A Tale of Two Cities

Recently, Chicago resolved its teacher strike, delivering the teachers a 17.6% pay raise over four years. This was seen as an immense victory by many in the labour movement.

In Ontario, the dispute between teachers and the government still rages. (The Toronto Star has produced a helpful primer on the topic.) I’ve written before about the importance of teaching wages keeping pace with those of other professions, but the recent news from Chicago highlights two very different approches in these very different districts.

The stance taken by the province seems to be taking a position rather than negotiating in line with its interests, to use the language of Urry and Fisher in Getting to Yes. The province had no interest in most of what has emerged as contentions – they had an interest in keeping costs down and quality up. Now they have become embroiled in a dispute over the minutiae of the contract. In Chicago, they seemed to understand this difference.

Smart Boards or Smart People?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the usefulness of educational technology lately, and I don’t mean to belabour the topic. But this is an interesting, if very unscientific, discussion from Jerry Brodkey writing in Larry Cuban’s blog:

A front page New York Times article on January 20, 2010 was headlined: “If Your Kids Are Awake, They’re Probably Online”. The article details the results of a new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation that the typical 8 to 18 year-old spends more than 7.5 hours a day on electronics, plus another 1.5 hour texting and another half an hour on the cell phone. Students are immersed in their electronic world.

Many schools are integrating more and more technology into the curriculum. At the school where I teach, many teachers are switching to “Smart Boards”, a sophisticated piece of technology that looks like a white board but is actually linked to a computer and the Internet. Our school district has invested heavily in technology and the trend is exploding upwards.
As a veteran teacher, the trend bothers me. In my opinion, what should happen at schools, what can makes school valuable and unique, is to provide young people experiences they can’t get anywhere else. Instead of more technology, let’s use less. Instead of emphasizing technology that is often expensive and soon outdated, perhaps schools can take a different, newer (really older) approach.

Schools offer teachers and students an opportunity to do what is almost never done in society. In schools we can gather together a group of twenty to thirty people and have them listen, discuss, analyze, and share differing points of view. Schools provide a rare chance to read, debate, write, and quietly think. We don’t need expensive technology to learn how to ask excellent questions, articulate ideas, and be forced to defend our thoughts.

School hours are precious. My students and I need to learn and consider and develop together. This is what makes my students’ and my school experiences unique. This is what makes my calculus class in room D-10 at Menlo-Atherton High School different than a calculus class students could easily take online. In the classroom the students interact with me and with each other. My students see what happens when people are frustrated, or tired, or thinking creatively. They see what happens when people laugh together, learn together, are confused together. They spend real time with friends and individuals who are like them, and also different than them. They listen to me and to each other, they ask questions, they have to communicate clearly in a real setting. They respond directly to me and to each other and see the effects of their words, the power of their tone of voice, the inflection of a comment or question.

Technology can, of course, do amazing things. Any tool can be used properly or improperly. Unfortunately, with devices like Smart Boards, images come and go, and the teacher is often looking at a computer screen for part of the class. Smart Boards and similar technologies reinforce the idea that knowledge resides in things. We don’t need Smart Boards, we need smart people. Answers to all questions do not reside in the Internet, even if it is just a click away.

In my math classes, starting at the Algebra II level, we use graphing calculators to graph functions. They are a remarkable tool, a mini-computer students hold in the palm of their hands. Graphing calculators can graph complex functions in an instant. I do use them in my calculus classes, but I use them sparingly. When I use them, I like to slow down and ask students the following:

What does this graph represent? Is this a good graph? What makes a good graph? How could it be made better? Why are we even bothering to make a graph of this function? What are the limitations of this graph? What are the assumptions? How much data do we need to make a good graph? If we have a certain number of data points, can we assume the rest of the data follows this pattern? What are the limitations of the electronic graphing calculators we use?

Do these limitations come into play in this problem?

If all goes well, we have a very good discussion.

We don’t need more technology in my classroom. I have a precious 50 minutes with them each day for 180 days. That is time when real, not virtual, relationships may grow. Each moment I am looking at my computer screen or Smart Board takes away from the time I am directly interacting with my students. Each time I walk down the hall and see a teacher at a computer, or each moment when I am at mine, I feel it is an opportunity lost. For me, more technology is not the answer. It only detracts from what I am truly trying to achieve as a teacher.

Jerry Brodkey teaches at Menlo-Atherton High School in Menlo Park, California. He has been a public secondary school teacher since 1975, and has taught most of the subjects in Social Studies and Mathematics. This year he is currently teaching ninth grade Algebra and Advanced Placement Calculus. He continues to find teaching to be challenging, enjoyable, and always intense. His undergraduate degree was from Rice University (BA 1974), and with graduate work at Stanford (MA 1976, Ph.D. 1987).

