"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The persistence of failure


So your car breaks down and you can't tell what's wrong as you're sitting there at the side of the road. You don't know anything about cars, but you do know who to call for help. You call AAA or a towing service. What you don't do is pray. Oh, you might pray for patience or fortitude to cope with whatever challenges this breakdown brings. But a rational believer does not pray for God to fix his car. Why not? Because you hate religion or reject the power of God? No, because this is not an appropriate sphere to invoke the power of God. And, to invoke a reason which is not at all blasphemous, it won't work. I leave it to theologians to explain why this is so, but I expect that God doesn't want us to pray for magic tricks.

And let me repeat this. We don't pray for God to do magic mostly because it doesn't work. Yet we persist with magical thinking with regard to educational theory all the time, and consistently ignore evidence that conflicts with our faith-based convictions.

I don't want to make the mistake of being overly subtle about this: MERIT PAY FOR TEACHERS DOESN'T WORK. It never has. Let's ignore whether or not it should work, or the value of applying market lessons to the profession of teaching. THERE IS NOT ONE SCRAP OF PROOF THAT MERIT PAY HAS EVER WORKED. Educational professionals have known this for years, over a decade at least, but that does not discourage political figures from continuing to bring it up. You don't see politicians advocating the use of astrology or voodoo, but they persist with merit pay for teachers idea because "common sense" says it ought to work. But it never has.

And even if one is skeptical of an assertion because it comes from an interested party, such as a teacher's union, that doesn't make the assertion untrue.

The most recent documentation of failure comes from the Rand Corporation, hardly a bastion of left-wing, pro-union thought. In a carefully conducted, well-documented study, Rand concluded that New York City's merit pay system did not improve student achievement or teacher practices. The city figured this out a while back and dropped the program back in January. "Well," say the pro-merit pay types, "they didn't implement it correctly. If we install it in the correct fashion, it's bound to produce the results we expect."

Except that they've been saying that for 20 or 30 years. How long before you send the voodoo priest home and call a doctor? Because nobody can point to a system that was unquestionably effective and could be copied by other districts. How do I know this without an exhaustive search? Because if somebody had made it work, we would all know what the template was. It would be widely reported, celebrated on the morning news shows and the print newsweeklies and publicized far and near. The very fact that we are still trying to re-jigger this seems to me like an engineer who is still trying to build a flying machine using flapping wings. Surely -- if we just get the wing size right...

And what's so particularly idiotic about persisting with this failed idea is the insulting and unconsidered assumptions that underlie it. That notion is that teachers are basically failures and slackers who flock to teaching for the compensation -- not perhaps the salaries, as most people acknowledge that salaries are relatively low for the level of education and training involved, but because of the security and fringe benefits. Once ensconced in a firm position at the public trough, teachers begin coasting and loafing until someone walks up with a fistful of cash to wave at someone who decides to actually try and do a good job. "Hey," we sluggards say collectively, "There's an idea -- actually teach something. Let's try it!"

What a load. I know most people dislike their jobs, but that is simply not true for more than 90% of teachers. Yes, there are probably some burnouts who are marking the calendar until retirement, but you would be stunned to know how few of them there are. I've never met one. There are some more experienced teachers who employ non-progressive methods of teaching, but that's not because they're trying to get away with the minimum effort.

And even the minimum effort of teaching is pretty difficult. For a person like me, who started teaching in his mid-to-late 40s, it's physically exhausting, and that's not a matter of controlling unruly classrooms. It's the long hours involved in preparation, research, creation of materials and reviewing and assessing student work. For me most days require at least 10 hours of work, leaving aside any extra-curricular projects I have, such as Drama Club. 12 and 14 hour days are not uncommon, especially when you're working on writing projects which require careful reading and comment. It can be grueling, especially around February and March. It can't be done without passion and commitment, or at the very least, the memory of it.

The mythology behind what should have been a harmless piece of fluff like the film Bad Teacher is based on the idea that any drunken, burned-out stumblebum can do this teaching thing without even breaking a sweat. Teachers are chumps and losers. To be honest, I haven't seen the film -- I avoided it -- so I can't analyze it, and certainly not without the perspicacity of this piece. (I know that films today have a lot of silly unbelievable junk in them, but it is hard to believe that in a film released in 2011, a teacher who has gone bad is punished for being involved with drugs by being sent to "Malcolm X High School." Translation -- a school full of those people. Disgusting.)

To be clear, I'm not lacking a sense of humor about teaching. I love School of Rock, in which Jack Black's goofy slacker finds his calling in teaching. But he brings passion to his work, and his teaching is actually a model of authentic-based instruction, in which students collaborate to accomplish a real-world goal. In a way, we should all aspire to be like that character.

But the broader idea behind Bad Teacher is the pernicious concept that the problem with education is teachers. Structural, social and economic problems apparently don't exist. We teachers just need to "bear down" a little harder and success would follow.

Again, anybody got any evidence for that? Or is this just another religious question?

We can argue what the solutions to deeply entrenched problems of society, culture and economic conditions. But I sure do know that you can't "teach around" them. You can't teach around the problem of a student who can't get homework done because he has no idea where he is going to eat and sleep each night due to chaotic family conditions. (This is not as uncommon as you would think.) Or a family which does not or will not support education as an important value. I've known children of very well-to-do families who refuse to do work because they've been guaranteed a situation in the family business. How do you "bear down" on that?

Mostly what's infuriating is that businesspeople and politicians are defining the problems and offering the solutions and excluding educators from the process. I didn't see the politicians telling GM how to build their cars, even as they were sending them hundreds of millions to stay in business. We don't let politicians design the bridges they levy taxes to construct. But somehow they (and everybody else) know more about education than the people involved in the practice every working day of their lives.

I picked the example at the beginning of this post with some thought. Because I actually do know someone who fixed a car with prayer. Years ago, as a traveling entertainer, my wife found herself in a broken-down van desperately trying to get to an Easter morning church service. As she tells it, she said, "I just want to go to church!" and on the word "church" her hand came down on the car. At once it started, and the startled members of her group jumped in the van and agreed they had better darn well get to church.

So, miracles can happen, I suppose. But depending on miracles is no way to build an educational system.

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