood. My classmates weren’t getting shot from time to time. Virtually every one of my classmates had two parents (the quality of which I cannot vouch for, but. . . .).

What we were expected to learn was different. The textbooks were better then, yes, better. The best thing I can say about modern textbooks is that they certainly are heavier than they were in my day. Oh, yeah, in color, too, but also poorly written, unfocused, written by committees, overly dry, uninteresting, etc.

There are more than a few problems in our public education system, but most will not be resolved with a “reward the good, punish the bad” simplistic system, especially since these are extrinsic rewards and punishments and teachers are intrinsically motivated.

But educational reformers (a pox on their house) have to have a drum to beat, one that sounds reasonable, and this is their current choice.

We must stop thinking we can solve complex problems with simple schemes.

We must ask hard questions like: if a principal is supposed to help a struggling teacher, how are they supposed to do that? Does anybody know? Is any educational research facility looking into this question, an answer to which would actually be helpful? And a principal is responsible for how many teachers? How much time do they have to spend with new and/or underperforming teachers? And how qualified are they to do this task?

And we need to stop undermining the intrinsic rewards of teaching. When I was a youth, teachers were a much admired class of workers. They were admired for the reasons that we all know: smart people who got college degrees and then opted to work with kids to make the kid’s lives better for low pay. Now teachers are “the problem” with our schools and, by the way, they are greedy, too, with their lush pensions and summers off.

Well, I have one of those lush pensions, having worked teaching college students for almost forty years. My pension provides me an income that is comparable to the national average, not the average of retired college professors, the actual national average, hardly lush. And my salary, as a college professor, was approximately half of what someone with my qualifications would have been making in the chemical industry (based on published industry-wide salary surveys). So, ask yourself: would you give up half of your salary for two months off during the summer?

Please think about this and not just reflexively, think hard about this: our future and our kid’s futures are deeply affected by education.


  1. Great post! As a teacher, I greatly appreciate this!


    Comment by thejumbledmind — March 26, 2013 @ 10:47 am | Reply

  2. I would suggest you send this to the appropriate Federal/State Teacher Association/s. It’s worth their reading. Great post.


    Comment by john zande — March 26, 2013 @ 10:56 am | Reply

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