What Are You Actually Paying For When You Pay For an Education?

So the two separate but related discussion we’ve been having about teacher’s unions and student performance have started me thinking about a question that I wonder about a lot: What is the product that you think you are paying for when you pay for an education? And I don’t care whether it’s K-12, undergraduate, graduate, trade school–doesn’t matter–though I suppose it’s might be necessary, in the case of public schooling, to distinguish between what you think your tax money pays for, in the broadest sense, when it comes to education and what you think it is that teachers are paid to produce.

I mean this as a very serious question, because I sometimes think that the degree to which discussions about how to fix our educational system fail has a lot to do with the degree to which this question remains unasked and/or unanswered and/or poorly answered at best.

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70 Responses to What Are You Actually Paying For When You Pay For an Education?

  1. 1
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Great question!

    Mostly, it is incredibly dependent on age. In fact, I’ll suggest that a non-age-limited analysis is so unspecific as to be nearly impossible unless you’re talking in the limited context of a cumulative skill**.

    At the preschool level, you’re mostly giving socialization and general training in how to be a student.

    At the elementary level, you start teaching hard facts and hard theories. (“Washington was the first president. Acceleration under gravity is roughly 9.81 m/second^2. This is the process for standard long division.”

    Starting at different times but generally increasing as you age, schools teach how to think, i.e., analysis and method stuff. “Why do you think that? What else would be possible? How accurate do you think your theory is? How would you know?” Advanced students get that early; less advanced students get that later.

    By the time you get to college, it’s much more free. Some colleges will focus on presenting hard facts, while others will focus on teaching methods of analysis, and everything else under the sun.

    Set within each option is the “traditionally academic / not traditionally academic” divide that applies across the board to hard facts, hard theories, and methodology.

    **For example: If you want your college-bound seniors to have the option of selecting an engineering major, and if you don’t want them to have a high rate of failure, then you have to pay attention to their math training far, far, earlier than high school.

  2. G&W:

    I’m not sure that you’ve answered the question: What you’ve listed are learning outcomes, not the tangible or quantifiable product on which you can put the price tag of whatever amount of money you are paying at whatever level of education you are talking about. I’m not arguing against your assertion that the answer will differ depending on age, grade, etc., just that I don’t think what you’ve described here is something on which you can put a price tag.

  3. 3
    nm says:

    I say that when you pay for an education (at any level, at any age) you are paying for access to an instructor or instructors who have the obligation to present you with information about a topic and the skill sets necessary to master and report on it, in a classroom setting, and who further have the obligation to be available to you individually (for different amounts of time and different types of interaction, depending on age and topic) outside of a classroom setting for further elaboration on or repetition of the topics and skill sets in question.

  4. 4
    Mokele says:

    IMHO, what you’re paying for is, in the end, certification. Graduating from any of the various levels implies (with some error margins) that the individual has acquired at least enough knowledge and skill to meet a set of standards. In a trade school, these standards may be largely based on being able to accomplish a given feat, while they may be more nebulous for something like a BA in liberal arts. Mechanisms of evaluation are similarly diverse, but all geared towards the same ends – assessing whether the individual has met a given standard. How descriptive and accurate these standards are when it comes to use of this knowledge is also highly variable with field and age.

    You’re also paying for access to both the raw information and equipment needed and for instruction in order to aid in mastery, as well as ancilliary expenses depending on the situation (room & board, lab supplies, etc.), but this can be seen as either part of the certification process or simply as a mechanism for gaining the knowledge/skills needed to be certified.

    When someone purchases a fake degree, real degree-holders usually object on the basis that the faker didn’t work for it and likely lacks the skills. However nobody objects when someone breezes through a real degree program simply because of sheer intelligence or extracurricular preparation, so the former objection is less an issue than the latter – fake degrees are seen as undermining real degrees by raising uncertainty about whether such individuals really have the skills they certification says, and fakers are seen as attempting to reap undeserved rewards.

    Putting a price tag on it is hard, but think of it like a health & sanitation certification for a restaurant. In a sense, it’s invaluable, but it also has real monetary costs (paying staff to clean, purchasing sanitary equipment, etc.) and benefits (being able to sell food without being sued or shut down). These benefits can even be quantified (compare the cumulative salary of a BS in mechanical engineering to a HS grad’s cumulative pay).

  5. 5
    Elusis says:

    What is the product that you think you are paying for when you pay for an education?

    What I’ve said at the post-high-school level is that when you pay for college or graduate tuition, you are paying for the opportunity to attempt to demonstrate mastery of the material presented in classes.

    This distinction is important to me because I have encountered too many students whose attitude seems to be “I paid for this class; now give me my passing grade. No, not that passing grade, the one that reflects my self-image.”

  6. 6
    mike says:

    Richard says:

    I’m not sure that you’ve answered the question: What you’ve listed are learning outcomes, not the tangible or quantifiable product on which you can put the price tag of whatever amount of money you are paying at whatever level of education you are talking about.

    Education is a service not a product.
    When I buy car repair I want a car that runs, accelerates reasonably, and gets a certain number of miles per gallon. If the dealership can deliver that by chanting at the car, and never touching a tool that is fine with me.
    (Except that I will have to change my model of the world, but that is another issue).

    When I state what I want to buy for education it is mostly in terms of the outcome.

  7. 7
    queenrandom says:

    When it comes to tuition or taxes at the level of the individual*, I couldn’t agree more with what Elusis wrote.

    When it comes to my tax dollars in general, I consider the money I pay in taxes for education is paying for a population that is sufficiently skilled to perform the various necessary tasks (not limited to paid work) to raise the standard of living for my community/state/country as measured by crime rates, health outcomes, GDP, etc etc.

    *that is, what do my taxes get for me vis-a-vis education, with the caveat of course that I didn’t pay taxes for the majority of time when I was in K-12.

  8. 8
    Glaurung says:

    I don’t think it’s not a certificate for getting a job, although lots of people seem to think that nowadays. Lots of people drop out (of college, high school, whatever) without getting the certificate they were aiming after – was their time in school completely wasted? I say no.

    I think what you’re paying for when you pay for education are skills and techniques for living life in your society in a reasonably successful manner. That can mean learning stuff necessary for getting a job, learning how to get along with other people, learning how to stay alive and healthy, or even learning how to be happy.

  9. 9
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Richard Jeffrey Newman says:
    March 9, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    G&W:

    I’m not sure that you’ve answered the question

    I don’t think it’s well phrased enough to support a good discussion about an answer, so rather than wasting time answering it, I’m encouraging you to rephrase it with more specificity. You’ll agree, perhaps, if you try to propose an answer yourself.

    To make some obvious distinctions: are you talking about what we get when we pay for an education generally (including the quality of the school cafeteria and library) or are you really intending to discuss (as per the teacher’s union thread) when we should expect from teachers for a given paycheck? Are you talking about what we are paying for even if its irrelevant to most definitions of “education” (the social value of a Harvard degree, for example, or the college-admissions effect of being president of the class?)

  10. G&W:

    I asked the question the way I did precisely because I think when we talk about education and what it costs we don’t think about the distinctions you ask about, and I think that our first responses, including my own, say a lot about the unstated assumptions that inform discussions about the teacher’s union and education reform, etc. and so on. Too often those assumptions go unexamined.

    For example, take what Mike said about education being a service not a product:

    When I buy car repair I want a car that runs, accelerates reasonably, and gets a certain number of miles per gallon. If the dealership can deliver that by chanting at the car, and never touching a tool that is fine with me.

    But if you take your car in for repair and the fix doesn’t work–and let’s assume the mechanic has not done shabby work, that he or she is a good mechanic, but the car’s problems are more complex than they first appear–you are still going to pay the mechanic for the work he or she performed, even if it did not fully fix the car. In other words, you do not pay only if you get the outcome you desire; and this does not take into consideration that Mike’s comparison elides the fact that students are not cars and that their behavior, attention, etc. are variables that effect the success of the delivery of the teacher’s service in ways that are quite different from the variables at work in the repair of a car.

    My own position is more complex than I have the time to flesh out fully since I need to do some paperwork and prepare for a class that starts in about 40 minutes, but, in terms of the classroom, it comes very close to what Elusis said above–though I think that would need to be revised when it comes to mandatory public education, because in that situation you are not paying for access.

  11. 11
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Richard Jeffrey Newman says:
    March 9, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    G&W:

    I asked the question the way I did precisely because I think when we talk about education and what it costs we don’t think about the distinctions you ask about, and I think that our first responses, including my own, say a lot about the unstated assumptions that inform discussions about the teacher’s union and education reform, etc. and so on. Too often those assumptions go unexamined.

    Are we going to examine and discuss them, then? I realize you teach at the college (or graduate, perhaps?) level. But in all fairness, pretty much 90% of the discussions regarding schools, unions, and teaching have been focused on teaching at the pre-college level. And Elusis’ argument excludes that as well.

  12. G&W:

    Are we going to examine and discuss them, then?

    That was my hope. And I am very aware that what I think about the education my college students and/or their parents and/or financial aid pay for is going to be different in some ways, but not all, from what I think about the education my son is receiving in the NYC public school he attends that my tax money helps to pay for; that doesn’t mean it is not useful to talk about them in the same conversation–though it does mean that one needs to be clear what one is talking about when.

  13. 13
    RonF says:

    When I pay for my child’s K-12 education I expect that he or she will be presented an age-appropriate curriculum that will teach:

    Mathematics through introductory calculus.
    English. They should be taught a mastery of reading and writing English to a level that is generally exhibited here on this blog. They should write and write and write again. They should learn what it is to have their writing critiqued and to re-write in order to satisfy the critique.
    American History. That means that the student should understand how and why the North American continent was settled by all races of people currently on it, how the colonies were formed, how they became independent and formed the Confederation and then the Union, and all the principal military, social and economic events (including dates, places, and principal actors) since then.
    World History. European, African and Asian history should be taught. It should be emphasized during the teaching of European history that this is where most of the ancestors of American citizens come from and where the foundation of our legal and social systems came from, and how that process occurred and evolved to our present day systems.
    Civics. The structure of American government at the Federal, State, County and local levels, with special emphasis on the student’s own State, County and local towns. They should understand the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and be able to cite important sections of them from memory. They should understand the three branches of government, what their duties are, and how they check/balance each other. They should be able to explain how a bill becomes law, how the courts work, how someone can become a candidate for office and get elected, and what the duties of the principal Constitutional officials are (again, at all levels). They should understand what their individual rights are, what the function of government is in preserving those rights from being encroached upon, and what they can do to defend them. They should understand how one becomes a citizen and what the privileges and obligations of being a citizen are. They should understand the different ways they are taxed, what those taxes pay for and how taxes are assessed. They should understand the process of government regulation – how regulations are created and enforced, and what makes them different from laws.
    Science and Engineering. They should be taught Geology, Biology, Chemistry and Physics and understand the basic principles of them. The theories of evolution and natural selection are basic principles of Biology. They should have hands-on lab experience in all 3. They should understand how the scientific method works and what the difference is between a guess, a hypothesis and a theory are. They should have some exposure to mechanical and electrical engineering basic principles.
    Geography. They should understand the geography of the world in general and of the United States in particular. This should include understanding the economics of nations from the perspective of their natural resources and how they are used – and abused. And the consequences of the latter.
    Manual Arts. Every child should required to learn how to use basic hand tools such as saws, hammers, wrenches, screwdrivers, drills, etc. on at least wood if not metal and build a couple of projects. An opportunity to learn to use basic power tools should be available but not necessarily required. Kids should learn what the basic components of an automobile are, what the maintenance items are, what the consequences of neglecting them are, and have hands on experience in performing those maintenance operations that require no more than basic hand tools.
    Foreign Languages. At least two years of a foreign language should be required. This should start very early. At least 8 years of instruction should be available for those students who wish to take advantage of such.
    Arts. Kids should learn how to read music, sing, play some kind of instrument, paint, draw and make a ceramic object.

