The Development of Educational Memes
By Stephen Ruis
My thesis is that while salaries are important most teachers are in the education business because it fulfills deep seated desires to be useful to society. This is why you don’t hear college students talking about “cashing in” in a career in teaching and then retiring early. Those teachers thought to be so praise worthy (I have known a few) became really good teachers without any reward system and actually might find such a reward system a barrier to collaboration with other teachers.
I can relate to the comment “the most effective teachers push students from below grade level to advanced in a single year” in that I was a chemistry teacher at a community college that didn’t attract the most academically gifted students (they tended to go to other colleges nearby). We testing students upon entry and found them to be below average for students taking such a curriculum, so we had a similar goal: to take the students who came to us, whatever their accomplishments, and get them up to standards before they moved on to other colleges. We told the students this. We showed them the numbers. We enrolled them in the idea that if they worked reasonably hard, they would have nothing to fear when they transferred to university, and we were mildly successful at doing this (to the extent that our students were recognized as being acceptable to those institutions where other students from across campus were not). But it was difficult and hard on the students. And those students were adults who could be persuaded with logic and passion to try hard. They were also no longer required to be attending school; they could leave (and many did). This is a quite different situation from that of children trapped in classrooms they can’t opt out of.
This “teachers are the problem” meme also ignores infrastructure issues. For example, in Chicago this last summer, a whopping percentage of the classrooms had no air conditioning. