"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Friday, December 20, 2013

Teachers Are Neither Ignorant Nor Lazy, They Are Powerless

This is a follow-up to the previous post, "Teachers are ignorant, not lazy". The study highlighted in the previous post, Fryer's "Teacher Incentives and Student Achievement: Evidence from New York City Public Schools", comes with a clear evidence that performance based bonuses do not have an impact on student learning. That part is quite clear from the data. What is much less straightforward to see is the explanation on why bonuses do not work. My answer is that teachers are neither ignorant nor lazy, they are simply powerless.
Classroom photo from Sidney Snoeck, http://my_sarisari_store.typepad.com 
Donut production line from Krispy Kreme doughnut shop (Wikipedia)
To understand this, the following anecdote from the book "Reign of Error" by Diane Ravitch is particularly useful:
In 1991, a businessman named Jamie Vollmer gave a speech to a group of teachers in Indiana. He was an executive at an ice cream company who had come to conduct an in-service program for educators. He told them they needed to operate more like his company, whose blueberry ice cream had been recognized by People magazine in 1984 as the “Best Ice Cream in America.” He told the assembled teachers, “If I ran my business the way you people operate your schools, I wouldn’t be in business for long.”   
As he later told the story, he explained to the teachers that the schools were obsolete and that educators resist change because tenure protects them from accountability. Business, he thought, had it right. It operates on principles of “Zero defects! TQM [total quality management]! Continuous improvement!” 
Not surprisingly , the teachers reacted with sullen hostility. When he finished his speech, a teacher innocently asked about his company’s method of making the best ice cream. He boasted of its “super-premium” ingredients, nothing but the best. Then she asked a question: 
“Mr. Vollmer,” she said, leaning forward with a wicked eyebrow raised to the sky, “when you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?” In the silence of that room, I could hear the trap snap … I was dead meat, but I wasn’t going to lie. “I send them back.” She jumped to her feet. “That’s right!” she barked, “and we can never send back our blueberries. We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant. We take them with ADHD, junior rheumatoid arthritis, and English as their second language. We take them all! Every one! And that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it’s not a business. It’s school!” In an explosion, all 290 teachers , principals, bus drivers, aides, custodians, and secretaries jumped to their feet and yelled, “Yeah! Blueberries! Blueberries!” 
Jamie Vollmer had an epiphany. From that day forward, he realized that schools could never operate like a business because they do not control their “raw material.” They cannot sort the blueberries and reject those that are bruised or broken. They take them all.
It is indeed important to consider how much a teacher can actually influence a student's learning. As Fryer noted in his paper, there are instances in developing countries where bonuses seem to have worked. These cases, however, involve a lot less complicated condition in order to receive additional pay. For instance, teachers are given bonuses if they improve their own attendance in some schools in India. In this particular case, absenteeism of teachers is reduced with the bonus scheme. That is simple enough and the outcome is clearly in the hands of the teacher. Much more complex outcomes do not really fall squarely on teachers' shoulders. Take, for example, decreasing dropout rates. This is in fact a lot simpler already than the more common measure used to decide teachers' bonuses, improvement in standardized test scores. The problem is: Do students really drop out of school because of their teachers? It is therefore necessary to look into what causes school dropouts. In places where poverty is widespread and child labor is not outlawed, school leaving rates are high. Children whose parents did not finish school are more likely to stop schooling as well. School dropout rates are really way beyond a teacher's sphere of influence.

Learning outcomes in schools are not solely determined by teachers. In fact, the teacher is not the major factor influencing students' performance in schools. The community plays a very important role. How important education is perceived by society affects how motivated students are in schools. In a society where meritocracy is not the rule but the exception, taking schools seriously becomes an impossibility. A society in which what matters is who you know and not what you know sends a very clear message to all of its young citizens. School is a waste of time. How much of these are  really within a teacher's influence? When all the programs on television glamorized ignorance and myths, what can a teacher really do inside a classroom.

We are quick to embrace sayings like, "It takes a village to educate a child". Unfortunately, we are too slow to see that we have placed so much on the shoulders of our teachers. Worse, we even think we can make teachers do a better job. Teachers do not need merit pay - what they need are just salaries, respect from society, and cooperation from everyone. The teaching profession can only be elevated if we do make it above others. Otherwise, we reap what we sow.




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