    In all these things there will be varying skill levels and aptitudes. Math through Algebra I ought to be within everyone’s reach. Some basic levels of English, Science and Engineering, History, Civics and Geography have got to be emphasized above everything else.

    What I would like to see in addition:
    Religion. They should be taught the basic principles of any religion that can claim more than 5% of the American population as adherents, and put Buddhism and Hinduism in there as well if they do not otherwise qualify based on how prevalent they are in the world. They should also be taught what major events in world history have been influenced by religious movements and leaders. The nuances of what has comprised “influence” should make for interesting discussions, especially along the lines of, e.g., “Islamic terrorism” vs. “terrorist acts executed by Muslims” or whether the religious wars in Europe were caused by religion or were power struggles where leaders used religion to mask their true intent.
    Logic. Each student should take a semester in formal logic. This will help them distinguish truth from crap and emotional rhetoric when listening to marketing, political speeches, etc.

  14. RonF:

    That is a quite thorough and thoughtful list. I’m going to be kind of nitpicky about language and point out that, in the introductory statement you say, “I expect that he or she will be presented an age-appropriate curriculum that will teach” (emphasis mine), while in the rest of the comment you go back and forth between what students should be presented with and what they should be able to do; and I would argue that, in terms of what one pays for, these are in fact two different things. In the first instance, you are paying for the work a teacher does in the classroom, which includes all the out of classroom preparatory work; in the second, you are at least in part paying for (in the sense of what you think the deliverable is) the work students are expected to do both in and out of the classroom.

    I am not sure right now what I want to say about this other than to point it out–it’s a lack of clarity that I often find in my own thinking about this question–but I do think it is something worth working to clarify when we try to define what it means for us to get out money’s worth when it comes to education.

  15. 15
    Jake Squid says:

    I’m with you on most of your list, Ron. I do need to address this, though.

    Religion. They should be taught the basic principles of any religion that can claim more than 5% of the American population as adherents, and put Buddhism and Hinduism in there as well if they do not otherwise qualify based on how prevalent they are in the world.

    According to your stated desire, children should be taught the basic principles of Christianity. Full stop. And then put Buddhism and Hinduism in there as well.

    What about Islam and Judaism? (.6% to 2.6% and 1.2% to 2.2%, respectively).

    I suspect that you didn’t realize that the only religion to surpass your 5% threshold is Christianity. I suspect that you are from from alone in that.

  16. 16
    RonF says:

    Yeah, Jake, I didn’t realize the incidence of Judaism was < 5%, although I would have if I'd thought about it. Basically I think the kids should be taught the basic principles of Christianity (with some attention to the differences between the RCC and Protestantism in general and where some of the major Protestant sects came from), Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hindusim. Maybe a dual system of .8% of the American population or 5% of world population (the latter picking up Hinduism and Islam I'm thinking) would work.

    Richard, you're right about my language. I'm trying to get through to the concept that a teacher can do their job but the student can still fail to learn based on factors out of the control of the teacher. And also the fact that some kids are not going to learn how to do introductory calculus but will be a whiz at
    English, etc. There should be some standards of student achievement, perhaps tied to the economic demographics of the student body.

  17. 17
    Elusis says:

    Ron, interesting list.

    I would add that Human Sexuality and other health education goes under Biology for me.

    Manual Arts. Every child should required to learn how to use basic hand tools such as saws, hammers, wrenches, screwdrivers, drills, etc. on at least wood if not metal and build a couple of projects. An opportunity to learn to use basic power tools should be available but not necessarily required. Kids should learn what the basic components of an automobile are, what the maintenance items are, what the consequences of neglecting them are, and have hands on experience in performing those maintenance operations that require no more than basic hand tools.

    And my father thanks you; my mother would like to add that Manual Arts should also include Home Economics. Every child should learn the safe and proper operation of basic kitchen tools including knives, basic hand appliances, stoves, and microwaves. They should learn how to read and follow a recipe, how to understand units of kitchen measurement and make a recipe bigger or smaller, how to perform basic cooking tasks, and prepare individual foods and meals using simple techniques. They should learn some fundamental principles of nutrition (which also overlaps with Biology) and basic food science information on how to preserve food nutrition while adding to its flavor and palatability. They should be exposed to a variety of familiar and unfamiliar foods.

    I would also add the domain of Literature. Students should be exposed to a wide variety of poetry, prose, and drama, fiction and non-fiction from various periods and cultural groups in the U.S. and around the world. They should learn skills for understanding the main idea of an essay or fictional work, and be able to compare and contrast the ideas in two or more pieces on similar subjects. They should understand basic rhetorical techniques such as simile, metaphor, and hyperbole, and be able to evaluate their use in literature.

  18. RonF:

    I’m trying to get through to the concept that a teacher can do their job but the student can still fail to learn based on factors out of the control of the teacher.

    Absolutely, which is one reason why so many teachers are so dead set against high-stakes standardized testing. My question, though, is this: Given the truth of your statement, by what concrete (quantifiable? sure, if it’s not the only one) measure do you distinguish fairly–to both student and teacher–between the student who fails to learn, despite the fact that the teacher is doing her or his job and the teacher who is simply not doing the job. And let me say this up front: While I think that test scores are, reasonably, a part of that measure, I do not think they ought to be the deciding factor at either the low or high end of the scale. There needs to be some kind of qualitative evaluation as well, in my opinion. I am wondering if you agree and what you think that evaluation ought to consist of.

  19. 19
    RonF says:

    This distinction is important to me because I have encountered too many students whose attitude seems to be “I paid for this class; now give me my passing grade. No, not that passing grade, the one that reflects my self-image.”

    “My kid has been in your Troop for 3 years. Why hasn’t he made Eagle? What are you doing wrong?!”

    Sit down. This is going to take a while. Or, drop him off for the Troop meeting and then circle around to the window and just watch him for a while while he doesn’t know you’re here and you’ll figure it out in 10 minutes.

  20. 20
    RonF says:

    Elusis:

    With regards to human sexuality, I agree that the biological basis of human reproduction and the mechanisms at both the cellular and organism level should definitely be included in Biology at an age-appropriate level. However, where we may well part company is whether (and if so, how) things like homosexual behavior should be dealt with. I would be dead set against teaching kids that homosexual behavior is either normal/acceptable/moral or abnormal/unacceptable/immoral, for example. Certainly you’d need health education.

    Home Ec? Sure. I remember well my mother teaching my brothers and I (Mom had no daughters) how to cook, wash and iron our clothes, vacumn and sweep, do the dishes, etc. “You’re not going to have to depend on some woman to feed and take care of yourself!” Heh.

    I figured literature came under the general heading of English – that’s what it was called when I was in school. I agree with your objectives. The emphasis should be on American and English literature, but some exposure to world literature would be a good idea. My entire Junior year of English in High School was American Literature, starting with entries from William Bradford’s journal, the Mayflower Compact and Johnathon Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.

    it was a big fat green book and I’d read it cover to cover before mid-terms.

  21. 21
    RonF says:

    Richard:

    Given the truth of your statement, by what concrete (quantifiable? sure, if it’s not the only one) measure do you distinguish fairly–to both student and teacher–between the student who fails to learn, despite the fact that the teacher is doing her or his job and the teacher who is simply not doing the job.

    That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? I’ve been asking that one myself for years. Test scores are part of it. You could normalize the kids’ test scores against those of kids from similar ethnic/racial/economic/rural-suburban-urban backgrounds, like the comparison between Texas’ non-union schools vs. Wisconsin’s union schools did in the Wisconsin union thread. But I figure that in the end there is no such method. There’s no way to come up with a completely objective and quantifiable evaluation of how well or poorly a teacher does their job. There has to be a qualitative portion of the evaluation, which must be subjective.

    Of course, you can say the same about my job, or about most professionals’ or white-collar jobs. It’s only when you’re talking about a blue-collar job that you can say things like “how many widgets that passed quality control did you make?” or “How many floors that passed inspection did you clean” or “how many cars did you fix that the owners didn’t bring back to the shop and did you meet or exceed the book value on the hours?” Teachers want to be considered as professionals. But they want to be protected from subjectivity and evaluated as though they were blue-collar workers in a union. If you want me to consider you a professional then you have to be evaluated as a professional – which means at least in part subjectively – and take the same risks I do. Worried that politics might screw you out of a job? Welcome to my world.

    But teachers don’t want that. That’s what the union protects them from. If the budget or the enrollment drops you have to get rid of teachers. Get rid of the worst? Hell, no. The union says “first in, last out”, regardless of the quality of the teacher. That’s why the Outstanding First-Year Teacher of 2009-2010 is out of a job. She was too new, and when they cut back a more senior teacher kept his or her job instead and one of the best teachers in the state was out on the street. What do you think the parents thought when they saw that and saw that the tenured teacher who’s been phoning it in for the last 5 years kept their job? Here’s one:

    Kat Trago, a parent, said it was a huge tragedy for Burbank.

    “As a taxpayer, I would like my money to go to my child’s education,” Trago said. “I understand layoffs, and I understand tenure, too, but I think there should be some sort of merit system.”

    So yes, there’s got to be a qualitative as well as a quantitative component in teacher evaluations. What teachers’ union permits one?

  22. 22
    Elusis says:

    I would be dead set against teaching kids that homosexual behavior is either normal/acceptable/moral or abnormal/unacceptable/immoral, for example.

    Yes well, I imagine we won’t get very far having a conversation about that. Even if every single study of human (and animal) sexual behavior concludes that same-sex sexual behavior and attraction is certainly normal, wherein “normal” means “included in the spectrum of non-pathological experiences that a non-trivial number of beings will engage in with greater or lesser frequency at some point(s) throughout the life cycle.”

  23. 23
    Ohio Mom says:

    When I pay for K-12 public education, through my taxes, I am paying for the production of CITIZENS! The idea is to develop and nurture the citizenry for our democracy. Read some Dewey.

    When we start framing the purpose of education in terms of producing a workforce — or just in terms of “I want my kid to graduate with the skills to get a really good job” — when we fixate on things like teachers’ unions (which have done much to improve education, look at the states that don’t allow teachers’ unions) and test scores (which correlate mostly with family economic status, lead to great amounts of teaching to the test, and cost school systems bundles), when we ignore the impact of having at least a fifth of our children growing up in poverty, we’re just echoing and furthering the right wing’s memes. Another example, I suppose, of how successful they are at brainwashing all of us.