Fixing Teacher Salaries

There are few professions with a reputation among members of the public so conflicted as teaching. On the one hand, most people do acknowledge that teaching is a noble job – often one, as I’ve written before, that has a certain charity feel to it (“Oh, you teach? Good for you!”) But on the other hand, few professionals are so widely regarded as being lazy and overpaid as teachers are. The issue normally lies dormant, but in an era of budget pressures the slings and arrows are readied once again.

The Ontario government, ignoring some of the advice of their advisor, Don Drummond, has made some strong early moves to curb spending. Since education spending is its second-largest program commitment, keeping the budget growth to 1% cannot be successful if previous trends were allowed to continue.

Two measures have been proposed, both of which seem to be counter to long-standing agreements and labour conventions: cancel retirement gratuities and “fix” the salary grid. The first refers to agreements that provide a lump-sum payment, reported as about half the final year of salary, for teachers who have banked most of their sick days throughout their career. Presumably, the measure was created to reward teachers who saved the system money by forfeiting their negotiated sick days. To cancel this for anyone who is anywhere near retirement obviously runs counter to collective agreements won over the years.

The second idea is to “fix” the salary grid. As I’ve written before, merely freezing new cost-of-living raises doesn’t achieve much, because yearly raises for years of experience are much higher than 1%. And Laurel Broten, education minister, has pushed for a two-year freeze of the grid, and moreover, a complete rethink of teacher salaries once that two years is up. What might that mean? It certainly doesn’t mean more money for teachers. Might it mean salary cuts? Almost certainly that’s the motivation. Might it mean some sort of new grid entirely, which lowers the majority of salaries in order to create new levels, in the name of ‘pursuing excellence,’ or some such – ie, a new level for graduate degrees, while all others get a 10% pay cut? Might it mean some version of merit pay, an idea that has been argued against by the former Deputy Minister of Education for Ontario? All these are possible, but the Minister isn’t saying much right now. (And the language of the debate – to fix what is broken – is appallingly conservative for a government that fashioned itself the carrier of the progressive banner.)

According to the Globe and Mail:

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario and Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation both reacted with outrage. In a scathing letter to his members, ETFO president Sam Hammond called the tone of the proposal “mean-spirited” and wrote, “To say we were insulted is an understatement.” The ETFO has also pulled out of two days of talks scheduled for next week.

The union is right to fight for the retirement gratuity if they are to represent the wishes of their membership, which happens to be fairly mature. But from a public policy standpoint, it is a relatively small measure: the entire obligation, province-wide, over what appears to be a generation for teachers, is $1.7 billion. To increase the gap in salary, not a bonus earned over 30 years, between teaching and the other professions is obviously short-sighted. And if you are a younger teacher, the freeze in wage growth is far more troubling – older teachers are already at the top of the grid, so it hurts them much, much less.

There is a lot to like about most of Drummond’s recommendations – again, in the broad sense. And of course this wasn’t the suggestion Drummond made – he was in favour of saving money through larger class sizes in the primary years, and the reversal of the hard cap by McGuinty’s government, since so very little evidence exists in its favour. And a delayed roll-out in the very expensive full-day kindergarten that, again, was an election showpiece.

But it is preposterous to suggest that in an era of inflation over 2%, and average salary increases across this country of 3.1% (according to the Conference Board of Canada), to freeze, then cut, teacher salaries, without expecting any concomitant long-term repercussions in the quality of education. If education is important, we needed the best and the brightest to enter the field. It isn’t enough to echo the old refrain, “No one becomes a teacher for the money.” (Or if the refrain holds true, it should hold true in all professions – a return to higher personal income tax rates on high earners should demonstrate that. The government would have all the money it needs with a high income surtax).

Teachers need to be paid at a rate similar to other professions of equal social value and equal educational requirements. I think we’re quite close at this exact moment, but with at least two years erosion by inflation, and then a complete overhaul of teachers salaries (downward), the gap between accounting, law, medicine, even law enforcement will grow so great that the only folks interested in the profession will indeed be the ones looking for summers off. And that’s a shame.