    Here’s an example: If you think, I didn’t graduate with great employment prospects (never mind the condiditon of the economy), and so I didn’t get my money’s worth, then you are in the territory of thinking government is interchangeable with business. The next step is, So what do we need government for any how, let’s privatize everything.

    Or maybe this thread is mostly, I want to make sure my kid has at least my level of priviledge and I’m going to be pissed as anything if that doesn’t happen.

  24. 24
    Ohio Mom says:

    Oops and sorry for the spelling errors.

  25. RonF:

    Teachers want to be considered as professionals. But they want to be protected from subjectivity and evaluated as though they were blue-collar workers in a union.

    Actually, no, what teachers want protection from is capricious subjectivity, along the lines of the kinds of things that Elusis has been writing so eloquently about in these threads (and about which more below); and also they don’t want to be treated like blue-collar workers in a union, in the sense of having productivity measured in the ways you describe above–this is why so many teachers are so dead set against high-stakes standardized testing being given such weight in teacher evaluations.

    So yes, there’s got to be a qualitative as well as a quantitative component in teacher evaluations. What teachers’ union permits one?

    The one to which I belong, the one to which my wife belongs–she teaches in the NYC public schools–and every other one that I know of. But before I say more, I want to say up front that, from everything I know, there has for some time been much left to be desired in the way teacher evaluations have been handled in the NYC public schools and I want to acknowledge that at least some substantial part of the blame, though certainly not all of it, and maybe not even the majority of it, needs to be laid at the feet of the union.

    When a principal–or, in the case of my union, department chair, administrator or colleague on the Personnel and Budget (P&B) committee–comes in to observe a teacher in the classroom, that observation is a subjective evaluation. (And I do want to be clear that the evaluations written by peers at my school have real teeth; people have been denied tenure because of them and people have been let go before they even go up for tenure because of them.) When a principal evaluates a teacher’s lesson plans, that is a subjective evaluation; when, in the case of where I teach, the P&B committee evaluates the professional development plan (PDP) that new faculty are required to write, that is a subjective evaluation. (When I was on the P&B committee, a new faculty member was let go because his PDP, after being given two chances to revise it with very explicit instructions about what kinds of revisions were necessary, was of such low quality.) And I could go on. In order for these subjective evaluations to have validity, however–in order for them to be fair and applicable across a wide range of faculty with a wide range of teaching styles–there need to be some agreed upon standards so that people are not being evaluated based solely on someone else’s unmediated opinion, which I would hope you would agree can lend itself to all kinds of unintentional error and intentional abuse. Again, I will point to the kinds of things that Elusis has written about, and if I had the time I could search the archives of a community college listserv I belong to and bring you similar examples from higher education.

    Now, this does not mean that such a system is without problems. At my school, for example, there has been a long struggle against the tendency for departmental P&B committees to more or less rubber stamp tenure and promotion (and even sabbatical) applications–an expected tendency, since P&B committees are evaluating members of their own department–but it’s important to note that the struggle against this originates within self-governance structure in our contract; in other words, it’s not the administration that has been leading this struggle, but members of the union–which is not to say that the administration is not aware of the problem and has no input into finding a solution. Of course it has.

    In contrast, my wife was supposed to be observed in class and have her lesson plans evaluated at least once, but I think twice, a year by her principal. When she first began teaching, however, there were years during which those evaluations never took place. The principal simply never showed up. What good is an evaluation system if it is not implemented. I have no idea how ubiquitous this kind of thing is, but I know it is not as uncommon as it ought to be.

    Finally, as to your reference to the wrongness of “last hired, first fired” policies. I have mixed feelings about it because I have seen situations in which good, really good public school teachers with more seniority have been fired–not through layoffs–but through bogus cases built by principals because of one of two reasons: 1. They wanted to hire less experienced and therefore less expensive teachers; 2. They felt threatened because the more experienced teacher, in fact, had more experience than they did. And I do think there needs to be some protection against those kinds of things, especially #1, when layoffs are involved.

    That said, I also think that if a principal doesn’t know that a veteran teacher “has been phoning it in for 5 years” (and I didn’t mention of such a thing in the article you linked to, though maybe I missed), then that is a principal who has not been doing her or his job; and if a principal does know that a teacher has been “phoning it in for 5 years” and the union contract does not give the principal the tools to remedy that situation efficiently and effectively, by dismissal if necessary, then I would agree there is a problem with the contract; and if the tools are in the contract and the principal chooses not to use them–as may have been the case (I am not sure) with my son’s kindergarten teacher, which I referred to elsewhere–that is not the fault of the contract or the union.

    Okay, I have gone on long enough.

  26. 26
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    It’s all well and good to view this discussion from the perspective of teacher fairness and teacher benefit. That is (obviously) what a union is designed to do.

    But can we please, then, stop talking (elsewhere) about about the teacher’s unions as being primarily focused on the well being of the students (as is so often claimed) or on the well being of education in general (as is also claimed?) That is not what the unions are designed to do at all, though they do care in an ancillary sense–the same way that I care about the employment status of teachers in an ancillary sense.

    I’m perfectly happy to admit that I don’t take teacher effect into consideration other than in a secondary sense. But this conversation would be a lot more honest if the pro-union folks would either (1) start specifically addressing student cost/benefit as part of their comments, or (2) admit that student cost/benefit isn’t their primary concern, as I have for teachers.

    Even with that, this seems to be a strange conversation. No system is going to be perfect. It’s very likely that any system that increases the ability to fire losers will also increase the rate at which stars are fired. It’s also likely that any system which acts to protect the stars will increase the rate at which losers are retained. Flexibility, subjectivity, speed: those offer costs as well as benefits.

    But discussing those individually makes no sense: the question should be one of ratio and average effect on one or both of the student and teacher populations.

    Imagine if we hired Jane to judge teachers. Jane starts out with 20 stars, 20 losers, and 60 middle of the road ones. Jane replaces 20 people. She fires 15 of the losers (go Jane!) but takes a dislike to 5 of the stars (bad Jane!)

    Even though Jane made a serious mistake in firing 5 stars, the average of the school has gone UP, not down.

    Is that good?

    Also: as for the administrator comments I will say that it’s not really accurate to imagine changing only part of a system and thus discarding it. To use a military analogy: if you want to have a lot of small freedom in your units, you can’t just change the rules for platoons. You also have to change the rules for battalions, so the commanders play ball.

    Right now, we choose supervisors with an eye towards their function in the existing system. It’s silly to imagine that we would change the system but continue to select supervisors and administrators under the same criteria.

  27. G&W:

    Imagine if we hired Jane to judge teachers. Jane starts out with 20 stars, 20 losers, and 60 middle of the road ones. Jane replaces 20 people. She fires 15 of the losers (go Jane!) but takes a dislike to 5 of the stars (bad Jane!)

    Even though Jane made a serious mistake in firing 5 stars, the average of the school has gone UP, not down.

    Is that good?

    If we are talking about simple, opinionated dislikes, not professional ones that are rooted in the kind of evaluation I talked about above, then you cannot see your example in isolation, since it is quite possible that, over the long term, Jane’s ability to act with impunity on her “dislikes” could end up hurting the school, and the students, either because she ends up, on average, “disliking” a too-high number of good teachers or because she fires teachers the school really needs.

    On the other hand, if her “dislikes” are rooted in, say, a substantive evaluation that determines those five good teachers do not fit well with the vision she has for the school, then I might have questions about the how the process is handled, but in principle I would agree that the net gain for the school is positive.

    I think the cost-benefit analysis in terms of the students that you have been talking about in these conversations is, overall, simplistic and reductive of both the system and the process of education. I asked in another thread, and it applies here as well, since we are talking about “what you pay for” how you would define what is good for the students; what measure would you use; how do you define good? Those are all very difficult questions to answer, far more difficult than they might first seem; and I say that not as a teacher who belongs to a union with an interest in conflating my own self-interest with the interests of the students, but as someone who needs, actively, to evaluate student performance in a way that is fair and systematic and that will stand up to outside evaluation should it ever come to that. I personally care very deeply about what is good for my students, as I care very deeply about what is good for my son as a student, as my wife cares very deeply about what is good for the K-2 students that she has taught over the years; and I can tell you trying to find a way to measure that that is fair, trying to define the relationship between work rules–and all the other classroom-related things that unions negotiate, which are about benefits to both the teachers and the students (if only because no one would agree to them if they were not academically sound)–and positive student outcomes so that they can be measured, is not an easy task. Reducing the question as your Jane example does to one of simple averages actually ends up avoiding the really difficult questions.

  28. 28
    nojojojo says:

    I am paying for social mobility.

    Education has a lot of purposes, but fundamentally that’s what it comes down to, IMO — the ability to not have to do what your parents did, the potential to add to the family’s generational wealth, the flexibility to transcend gender roles or other sociocultural expectations.

  29. 29
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Jane is going to make an error. Jane may end up firing people who shouldn’t be fired. Jane will also be biased (everyone is) no matter how hard she tries to avoid it. I’m perfectly clear that these things are a cost–heck, i’m a lawyer, living with serious error is part of my job.

    Richard Jeffrey Newman says:
    March 12, 2011 at 10:35 am

    If we are talking about simple, opinionated dislikes, not professional ones that are rooted in the kind of evaluation I talked about above, then you cannot see your example in isolation, since it is quite possible that, over the long term, Jane’s ability to act with impunity on her “dislikes” could end up hurting the school, and the students, either because she ends up, on average, “disliking” a too-high number of good teachers or because she fires teachers the school really needs.

    Sure. It’s possible. But on average we can still judge an effect.

    And what if Jane DOES do a bad job? Cannot Jane be replaced? Obviously people are going to screw up at any position; the question is what you do about it.

    On the other hand, if her “dislikes” are rooted in, say, a substantive evaluation that determines those five good teachers do not fit well with the vision she has for the school, then I might have questions about the how the process is handled, but in principle I would agree that the net gain for the school is positive.

    I think the cost-benefit analysis in terms of the students that you have been talking about in these conversations is, overall, simplistic and reductive of both the system and the process of education.

    Of course it is. But that is almost a prerequisite for the followup discussions.

    The discussion of a teacher centric or student centric analysis is a reasonable one to have first, before you get into the fine details. The discussion of how–generally speaking–you might treat error is also a reasonable discussion.

    THEN, when you get details, you can balance them against the analysis and the previous agreements regarding error and process, and see how those details fit in. If you want to change your prior position you can, but you’ll have to face up to the fact that you’re changing it, and ask yourself why.

    Some folks here appear to be doing that in reverse. It seems a bit opportnistic, since they appear to be crafting responses to general question by how they would, in a very specific example, produce the results they like.

    I asked in another thread, and it applies here as well, since we are talking about “what you pay for” how you would define what is good for the students; what measure would you use; how do you define good?

    I’m happy to have that discussion. But you don’t need to know that answer to discuss the process generally.

    Or, to put it differently: If I’m talking with someone who doesn’t agree that teachers should be judged by performance, i don’t want to waste time examining what performance is. First you have to agree that some variable is theoretically valid, and first you have to get some theory of what the general effect of the variable would be. (You personally seem to have done that, BTW.) THEN it makes sense to start digging into it.

    Reducing the question as your Jane example does to one of simple averages actually ends up avoiding the really difficult questions.

    I see it as a necessary precursor–setting out some general expectations of where the thing would go.

  30. G&W:

    This is, perforce, going to be short and sketchy. I am about to start grading and I need to get to it:

    The discussion of a teacher centric or student centric analysis

    I am not persuaded that your analysis is indeed student centric; it has, so far anyway, been more or less about putting more authority in the hands of principals and/or changing the system in other ways that you think will result in greater benefit to students–that is not student-centric as I understand the term, which is to start with the students in the classroom and ask questions about them, their experience, their learning styles, their outcomes, etc. And I am not arguing that the things I have said about tenure, etc. have been student-centric; they clearly have not been. But I do think that if you’re going to be student centered then you need to start with the students, not with generalizations about teachers and administrators, etc., which means you need to ask, among many others, the questions about what you mean by “good for students.”

    If I’m talking with someone who doesn’t agree that teachers should be judged by performance, i don’t want to waste time examining what performance is.

    I doubt very much that you will find anyone who disagrees that teachers ought to be judged by performance, especially among teachers. What you will find disagreement about is what the measure of performance ought to be; and I do think that the situation of layoffs is the wrong context within which to have that conversation, not because it is entirely irrelevant, but because it is a very specific kind of situation. The teacher who should be let go because of poor performance when layoffs are an issue should also, most probably, be someone the administration is looking at in terms of letting them go even when the budget is fine.

    ETA: Your example about Jane is decidedly not one about measuring teacher performance; it is rather an example of a situation in which measuring teacher performance, in the case of the good teachers, goes by the wayside, which ought to call into question whether or not Jane is indeed measuring performance at all accurately, even in the case of the poor teachers; and, of course, it ought to be possible to let Jane go if she is not doing her job, but that still does not address the question of what teacher performance is and how to measure it.

    Finally, I have to say this: I have been asking very specific questions, and I think I have made it clear that, while you and I may disagree about unions, etc., I am perfectly willing to take on the issues you want to discuss in specific terms, yet you keep responding with generalizations that you yourself agree are simplistic and reductive. So I don’t see the point in continuing this conversation much further unless you are willing to dig into the details. So I will ask again: Let’s be student-centered, really student-centered: what does it mean that a teacher, a lesson, an education, a pedagogy, an administrative practice–start wherever you like: what does it mean that it is “good” for the students? How do you measure it? How do you operationalize those measures in terms of evaluating teacher performance (which is a crucial point in the conversation were are having in this thread)?

  31. 31
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    I am not persuaded that your analysis is indeed student centric; it has, so far anyway, been more or less about putting more authority in the hands of principals and/or changing the system in other ways that you think will result in greater benefit to students–that is not student-centric as I understand the term, which is to start with the students in the classroom and ask questions about them, their experience, their learning styles, their outcomes, etc.

    Student-centric as I am using it involves prioritizing gains to students above gains to non students, and prioritizing harm reduction to students above harm reduction to nonstudents. It attempts to assign risks to teachers, not to students.

    While I have been discussing things that affect administrators and teachers, I have been routinely bringing the goals of such discussions back to the students, where (in my view) they belong.

    I disagree that it is necessary to fully define student success in order to make progress on improving it. To a large degree, making progress contingent on a full analysis is to deny progress; the analysis simply isn’t practical.

    More to the point: do we even disagree enough to spend a lot of time on the analysis? Since you seem fixated on getting this done first, why not propose a working definition of what “good” is? If I can live with your working definition we can move on.

    I doubt very much that you will find anyone who disagrees that teachers ought to be judged by performance, especially among teachers.

    Really? How’s the opposite side of that disagreement ending up in all those union contracts, then?

    IMO, anyone who has voted for the exercise of seniority hiring/firing rights rather than merit hiring/firing rights has, clearly, stated their opposition to merit judging. It’s easy for people to spin when they don’t have to worry about the result.

    What you will find disagreement about is what the measure of performance ought to be

    You know what makes that believable? When teachers propose performance measures. Otherwise, the “disagreement” comes across as protectionist stalling.

    I do think that the situation of layoffs is the wrong context within which to have that conversation, not because it is entirely irrelevant, but because it is a very specific kind of situation.

    Oh no: it’s a perfect context. Layoffs aren’t firing. They affect the laid-off employee less; they’re less aggressive; they don’t tarnish a career to the same degree; they result in a smaller chance of suit or going postal. Laying someone off is much, much, LESS difficult than firing them. If you can’t bring yourself to lay off Bob? Sheeit, the chances are pretty much zero that you’re going to actively fire him.

    So bad layoffs are a really good indicator of a bad system.

    The teacher who should be let go because of poor performance when layoffs are an issue should also, most probably, be someone the administration is looking at in terms of letting them go even when the budget is fine.

    Yes, but you’re deliberately ignoring the other side: The employees for whom you’re trying to get up the guts to fire should always be the first to get laid off. The failure to lay off correctly (easier) is almost a guarantee of the failure to fire correctly (harder) but the reverse is not true.

    ETA: Your example about Jane is decidedly not one about measuring teacher performance; it is rather an example of a situation in which measuring teacher performance, in the case of the good teachers, goes by the wayside,

    I know that; I wrote the hypothetical.

    It is *ALSO* an example of a situation in which the result–obtained through an admittedly flawed and hypothetical process–acted, arguably, to improve the school. If it’s good for students, I’m generally going to be in favor of it.

    I have been asking very specific questions, and I think I have made it clear that, while you and I may disagree about unions, etc., I am perfectly willing to take on the issues you want to discuss in specific terms, yet you keep responding with generalizations that you yourself agree are simplistic and reductive. So I don’t see the point in continuing this conversation much further unless you are willing to dig into the details.

    You keep asking questions, and you state you’re willing to take on the issues. But you don’t seem to be answering any of your own questions, or proposing solutions to your stated problems.

    I’ve long since given up on the “defend the castle in isolation” style of argument. Get your own side up here, and we’ll compare them. Here’s one of mine to start.

    I’m a fan of starting with the low hanging fruit. So let’s talk math.

    Math is a great thing to look at IMO, since it’s (1) cumulative; (2) universally acknowledged as a necessary skill to be taught in school; and (3) as these things go, relatively susceptible to analysis and testing.

    Let’s be student-centered, really student-centered: what does it mean that a teacher, a lesson, an education, a pedagogy, an administrative practice–start wherever you like: what does it mean that it is “good” for the students?

    For math? generally speaking: Final knowledge outcomes. What does the student know at the end of the student’s public school education?

    It’s great to love math; to live math; to want to have a career in math. But from a functional perspective, even if you don’t have any of those things you still need to KNOW math.

    How do you measure it?

    One major way is to test. Math is damn testable. That’s one of the reasons that we know we suck at teaching it.

    A single high stakes test is always going to be relatively inaccurate. But the combined effect of multiple tests will tend to produce a very good assessment of skills.

    Also, there’s longitudinal analysis, where students are tracked for grades and skills and knowledge as they progress through the system. That is very relevant, because math is brutally cumulative.

    To use an example that I’ve tried to explain to my kids’ teachers: For most students, their ability to take Calculus BC in their senior year is determined by the time they hit 6th or 7th grade. For a non-small number of students it’s determined by the end of 4th grade.

    Algebra involves a lot of manipulation and an lot of arithmetic in your head. Students who don’t have high levels of automaticity in arithmetic struggle in algebra because they waste brain power doing the underlying arithmetic instead of spending brain power getting extremely good at algebra. Finding the factorials of 48 as (2*2*2*2*3) isn’t “algebra” per se; it’s division.

    that carries through, of course, because calculus (in addition to requiring the ability to do fast arithmetic) turns out to need a lot of focus on setting up the equations, which means–no surprise–that it actually requires you to be very good at algebra. Did you get a b- in algebra? Don’t plan on taking calculus. And so it goes.

    So to some degree, you can look at Algebra 2 scores and include them in an analysis of how well a teacher did in Algebra 1. If a teacher tracks with a class then it’s even more relevant. It can easily be overused, but that doesn’t make it a bad arrow in the arsenal.

    How do you operationalize those measures in terms of evaluating teacher performance (which is a crucial point in the conversation were are having in this thread)?

    I’m not sure what you are asking.

  32. 32
    Elusis says:

    this conversation would be a lot more honest if the pro-union folks would either (1) start specifically addressing student cost/benefit as part of their comments, or (2) admit that student cost/benefit isn’t their primary concern, as I have for teachers.

    This remark is so offensive, I don’t see the point of engaging if that’s really your perspective on teachers.

  33. 33
    Robert says:

    What’s offensive about it? If student cost/benefit is the *primary* concern of teachers, why don’t they work for minimum wage?

    Of course teachers should not work for minimum wage, but that’s a conclusion that we’d reach based on an analysis of the whole system and its needs. From the *teacher’s* perspective, which is personal, giving back their salary would be the logical thing to do if student cost/benefit were their primary goal. We DO see a few teachers doing that – people like nuns or monks working in religious school systems, for example, and similarly heroic individuals. We also see that the quantity of such heroism is finite and much less than that needed to maintain a universal school system, so we don’t rely on that as our model.

    Recognizing that teachers are not usually self-sacrificing saints is not offensive, it’s realism. So let’s recognize that naturally teachers care about the cost/benefit ratio, but let’s not pretend that it’s all they care about. They self-evidently care about more things than just that. G&W and Richard are attempting analysis, not valorized descriptions of how awesome teachers are.

  34. 34
    nojojojo says:

    Robert,

    What’s offensive about it? If student cost/benefit is the *primary* concern of teachers, why don’t they work for minimum wage?

    That’s a complete strawman argument. Sure, you hedged it in your next paragraph, but even bringing that up is pointless. “Working for low cost/free” does not equal “caring”, or willing to benefit others; if that was the case, McDonald’s workers would be the most loving and altruistic people in the world. “How society values work” and “how much a given profession benefits others on a humanitarian level” have nothing to do with each other in a capitalist society — and for someone who’s so frequently rah-rah capitalism, ebil-weebil socialism, I’m really surprised to see you trying to pull that one.

    That’s what’s offensive G&W’s argument; it’s not an argument. It’s an attempt to castigate teachers for daring to talk about money, instead of nobly (and ignorably) sacrificing themselves in poverty as some people clearly think they should. This is an argument that no one would bring up, I think, regarding a male-dominated profession like, say, theoretical physicist. Or hedge fund manager.

  35. 35
    Robert says:

    It’s not castigating teachers for talking about money, it’s asking for an acknowledgement that teachers ARE talking about money, instead of assigning a numinous and unquestionable veil of moral superiority to one party in the discussion.

    Teachers want more money. I agree with them; they should have more money. So, let’s talk about what the money buys and how to get the most benefit to students per dollar spent.

  36. 36
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Oh please.