Teacher Pay in a Time of Austerity

In the rush to fix the many budget problems that have beset governments around the world, many have turned to spending cuts as a solution.  In education, this can sometimes mean larger class sizes, hiring freezes, layoffs, and pay cuts.  Some districts in the US have been fierce; in Canada, teachers have been spared.  But for how long?Ontario, a province with a significant structural deficit, has hired Don Drummond, a former bank economist, to find efficiencies, savings, and outright cuts.  Obviously, no jurisdiction can have, for very long, deficits that far exceed growth rates, so Ontario does have to act.  But with so much spending wrapped up in health and education, where to find the money?  Early in the new year, we’ll find out.The plan will be to keep spending increases to 1% in key areas – which would mean lower-than-inflation pay increases for teachers.  In fact, it might mean something much, much lower than 1%, and here’s why: pay increases occur in two ways – by moving up the gay grid with new years of experience, and with each new step of the pay grid increasing by about 2-3% each year (historically).  So, even if you stop the 2-3% yearly increases, the overall cost of wages will increase by much more than 2-3% per year because the yearly pay grid increase for each passing year of experience is often approaching 10%.The chart below is the Toronto District School Board pay grid, and it indicates the challenge:

Toronto Teacher Pay

Even if we froze that salary grid completely, every teacher who wasn’t yet at the top of the grid (any teachers in years 0-10 of their career), will receive a pay increase.  And it will cost more than 1%.  Much more.

To take a more radical step and freeze new levels of experience, freeze salaries entirely (not just cost-of-living raises), well much more savings could be found.  But to do so would put teachers in an even weaker salary position in relation to other professions.  And as that gap grows, will it be possible to find the best workers?

Everyone says “teachers don’t go into the job for the money,” but I disagree vehemently – this is one of those silly things people say to sound soft and fuzzy.  Teachers need to be paid fairly, and no teacher would work for free.  Money isn’t their key motivator, but wait to see what happens when salaries are cut or frozen and the gap between teachers and other well-educated workers grows and grows.  If good teaching is important, why reduce it to charity work?  Or on the other hand, why not apply the same thinking to medicine, or law?

Here’s Don and friends on a recent edition of TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin.  (Also featured is Ben Levin, one of my recent professors.)

Moneyball for Schooling?

The premise of the new Hollywood movie and book of the same name, Moneyball, is quite simple: the great minds who operated baseball’s best clubs were, collectively, not as clever as they thought they were – and as a result, much of their money and effort was being wasted on ideas that, when held to the light of analysis and scrutiny, weren’t worthwhile. When the old scouts asked the wrong questions, when they misunderstood the very mechanics of the game they were entrusted to understand, when they were wrong, they (and everyone else) believed they were right. Until they were proved otherwise. A team could win by spending less but by understanding the game better – wisdom would yield results.


Moneyball Trailer 2 by teasertrailer

That basic premise applies well to education, too: we all think we ‘know’ what works best, which teachers are ‘better’ than others, some techniques are stars and some are dogs, and yet we rarely have much to go on besides often-faulty instincts. I’ve gone on and on about it recently: that education requires the blending of practice and research; that some ideas are better than others, and that we should know the difference between the two; that thinking alone does not make it so; that the Kruger-Dunning Effect explains why it is much of the reason behind under-performing schools; all the way back to the first blog post in this space 15 months ago on Doug Lemov’s attempts to build a better teacher.

Of course, there is work that has been done to address the longstanding questions in education – but it is complicated. Not all the research is good; education is dynamic and responds to some degree to the society it tires to educate; and no system as chaotic as schooling can be expected to perform as a computer does, with completely predictable outcomes. But then, neither can we expect it from baseball either.

Yet, there is still truth to the premise: we can run an organization, the Oakland As or the local school, with wisdom or wives’ tales. The results, on average, have got to be better when we move past old unchallenged assumptions and stop equating the number of grey hairs with truth.

If You Pay Peanuts, You Get Monkeys…

Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari wrote recently about “The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries” in the New York Times.  They begin with an observation about blame:

WHEN we don’t get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don’t blame the soldiers. We don’t say, “It’s these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefits plans! That’s why we haven’t done better in Afghanistan!” No, if the results aren’t there, we blame the planners. We blame the generals, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition.

And yet in education we do just that. When we don’t like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources.

Very, very true.  We do not blame most professionals for problems outside of their direct sphere of influence.  Let’s use an analogy closer to home than soldiers in Afghanistan: when we go to the doctor and she tells us to quit smoking, or lose some weight, and then we ignore her advice, few would say the doctor had ‘failed us.’  If we then sadly die of a heart attack weeks later, no one would blame the doctor.

Eggers and Clements Calegari argue one solution to the problems of our education system is to pay teachers more.  According to the Economic Policy Institute, “the average weekly pay of teachers (in the US) in 2003 was nearly 14% below that of workers with similar education and work experience,” pricing them out of home ownership in 32 US major metropolitan areas.

So how do teachers cope? Sixty-two percent work outside the classroom to make ends meet. For Erik Benner, an award-winning history teacher in Keller, Tex., money has been a constant struggle. He has two children, and for 15 years has been unable to support them on his salary. Every weekday, he goes directly from Trinity Springs Middle School to drive a forklift at Floor and Décor. He works until 11 every night, then gets up and starts all over again.