    Pro union rhetoric focuses on the teachers. And by golly, that makes sense. It’s the TEACHER’s union, not the STUDENT’s union. Sure, the union cares about the students. But that’s an result of enlightened self interest, a/k/a that “ancillary” or “secondary” effect I mentioned. (If the teachers don’t take the students into account to some degree, they’ll not have jobs at all. Student satisfaction affects teacher retention.)

    I’m like the union, but on the other side: I mostly care about the students, and I’m primarily interested in their benefit. And I care about teachers just like the unions care about students. I wouldn’t want to treat all teachers horribly. If we did, then we couldn’t get people who would teach our students. Neither would I choose to harm teachers for no reason; that would negatively affect teacher quality for our students.

    So:

    It’s an attempt to castigate teachers for daring to talk about money

    This is a 100% reversal of my position.
    Teachers can talk about money, just like I can. In fact, I encourage it, and the post you cite was discussing that very fact. I already assume that teachers and unions are acting out of self interest, and that usually includes getting paid as much as possible. It would be nice to have it out in the open.

    instead of nobly (and ignorably) sacrificing themselves in poverty

    Is that a joke? I think teachers are self interested profit hungry humans just like pretty much everyone else on the planet. They’re professionals who chose a career, just like I did.

    The people pushing this meme tend to be the teachers.

  37. 37
    nojojojo says:

    Robert,

    Of course they’re talking about money; that’s the whole point of a union, to look out for a particular group of workers’ labor issues. Labor issues include a variety of things — safety on the job, professional training and development, “product” quality, and compensation. All of these things are tied up together, and it’s frankly silly for anti-unionists to try and separate them out by harping endlessly about teacher quality as the be-all and end-all of discussion. Teacher unions are about making teachers’ lives better, period — and I haven’t seen anyone here denying this. But it cannot be denied that making teachers better benefits students, too. I haven’t seen anyone except the anti-unionists trying to pull that one, and I haven’t yet seen any of them successfully justify it.

    It also cannot be denied that a whole host of factors impact the student performance side of the discussion, as the OP notes; teacher job role satisfaction is only a small part of it. By focusing solely on that issue, though, the anti-unionists reveal that they don’t really give a shit about student performance. Because otherwise we’d be looking at the other impactors equally: infrastructure, for example. Class size. Government funding for educational innovations and research other than charter schools, which really aren’t very innovative anymore and frankly are a mixed bag. Government re-funding for educational innovations that worked, but which got chopped because they supposedly cost too much — like cooperative education. Finding alternatives to property-tax-based funding other than vouchers, which would just take more resources from an already overtaxed public school system, and certainly wouldn’t fix any of the problems already there. Hell, what about a six-day school week and shorter summers? Why aren’t we talking about that, given that those things have been proven to work well in other countries? Why this exclusive, obsessive, myopic focus on whether teachers deserve better than poverty wages?

    Because the whole anti-union argument really has nothing to do with students at all, as others in this comment thread have pointed out. Which is why, I think, Richard tried to separate the discussions in his OP.

  38. 38
    nojojojo says:

    G&W,

    Teachers can talk about money, just like I can. In fact, I encourage it, and the post you cite was discussing that very fact. I already assume that teachers and unions are acting out of self interest, and that usually includes getting paid as much as possible. It would be nice to have it out in the open.

    Emphasis mine. If this isn’t about castigating mostly-female teachers for daring to demand money and respect, then why are you attempting to use this point as a shaming device?

    No one here, and no one in Wisconsin, as you yourself have pointed out is trying to make teachers out to be infallible saints. No one anywhere is trying to pretend that unions shit goodness and light. The fact that money is at the root of this discussion is a given, and frankly irrelevant to the OP — but for some reason you seem to think there’s some moral weight attached to it that makes the teacher unions seem more like bad people. You’re certainly trying to use the money issue that way, as a weapon. Why, if not to castigate?

  39. 39
    Robert says:

    Teacher unions are about making teachers’ lives better, period — and I haven’t seen anyone here denying this. But it cannot be denied that making teachers better benefits students, too.

    Conflation. Teachers with better lives are not necessarily better teachers.

    So teacher’s unions are about making teacher’s lives better, and this MAY – where it impacts job performance – make student’s lives better, but it is not a = b = c.

    It also cannot be denied that a whole host of factors impact the student performance side of the discussion, as the OP notes; teacher job role satisfaction is only a small part of it. By focusing solely on that issue, though, the anti-unionists reveal that they don’t really give a shit about student performance.

    Nonsense. I’m an anti-unionist, and if I were King I would fire every existing teacher, execute anyone trying to form a public-sector union…and set the starting salary for teachers at $150,000 a year, in an attempt to get the highest-quality people in my society into the classrooms. I don’t know what you mean by “focusing solely”; most of the anti-teachers-union sentiment is focused fairly tightly on the fact that unions (of necessity) defend bad teachers and keep them from being easy to fire.

  40. G&W:

    I will respond to you in some detail when I get a chance, but I have a quick, specific question: Do you have any empirical data to back up what you say above about knowing whether or not someone can do calculus and the grade levels at which you can tell that?

    Robert:

    most of the anti-teachers-union sentiment is focused fairly tightly on the fact that unions (of necessity) defend bad teachers and keep them from being easy to fire.

    What measures would you put in place to ensure that management is indeed firing bad teachers and not just the teachers they want to fire? I mean, we all seem to agree that it would not be a good idea to return to what it was like when it was pretty unambiguously clear that teachers needed the protections tenure afforded. So why trust principals/management to do the right thing and to have the benefit of the students in mind any more than you think the teachers unions do now? (I realize I might be conflating yours and G&W’s arguments a little bit with this last way of phrasing the question.)

    So teacher’s unions are about making teacher’s lives better

    But they are also about making teacher’s better: the professional development requirements that exist exist in part because the union wants them there–though clearly management does also–and the performance standards that do exist, were, contrary to what G&W suggests above, were also put into the contract by the union. I don’t disagree that the main reason for a teacher’s union to exist is to protect teachers interests, but the union also has an interest in protecting/maintaining the integrity of the profession. Whether or not this is ancillary, as you and G&W seem to suggest, a by-product of the union’s main purpose, or a “separate” (which may not be the right word; I am very tired) set of self-governing concerns is something we can argue about, though I am not sure what the value of that argument is. The bottom line, though, is that teachers unions–at least the ones that I have been involved with and that I know about–see maintaining the integrity of the profession as central to their mission. We may disagree about whether or not they are successful and we may disagree about whether or not the means by which they choose to do so are valid, but I’d appreciate it if you and G&W would stop characterizing unions as if that part of their mission were almost an afterthought.

  41. 41
    Robert says:

    What measures would you put in place to ensure that management is indeed firing bad teachers and not just the teachers they want to fire?

    Make management accountable to parents instead of districts.

    Good teachers have constituencies. It isn’t 1895 anymore, and parents are able to rally and support a good teacher in conflict with a bad management (or even a good teacher in conflict with a good management).

    I’d appreciate it if you and G&W would stop characterizing unions as if that part of their mission were almost an afterthought.

    I wouldn’t say that it’s an afterthought; I’d say that from a process control perspective, under our current incentive structure a teacher’s union that doesn’t care about improving the profession will do about as well as one that does care. So I don’t have any reason to believe there’s a structural incentive for good behavior on the part of the union in this respect, whereas there *are* structural incentives for good (as well as bad) behavior on the part of the union in other respects.

    I want you to run north across a field. I propose we build parallel walls running north and south around your current position, so that you continue to run north. You point out that you’ve generally run north in the past, so why worry about it? It’s not that I think you’re a dirty, low-down east-to-wester – it’s that I want a structural incentive (ow!) that discourages you from running the wrong way. The next guy to run across the field may BE a dirty low-down east-to-wester – if we leave it to his discretion, he’ll run the wrong way. If we build the walls, we’ll get him to the north side where we want him.

    The unions you’re working with are filled to the brim with north-runners and so you think our harping on about the need for a wall is just silly. Well, maybe you’re right – but if you’re really committed to north-running the walls aren’t going to inconvenience you.

  42. 42
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Richard Jeffrey Newman says:
    March 13, 2011 at 8:16 pm

    G&W:

    I will respond to you in some detail when I get a chance, but I have a quick, specific question:

    I’ll wait. As I said, I’m not interested in having a one sided discussions these days.

    Get a competing hypothesis out there. Then I’ll be happy to address your questions.

  43. 43
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    nojojojo says:
    March 13, 2011 at 5:08 pm
    If this isn’t about castigating mostly-female teachers for daring to demand money and respect, then why are you attempting to use this point as a shaming device?

    What does female status have to do with it?

    Teachers (and unions in particular) like attempt to allow teachers to simultaneously argue heavily for their own interests, and suggest that they are the guardians of their opponents’ interests. I call BS. I am invested in this because I’m a parent, not because they’re female.

    RJN said:
    The bottom line, though, is that teachers unions–at least the ones that I have been involved with and that I know about–see maintaining the integrity of the profession as central to their mission.

    I look at what they do, not at what they say they are trying to do. And I have a somewhat different opinion regarding their willingness to protect the integrity of the profession.

    We may disagree about whether or not they are successful and we may disagree about whether or not the means by which they choose to do so are valid, but I’d appreciate it if you and G&W would stop characterizing unions as if that part of their mission were almost an afterthought. (emp added by G&W)

    OK. I think they’re not successful, and I don’t think the means they choose are valid. And as stated above, I’m not even sure that I believe they are making an honest attempt.

    I’m not sure why that would be an improvement.

  44. 44
    Ruchama says:

    Teachers (and unions in particular) like attempt to allow teachers to simultaneously argue heavily for their own interests, and suggest that they are the guardians of their opponents’ interests. I call BS. I am invested in this because I’m a parent, not because they’re female.

    Who are you defining as teachers’ opponents?

  45. 45
    Ruchama says:

    To answer the original question, I would say that, when I pay for an education, I am paying for the teachers to present the relevant material to my child in an age-appropriate, accurate, and engaging manner. I’m paying for my child to be provided with the tools (books, paper, art supplies, whatever) necessary for learning, and to be provided with a safe and supportive environment to learn in. I’m paying for a teacher who will know my child, know what he or she can and can’t do, and know various methods for helping my child learn. (I’m reminded of a seminar I went to a few months ago, by a guy who runs a program to teach calculus to elementary teachers and teach them how to incorporate calculus concepts into their classes. It was a fascinating seminar, since pretty much everybody I know who teaches calculus agrees that the most difficult thing is trying to make up for the things that the students should have learned years ago but never did. But anyway, one of the things that he said was that a good elementary math teacher must do four things: Know the students, love the students, know the math, love the math.)

  46. 46
    nojojojo says:

    G&W,

    What does female status have to do with it?

    I addressed that in the part of my comment that you didn’t quote.

    Teachers (and unions in particular) like attempt to allow teachers to simultaneously argue heavily for their own interests, and suggest that they are the guardians of their opponents’ interests. I call BS.

    Because unions are only about one thing, and can never have multiple purposes.

    I am invested in this because I’m a parent, not because they’re female.

    Because teachers are never parents too, and gender is never a factor in how a group of mostly-women is treated.

    It seems to me the problem is that you’re approaching this argument reductively, trying to treat unions as single-purpose entities and teachers as “them” in a binary “us vs them” context. Neither makes sense, and the reductive approach doesn’t make sense.

  47. 47
    Ruchama says:

    Because teachers are never parents too,

    This is a good point. When I was in elementary and high school, a whole lot of the teachers had kids who were students in the same district. (Just thinking through my own teachers, at least three of my seven K-6 teachers had kids who were either currently in school in the district or had gone to school in the district. Of the other four, one didn’t have kids, and I don’t know about the other three. Just off the top of my head, I can think of two high school teachers who had kids in the district, but I’m sure there were more — I remember those two because their kids were around the same age as me.)

  48. 48
    nojojojo says:

    Robert,

    Conflation. Teachers with better lives are not necessarily better teachers.

    No. “Better lives” is a bit nebulous, but for the most part I’m talking about work-life balance and other factors that impact employee satisfaction — and employee satisfaction always has a positive effect on productivity. This is accepted knowledge in human resources, organizational psych, logistics, and several other fields whose job it is to study this stuff.

    Now, “productivity” can mean many things with respect to teachers — depends on how it’s measured. It can mean that they churn out lesson plans faster, or it could mean they produce students who are better-prepared to take certain tests, or both — and those things don’t necessarily equate to students who are better critical thinkers, faster learners, etc. Then again, some parents don’t want their kids taught to think critically; c.f. the fight over evolution vs. “intelligent” design. Or parents who simply don’t want their kids to question whatever the parents are trying to teach them. So yes, “more productive” teachers aren’t necessarily “better” teachers, because we don’t all agree on what “better” teachers should do. (This is the main reason why the field of education uses the tenure system; teachers need to be protected against competing parental agendas that have nothing to do with education.) But there’s a direct causative effect between productivity and satisfaction for any worker, and unions are generally meant to increase worker satisfaction.

  49. 49
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Ruchama says:
    March 14, 2011 at 6:50 am
    Who are you defining as teachers’ opponents?

    ? Depends on the issue that they are being opposed on. I don’t know anyone who plain old “hates teachers” or “opposes teachers,” though I’m sure such people exist.

    Im not ducking, i’m just not sure what you are asking.

  50. 50
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    nojojojo says:
    March 14, 2011 at 7:47 am

    G&W,

    What does female status have to do with it?

    I addressed that in the part of my comment that you didn’t quote.

    Do you mean this?

    This is an argument that no one would bring up, I think, regarding a male-dominated profession like, say, theoretical physicist. Or hedge fund manager.

    Um, yeah. You’re right. We don’t devalue the few thousand theoretical physicists & hedge fund managers who, generally speaking, tend to be some of the better qualified and more intelligent and extremely highly motivated people on the whole fucking planet. I’m certain that it has nothing to do with their intelligence, education, excellence, or proven ability to climb to the top of an extraordinarily difficult field.

    Great comparison there.

    I hate to bring this up again, but since you started it: teachers aren’t the top of the heap. I happened to read a stat today, stating that 47% of K-12 teachers were in the bottom third of their college’s SAT band. If so, you might want to consider that the respect differential is real.

    Because unions are only about one thing, and can never have multiple purposes.

    Sure they can. But they prioritize those purposes. And they still are subject to conflict.

    Because teachers are never parents too, and gender is never a factor in how a group of mostly-women is treated.

    Is this supposed to be a response to what I wrote? Playing the sexism card here isn’t going to make your argument better. If you think my argument is rooted in sexism, find a quote from my posts and bring it on. Otherwise, drop it.

    Gender can be a factor in all sorts of things. But stating that there’s a conflict of interest has shit-all to do with gender, and you damn well know it.

    It seems to me the problem is that you’re approaching this argument reductively, trying to treat unions as single-purpose entities and teachers as “them” in a binary “us vs them” context. Neither makes sense, and the reductive approach doesn’t make sense.

    The point of a union is to protect workers’ rights. THAT’S why all the pro union folks are arguing they’re so damn important. And a good thing, too, because that’s the only reason that unions ARE important. (Forget for a moment that we’re in the public sphere; forget that the rights and powers of unions were set as a balance to the extreme goals of profit driven corporations; and forget that they weren’t designed to be used as a sledgehammer against the more moderate and voter-controlled goals of government. Unions in general are important, even if some are not. But I digress.)

    When it comes to defending the union, that’s it. It degrades the importance of any workers union, and it degrades the political protection which might accrue to solidarity, if the union isn’t limited to worker’s rights.

    And that’s fine. If a union wants to spend its time supporting (or opposing) environmental legislation, arguing for changes to Israeli foreign policy, or promoting the rebirth of the carrier pigeon industry, it can do so. If the teacher’s union wants to act to protect the interests of people who aren’t teachers, it can do so as well.

    But when the union DOES act for the interests of someone else, then it has to cut the bullshit about being the last sole protector of its members. You want union status as a champion of teachers rights? Be one. You want to be a general lobbyist? Lose the union protection, and welcome to the rest of the world.

    So, please. Educate me. What, precisely, does the union do OTHER than advocate for the rights of its members? I’d love some quotes for the other union threads. I’d love to hear that it’s basically a normal self interested lobbying group which does what it wants, when it wants, for its own reasons. Of course, that doesn’t sound like great justification for special protections, and it completely eviscerates the “anti-union = anti-worker” line, but that’s not my problem.

    As for whether it’s simplistic: Of course. I suspect that both of our positions are more complex than you see here. But there’s only so much I can type.

  51. 51
    Ruchama says:

    Ruchama says:
    March 14, 2011 at 6:50 am
    Who are you defining as teachers’ opponents?

    ? Depends on the issue that they are being opposed on. I don’t know anyone who plain old “hates teachers” or “opposes teachers,” though I’m sure such people exist.

    Im not ducking, i’m just not sure what you are asking.

    You said that teachers like to “suggest that they are the guardians of their opponents’ interests.” I wasn’t sure what you were saying there without know who those opponents were.

  52. 52
    nojojojo says:

    G&W,

    Um, yeah. You’re right. We don’t devalue the few thousand theoretical physicists & hedge fund managers who, generally speaking, tend to be some of the better qualified and more intelligent and extremely highly motivated people on the whole fucking planet. I’m certain that it has nothing to do with their intelligence, education, excellence, or proven ability to climb to the top of an extraordinarily difficult field.

    Well, let’s look at that in more depth.

    Theoretical physicists get Ph.D.s, mostly because the only place they can work is academia or government service and you need terminal degrees for that. So yes, theoretically they’re better-educated than teachers, who only get Masters’ degrees (speaking generally here; there are lots of Ph.D. teachers and lots of M.S. physicists, but I’m talking about the balance). But like most college educators, they don’t learn how to teach — and this is one of the factors being currently blamed for the US failure to produce sufficient physicists to meet demand. They know their subject, don’t know how to get it across. So better-educated, but impractically, incompletely. As for whether they’re more intelligent — well, maybe. Depends on which theory of intelligence you ascribe to. I’m fairly certain that the average teacher would score higher than the average physicist in communication skills and emotional intelligence, for example — but that’s a whole separate conversation.

    Hedge fund managers need, on average, Masters’ degrees (often MBAs, but also MSes in Financial Engineering, etc). This is equivalent to what most teachers require. They test for Series 7 licensing, etc.; roughly equivalent to grad school comprehensives and teacher licensure exams in most states. Teachers must go through regular licensure retesting, at least in most states; I don’t think this is true for hedge fund managers. Teachers also do annual in-service and continuing educational credits in order to maintain their licensure (in most states); Series 7 license-holders do this every 3 years. So as for whether hedge-fund managers are better-educated, no. As for more intelligent — well, Wall Street nearly destroyed the global economy, which no teacher union has yet managed. Again, depends on how you measure intelligence.

    You also mentioned that these two groups are “extremely highly motivated.” That’s a lot of motivation! How are you measuring that, just out of curiosity? I assume that by motivated you mean how hard they work? And how are you measuring that — hours per week? Most tenured professors, physics included, do 27-35 hours/week. Most hedge fund managers do a lot more hours, granted, but their productivity is variable, not really in proportion to hours worked. (Assuming their funds’ performance is the measure of productivity you use.) Some of the most productive hedge fund managers aren’t producing anything of real value at all — Bernie Madoff, for example, before his Ponzi scheme got revealed. So tell me how you’re measuring that, and I might agree that physicists and hedge fund managers are more “motivated” than teachers.

    teachers aren’t the top of the heap. I happened to read a stat today, stating that 47% of K-12 teachers were in the bottom third of their college’s SAT band. If so, you might want to consider that the respect differential is real.

    Did anyone here say teachers were at the top of the heap? Again, you’re attacking strawmen. And you’re using poor research to back your strawman argument — your link leads to an opinion article written by a guy using a private marketing firm’s research study to conclude, among other things, that teacher pay correlates to quality. Which would actually support the pro-union argument, not yours. Except… that study contains no methodology, no significance testing, no means testing; we don’t know the variables or the instrument (did they actually go get SAT scores from the College Board? must’ve been expensive. Or did they rely on teacher self-reports? I dunno, I’m 38 and don’t remember my SAT specifics, just the overall score; wonder how many teachers remembered accurately?). We have no idea how they got this data, and it hasn’t been reviewed for reliability or validity. And it’s put together by a consulting firm notorious for giving its clients exactly the data they want to hear — Enron’s Jeff Skilling was a former partner — and known to be a “cheerleader for school-privatization schemes”. I think this data might be a leeeeeetle unreliable.

    Playing the sexism card here isn’t going to make your argument better. If you think my argument is rooted in sexism, find a quote from my posts and bring it on. Otherwise, drop it.

    No. This is a feminist site. We talk about sexism here, go figure. All of us who post here think it actually exists and that rhetoric like “the sexism card” is misogynistic bullshit used to derail discussion. If you don’t think there’s a sexism angle in every single post that appears here, then you’re badly-educated. A good teacher might’ve helped with that, alas, but now you’ll have to do it yourself.

    And I didn’t say your argument was rooted in sexism, just that it was a factor. And I didn’t state that there was a conflict of interest. And I said your argument was reductive, not simplistic; there’s a difference. Your reading comprehension needs work, too.

    But this is getting tl;dr. I think I’m going to follow Richard’s example here and bow out, because you’re using far more rhetoric than reason and I’m tired of poking holes in a doughnut. You win, teachers are stupid and evil, whatever.

  53. 53
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Ruchama says:
    March 14, 2011 at 9:36 am

    You said that teachers like to “suggest that they are the guardians of their opponents’ interests.” I wasn’t sure what you were saying there without know who those opponents were.

    Sorry i wasn’t clear.

    In context, I was discussing the teachers unions’ tendency to suggest that they act to guard students’ interests.

    Obviously there are many areas in which teacher and student interests overlap. There are also areas in which their interests conflict.

    Teachers would be expected to “advance student interests” when it aligns with teachers’ interests. The rubber meets the road when they diverge. Teachers unions often wave the “it’s for the students!” flag when it happens to be aligned, suggesting that they act to forward students’ interests. But when the interests are different it’s all about worker’s rights and the students are no longer relevant, or so it seems.