All teachers – like all professionals – are in favour of higher wages.  Luckily, teachers in Ontario do fairly well: the top salary for teachers in a secondary school will be something like $94,000 in the fall.  And perhaps there is a connection between teacher salaries and student success: the most recent PISA data from the OECD has Ontario ranked near the top.

But if anyone wants to pass a raise, I doubt too many in the professsion would object.  Taxpayers, on the other hand…

To Each According to His Needs, or Does the Victor get the Spoils?

In many, but not all, professions, pay is based on performance.  This is especially true in sales where salespeople who exceed their targets get rewarded with large bonuses.  In other fields, too, performance drives compensation: law, corporate management, and sports tend to stick out in our minds.These careers have the advantage of numbers on their side: relatively easy-to-comprehend factors can be assembled to understand the productivity of a salesperson, for example.  Lawyers have billable hours.  CEOs have targets assigned by the board.  Athletes have statistics.  To the degree that someone reaches these targets we can say he or she has done good work.  And then the compensation can increase.

Such a pay model assumes that we are motivated by compensation above most other factors.  And it assumes a certain degree of control over our work.  And for many people in many fields, it seems to work.  Do a great job, get lots of money; don’t do a great job, get less money.

Imagine applying the thinking to teachers.  Could we achieve the kinds of reforms demanded for generations (better schools) by simply changing the compensation arrangement?

Currently, most teachers across the western world earn a salary based on years in the profession, with a factor for level of education (Bachelor of Arts + Bachelor of Education + Years in Profession = Pay).  Which means that our pay isn’t directly tied to how well we do the job.  Teaching has resisted market measures like merit pay because of the highly unionized nature of the workforce.  But with more money than ever being spent on schooling, and (in some areas) mediocre results, the idea has been gaining momentum lately.

President Obama has repeatedly endorsed merit pay for teachers.  Laura Meckler, writing in The Wall Street Journal, quoted him as saying early in his presidency: “It’s time to start rewarding good teachers, stop making excuses for bad ones. If a teacher is given a chance or two chances or three chances but still does not improve, there’s no excuse for that person to continue teaching.”  I imagine most North Americans would agree with this statement.

Some do disagree, though.  One of my teachers, Prof. Ben Levin, a former deputy minister of education in Ontario, argues that merit pay will not achieve the kinds of results hopeful conservative policy-makers want it to.  He gives eight reasons:
1. Very few people anywhere in the labour force are paid on the basis of measured outcomes
2. No other profession is paid on the basis of measured client outcomes
3. Most teachers oppose such schemes
4. Pay based on student achievement is highly likely to lead to displacement of other important education purposes and goals
5. There is no consensus on what the measures of merit should be
6. The measurement of merit in teaching inevitably involves a degree of error
7. The details of merit pay schemes vary widely, yet these details have great impact on how such plans are received and their effects on teachers and schools
8. Merit pay schemes in education have a long record of failure
(For the complete essay, click here)

Ben was also in a debate last week with Peter Cowley of the Fraser Institute (a conservative think-tank in favour of merit pay and other market measures for education).  It aired on CBC’s Sunday Edition.  Click here to listen to the entire debate.

This Blog Post Brought to You by Pepsi

I an era of financial calamities like our own, administrators are always looking for ways to cut costs.  In Los Angeles, a city in a state hurt hard by the Great Recession, they have had to cut $1.5 billion from the city’s education budget – which represents about a quarter of all monies.

Aside from cutting costs, though – which invariably means massive layoffs and larger classes – you might, as a school-board administrator, consider selling the naming rights to school facilities.  Which is exactly what Jennifer Medina reports the LA school system is pondering.

“This is really our way to be responsive to that reality; we need to look for other sources of revenue,” said Melissa Infusino, the director of partnerships for the district. “As uncomfortable as it may be for folks, it’s less comfortable to get rid of programs or go through more layoffs.”

Good logic, as far as it goes.  But if, on the other hand, the sponsorship only generate $18 million – a number quoted in the article – it hardly seems worth it.

While some may argue that naming rights don’t impinge on the purpose or the mandate of the building in question, I would argue that whenever a public building is sponsored something is lost.  As citizens, we participate less somehow when corporations have their names on what is by all rights a public structure.  Before corporate sponsorship, it used to be “all of ours,” equally, rich and poor – and now the sign reminds us that we are only here out of Pepsi’s beneficence.

Is that worth $18 million?  Or speaking in relative terms, would allow Nike to put a six-foot sign above the door to your house for $100?