  54. 54
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    OK.

    nojojojo says:
    March 14, 2011 at 10:20 am

    G&W,

    Um, yeah. You’re right. We don’t devalue the few thousand theoretical physicists & hedge fund managers who, generally speaking, tend to be some of the better qualified and more intelligent and extremely highly motivated people on the whole fucking planet. I’m certain that it has nothing to do with their intelligence, education, excellence, or proven ability to climb to the top of an extraordinarily difficult field.

    Well, let’s look at that in more depth.

    Theoretical physicists get Ph.D.s, mostly because the only place they can work is academia or government service and you need terminal degrees for that.

    Seriously? I have made it clear in about 80 different posts, that I am discussing public school teachers, and k-12 in particular. Given that you insult my reading comprehension below, it’s more than a bit odd that you would miss all the various references.

    Similarly, I distinguish between PUBLIC and NON-PUBLIC unions.

    Any questions?
    Still: If you want to seriously dispute that theoretical physicists are, on average, more intelligent than public school teachers, I guess there isn’t a whole hell of a lot of point in discussing it with you.

    Did anyone here say teachers were at the top of the heap? Again, you’re attacking strawmen.

    You’re the one who made a comparison to theoretical physicists, hmm? Feel free to withdraw the comparison.

    And you’re using poor research to back your strawman argument — your link leads to an opinion article written by a guy using a private marketing firm’s research study to conclude, among other things, that teacher pay correlates to quality.

    Yes, I know. I read it. And linked to it. I know what it is.

    Which would actually support the pro-union argument, not yours.

    Great! How?

    I don’t actually think you’re right, you see. The concept of that study is that you need to pay more (yahoo, say the union folks!) But…. in return you can demand excellence (hell no, say the union folks.) In particular, the study is looking at ways to get the TOP third of students to end up as teachers, not the BOTTOM third.

    I’m not pay focused. I would leave teacher pay alone, or raise it, if we could figure out a way to assign it correctly.

    Except… that study contains no methodology, no significance testing, no means testing; we don’t know the variables or the instrument (did they actually go get SAT scores from the College Board? must’ve been expensive. Or did they rely on teacher self-reports?

    Nope. Frankly it doesn’t seem very hard, though. Many colleges report that sort of stuff.

    [shrug] But I didn’t claim this was some sort of definitive study. Do you have some other data you’d like to present? We have this, for example.
    Physics majors sure are smart.

    And I didn’t say your argument was rooted in sexism, just that it was a factor. And I didn’t state that there was a conflict of interest. And I said your argument was reductive, not simplistic; there’s a difference. Your reading comprehension needs work, too.

    Oooooh, OK then. You didn’t think that sexism suggested that my argument was wrong, perhaps? You simply decided to bring it up in the middle of a dispute to point out in a neutral fashion, what the factor was. No implication there, none at all. But it would be inappropriate to actually discuss that or provide proof or further evidence because, well, I should know what you mean.

    Bullshit, plain and simple.

    Not incidentally: reductionism is, generally put, simplifying an argument. If you’re arguing against reductionism you’re arguing for a more complex analysis, i.e., less simple.

    But this is getting tl;dr. I think I’m going to follow Richard’s example here and bow out, because you’re using far more rhetoric than reason and I’m tired of poking holes in a doughnut. You win, teachers are stupid and evil, whatever.

    Quick quiz: As a reading comprehension test, do you even know what my argument is? Did you actually read my post? (Hint: “teachers are evil” isn’t my argument.)

    I ask because you–like many other folks–have failed to address
    a variety of things I’ve talked about. You simply have done what so many other people here have done: to try to categorize my arguments as somehow offensive, so that you don’t actually have to answer them.

    Give up if you want. But don’t blame that on me.

  55. 55
    Brandon Berg says:

    Nice try, Robert, but you know some joker’s going to run south.

  56. I am going to leave aside a lot of the back and forth about what unions do or do not do, stand for or don’t stand for, accomplish or don’t accomplish because it is clear to me that there is not going to be anything even approaching an agreement there. (Though I do want to say to Elusis and nojojojo that I have appreciated your comments on this thread.) So:

    What is good for students?

    1. To learn in a challenging environment that fosters a mastery of age/grade-level appropriate skills through a combination of traditional instruction and independent work (both as an individual and in groups);

    2. To have this environment be one that encourages creativity and problem-solving, that allows students–within age/grade-level appropriate limits–to direct their own learning, to initiate projects;

    3. To be evaluated in a rigorous and challenging way that allows student to demonstrate what they have learned in a variety of ways and formats, including standardized and traditional classroom tests, that requires students to reflect on their own learning, their own strengths and weaknesses, and that requires them actively to participate in figuring out ways to address those weaknesses and continue to build on those strengths;

    4. To have teachers and administrators who are trained to provide this kind of education and to have a school system that is willing to devote the time, money and resources so that these teachers will be able to do their jobs most effectively and efficiently.

    The method of evaluation I am talking about is called portfolio assessment and the kind of curriculum I am talking about is often called an organic curriculum (here and here: unfortunately, I could not find full text links for these articles and I don’t have time to do more than a simple google search). Some quick, general, in-no-particular-order points that address some, though perhaps not all of what we’ve been talking about:

    1. To do this kind of teaching and evaluation correctly you need relatively small classes;
    2. You need teachers who have the time to give individualized attention to students both in and out of the classroom;
    3. This kind of teaching and assessment is far more labor intensive and intellectually demanding than traditional teaching and assessment;
    4. This kind of teaching and assessment requires administrators, staff, teachers and parents to work as a team; it builds a sense of community amongst all the groups that inhabit a school system;
    5. This kind of teaching builds a far more complete and representative paper trail of the kind of job an individual teacher is doing, making it much easier to see who is and who is not doing her or his job well and, in theory, making it easier for teachers who need to be dismissed to be dismissed (whether that dismissal is through a collectively bargained process that preserves “last in first out” layoff policies or through some other, non-union process);
    6. Correspondingly, it builds a far more complete and representative record of what a student has learned, what he or she does well, what he or she need to improve on, etc., which will allow teachers, parents and administrators to address student needs more effectively;
    7. It gives students a stake in their learning that is far more meaningful than traditional testing;
    8. It will cost more because it takes more time, more resources and, ultimately, more teachers.

    Since I, obviously, am a strong proponent of portfolio assessment, I could go on listing what I see as the benefits and the costs; but that, to me, is at least how you start thinking about what goes on in the classroom from a student-centered perspective and start to define what you are paying for from the perspective–though I acknowledge that what I’ve done here is list the components of my argument rather than making the argument itself.

    Regarding how this relates to teachers unions: I don’t know that I even want to bother going down that road because, as I said above, I think our differences are too great.

  57. 57
    Robert says:

    I like portfolio assessment. That was the grading model at the Evergreen State College, where I spent several happy years as a junior. (My failing, not the school’s or the model’s).

    Amendment:

    1A) you need a stable disciplinary environment where students are motivated to learn and to own their educational process and where teachers are not distracted by “social overhead”, i.e., providing parenting that is missing in the home environment and providing structure that is missing in the community environment.

    So to do PA you need a lot more (1), significantly smarter, much better trained teachers (3), working with students who are individually motivated and collectively coming from stable homes in healthy communities (1a).

    Which is GREAT, when you can get it. But really, the kids who are already individually motivated and coming from great homes in solid communities and at schools with super-bright, mentally flexible, well-educated teachers are already doing OK with traditional instruction. PA might make their schooling better but anywhere that it could work, they’re already doing a pretty good job.

    You’re saying “BMW makes the best cars”. And they arguably do, but “give everyone a BMW” is probably not a practical solution to “how do we transport people”. It’s not even a question of money, in the case of schooling: higher salaries would undoubtedly help with the “We need a million genius teachers” issue, but higher school budget doesn’t translate to harder-working students, better parents, or more solid communities.

    A broad-based PA approach is predicated on a level of human capital that doesn’t exist.

  58. Robert,

    I have two responses:

    1. You don’t have to be a purist. PA in K-12 will of necessity look different than it will at the college level, and there are all kinds of ways to adapt/modify it to make it work in different context; at the same time, I would agree that, yes, there are schools/contexts where PA would not work.

    2. I was not thinking about the specifics of implementation when I made that comment, which would be very tricky, I agree; but if I had to think about implementation, I think, first, implementing PA as a system-wide reform (or whatever you want to call it) would only work if you agreed to start with the cohort of students entering pre-K or K so that they start their education with that method and it becomes part of the culture of education from the bottom up. My son’s K-8 school uses this method and his school does not self-select for the kinds of students you describe above. There are high performers, low performers, kids who provide the social distractions you talk about and those who don’t; and there kids who do well and those who don’t; but it works, and one reason it work is that the kids are doing it from the start of their schooling. (I also have to say that I have never met a harder working group of teachers, and they are no better educated than any other teacher that gets licensed in NYC. They also happen to have an amazing principal.)

    I am not naive: this kind of thing is not going to happen, at least not in my lifetime, though I don’t think it’s because it’s impossible. I think it’s because people won’t want to pay for it.

  59. 59
    RonF says:

    I’ll pick up a comment from well up-thread that says that they want children to be prepared to be citizens, and say that I agree. A democratic republic will fail and likely fall into a tolitarian state run by demagogues unless it have an educated voter base. That’s why, while I argue for a limited role of government, I do not challenge that education should have government involvement (which is different from being government-run, mind you – there are alternatives).

    What kind of education makes a person fit to be a citizen in a democratic republic?

    Because that’s what we should be paying for. That’s what we should expect of our schools. They need to provide (and the parents need to ensure that their children take advantage of) an education that will give someone the knowledge and skills needed by a citizen of a democratic republic.

    That means they’ve got to know our history. They’ve got to know how this country works. They’ve got to understand that they must do everything they can to be self-supporting – that a country where the people are dependent on the state instead of the State being dependent on the people will fail. They, not the State, have the final responsibility for supporting themselves. They, not the State, have the final responsibility for defending and protecting themselves, their families, and their communities and country.

    They must understand what their rights are, and why they have them and what their purpose is. They need to know how to use them. They need to know English and history and civics for these things.

    They’ve got to understand what kinds of skills they need to be able to support themselves. They need to see real-life examples of what happens when people don’t have these skills – how that makes them easy to be taken advantage of. If you don’t understand math, someone will talk you into paying too much for something or into taking on debt you can’t afford to pay. If you can’t read, write and speak English well you can’t get a decent job and you won’t know when someone is deceiving you.

    They’ve got to understand that they must take responsbility for how the governments work. If you don’t understand English you can’t keep up with the news and you won’t understand when a politician makes a promise to you they can’t keep or a marketer or newscaster tells you something that sounds good but is a lie or nonsense. If you don’t understand history you won’t understand that there have been economic cycles and wars and political ideas that have happened before and what their effects were and what is therefore likely to happen in the future.

    If you don’t know geography and other cultures of the world you won’t understand why there are conflicts or why we should or should not spend money, time and lives elsewhere.

    I’ll leave it at that – I just cut a bunch of stuff. But if we are going to talk about “what are you actually paying for when you pay for an education”, let’s think about it from the viewpoint of your average taxpayer. Most of the money the average taxpayer is spending on education goes towards children that they are not related to. If this is to be justifiable – a proposition I do not challenge – then that money needs to be going towards an education that prepares those children to be citizens of the United States. What kind of education is that? Because that is what we should be paying for, and none other. What skills does a citizen need? What abilities does a citizen need to exercise those skills? How are those skills used to meet the responsibilities of citizenship?

  60. 60
    Ruchama says:

    Ron, to your list of skills needed to be a citizen, I would add the ability to critically examine written material and statistics for bias, and how to consider the source that information is coming from. (Within my students, I’ve seen some who think that “it said so on the internet” is an acceptable response to “how did you arrive at your answer to this calculus problem?” and others who won’t even use the internet to look up the quadratic formula because some high school teacher told them to never use the internet as a source.)

  61. 61
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    What degree of freedom should we use in crafting our answers? RJN’s response significantly changes funding, for example. I ask that because some sort of boundaries will help in answering this question.

    As an example, there’s a teaching theory called Direct Instruction, in which teachers literally read out of a book. Now, before you all join me in saying “WTF, that’s horrible!” (I agree)….the assumption behind direct instruction is that saying the “right” thing is actually damn hard, so most people (including many teachers) aren’t good at it. So in theory, if the only available teachers you have are bad ones, they’re better using a verbatim lesson of a master teacher, than they are trying to craft one of their own.

    But you can do better than DI… if you have money, and staff. Nobody suggests DI except as a relatively last resort.

    RJN: I don’t know enough about PA teaching to respond (yet.) In theory, it sounds pretty good, though in reaching that assumption I’m assuming that it isn’t really constructivism masquerading under a different name. (Much one sided constructivist stuff doesn’t always work very well IMO, especially not in the hard disciplines. I’m not a fan.)

    So, off to read. I’ll be back in a while.

  62. 62
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Too bad we can’t have a wiki.

    I think of it like a table: you have X many jars, and Y many beans, and you can put the beans in whichever jar(s) you choose. My mental image serves to reinforce the fact that you can really only put so much in memory at once.

    Every month that you spend teaching about the fall of Rome is one less month to spend teaching about the Civil Rights movement, and every month that you spend teaching about the Civil Rights movement is one less month that you can spend teaching them to be a good citizen, whatever the hell that means.

    Also: Generally speaking, I’m in strong opposition to the teaching of government or policy beyond a purely functional one. Mostly this is because I don’t trust anyone to use an unbiased presentation–I dare say it means something else for me and for Robert–and the resulting propaganda battle makes me twitch. And yes of course everything is political, but some things are more political than others.

    Robert, if “skills a citizen need?” includes (in my mind) “the skills to understand why abortion is legal and to advocate for gay rights,” do you still want those taught?

    But anyway. When I started writing a list of examples (I’m out of time) it began as follows:

    MATH
    -Arithmetic, up to and including long division.
    -Established numeracy: Arithmetic in your head. (Add/subtract 2 digit numbers. Multiply by a percentage. Etc.)
    -Algebra, through Algebra 2, including some ability to understand and explain variables.
    -Geometry and geometrical proofs
    -Trigonometry, precalculus and calculus

    ENGLISH READING:
    -Read and understand things designed for the public: signs, pamphlets, government handouts, tax instructions.
    -Read more advanced newspapers like the Times
    -Read and understand product manuals
    -Be able to learn entirely new subjects by reading books on them

    FUNCTIONAL ENGLISH WRITING:
    -

    SCIENCE:
    -

  63. 63
    Ruchama says:

    I would add statistics to that math list, and if something had to be taken out to make room for it, take out trigonometry. Trig is necessary for calculus, but statistics is way more important for the vast majority of people. I’d also put in somewhere, but I’m not sure what to call it, understanding how numbers work. (I’ve had way too many students who’ve made it through high school and into a top university who can’t understand why “If a*b = 0, then either a = 0 or b = 0″ is true but “If a*b = 5, then either a = 5 or b = 5″ is not true. When I’ve taught middle school kids, I’ve sometimes done a week where I spent each day on “Why 0 is cool,” “Why 1 is cool,” “Why 2 is cool,” and so on, with 3, 5, and 10. I was stunned last week when not a single student in my Calculus II class, at a very competitive university, knew that multiplying a number by .001 just meant moving the decimal over.)

  64. G&W:

    In theory, [PA] sounds pretty good, though in reaching that assumption I’m assuming that it isn’t really constructivism masquerading under a different name.

    While there is a pedagogy attached to portfolio assessment, it’s important to remember that the portfolio itself is merely a container; it might contain things arrived at through a constructionist (which is the name of the pedagogy based on constructivism) pedagogy, but it might not. This is why I said in my comment that it ought to contain both traditional classroom and standardized tests, in addition to anything else–so that the portfolio a student develops would reflect learning across a range of pedagogical approaches, since no one approach is going to “fit all,” so to speak.

    Regarding the question of funding: My comment about PA was not so much a response to the question in the original post as it was a response to the question–which I asked in response to something you wrote upthread (that I don’t have the time to search for right now)–of how to think about teaching and learning, holding teachers, administrators, etc. accountable and so on from a student-centered perspective.

  65. 65
    Robert says:

    Statistics – specifically probability, but other forms of statistics – should definitely be on there.

    If you graduate from high school and think playing the lottery is a good idea, your math teacher should be beaten with clubs.

    G&W, I don’t know of any cognitive skills that lead inexorably to the conclusion that gay rights are good and abortion should be legal (or the reverse); I do know of lots of cognitive skills that allow one to discuss and analyze either topic, and I’m fine with teaching that kind of critical thinking. So long as it IS critical, and not merely a figleaf for one ideology or another.

  66. 66
    RonF says:

    G&W:

    Every month that you spend teaching about the fall of Rome is one less month to spend teaching about the Civil Rights movement, and every month that you spend teaching about the Civil Rights movement is one less month that you can spend teaching them to be a good citizen, whatever the hell that means.

    I disagree.

    What were the factors that built the Roman Empire. What were the factors that led to the decline of the Roman Empire? Was that decline due to limitations on who could be citizens of Rome? Was it due to the increasing dependence of the Empire on non-citizens? Were the citizens of Rome actually citizens or were they thinly veiled subjects? What responsibilities and rights were either taken away by the government from Roman citizens or abandoned to the government by Roman citizens that may have led to that decline? Why do you think that happened?

    What was the response of Americans to the Civil Rights movement? What do you think were the responsibilities of citizens towards it?

    Ruchama:

    the ability to critically examine written material and statistics for bias, and how to consider the source that information is coming from.

    I quite agree there. My approach is to require students to do this with the material they study in all their classes, instead of trying to teach it as a special discipline in one particular class. That would stretch through English into history and other subjects as well. This is one reason why my list of “things that should be taught in schools but are not” is headed by at least one semester of formal logic.

    -Read more advanced newspapers like the Times

    New York or Washington? A more instructive way to approach this would be to have the kids read a story or a set of stories on a given topic from both the New York Times and, say, the Wall Street Journal and then compare the two. Have them delve into the editorials as well.

    Oh – and just what is that top university, anyway? Innumeracy at a non-science/engineering school wouldn’t surprise me no matter how good it’s supposed to be.

  67. 67
    fuzzytheory says:

    Well, from my own theoretical perspective (hence the name), I find talking about education needs to also look historically. I’m sorry I didn’t read all the comments, so if I am repeating something… smack me down. While the devil is in the details, I think some historical perspective could help.

    Modern educational institutions were constructed in the 19th century alongside the blossoming of the notion of the nation-state. Indeed, the two are inseparable, and also intimately connected to capitalism and sociology. For the modern nation-state is a bourgeois institution/ideology that necessitates a stable middle-class and a predictable populace (hence: sociology’s roots). In order to have consistent middle-class, state citizens must be trained to become bourgeois. This is the roll of education in modern capitalist nation-states.

    Furthermore, most modern institutions, and especially schools, are modeled on the surveillance model of the prison systems developed in the 18th century. The key for creating a stable, predictable, manageable middle-class is disciplining bodies to be able to be inserted into the capitalist state apparatus.

    So, if we step back… the purpose of modern education in the West is to discipline and construct succeeding generations of bourgeois middle-class state subjects who internalize the norms and body-memory of modern-nation states to ensure its continued propagation.

    Even put more radically: the K-12 system is a prison-like system that attempts to develop certain kinds of subjects that stabilize an ordered state.

    Now, of course it is not only such. It also does other things and when we look closer there is much contrariness and a number contested norms . Indeed, within this system is also a thread of resistance to it. Nonetheless, its basic structure is a disciplining of bourgeois bodies that on the one hand has gotten much more effective–but on the other hand, with the changing make-up of the nation-state and new competing models of subjectivity (i.e. the internet, mass media etc.) has also become more brittle.

    Anyway, my 2 cents on what we are actually paying for.
    Fuzzytheory

  68. 68
    Ruchama says:

    Oh – and just what is that top university, anyway? Innumeracy at a non-science/engineering school wouldn’t surprise me no matter how good it’s supposed to be.

    I’d rather not say specifically, but the one that I’m at now has a school of engineering and many of my students are engineering majors. (The person who could not figure out 1 – 1/2 without a calculator was at the last school where I taught, and that class was calculus for business majors.)

  69. 69
    brownfrown says:

    @fuzzytheory Marry. Me.

  70. 70
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Ruchama: It’s far from a complete list.

    Also, i want to make it clear that I am *not* listing things which I think should definitely be taught to everyone. I loved calculus, but I don’t think it’s necessary to teach to everyone in high school given the cost. I haven’t considered statistics yet. Frankly, given the US math performance these days I’d almost consider it an improvement if we could produce high school seniors that could do long division.

    I’m merely trying to get some labeled jars on the table, before we start dropping beans. I don’t know if

    Ron:

    G&W:

    Every month that you spend teaching about the fall of Rome is one less month to spend teaching about the Civil Rights movement, and every month that you spend teaching about the Civil Rights movement is one less month that you can spend teaching them to be a good citizen, whatever the hell that means.

    I disagree.

    What were the factors that built the Roman Empire. What were the factors that led to the decline of the Roman Empire? Was that decline due to limitations on who could be citizens of Rome? Was it due to the increasing dependence of the Empire on non-citizens? Were the citizens of Rome actually citizens or were they thinly veiled subjects? What responsibilities and rights were either taken away by the government from Roman citizens or abandoned to the government by Roman citizens that may have led to that decline? Why do you think that happened?

    I just didn’t phrase it right. The point I’m making is that you can only teach so much stuff at a time; there are tradeoffs. It doesn’t mean that you can only teach one subject, because one could conceivably teach multiple disciplines at the same time.

    It is possible to learn a lot by getting deep into a relatively small number of subjects, and it’s possible to learn a lot by getting a broad spectrum across many subjects. But given an finite amount of time it is not usually possible to simultaneously get depth and breadth, unless you sacrifice other subjects.

    When you request that something *be taught,* it generally means that you want at least some educational time and effort to go its way, which often means taking that effort away from something else.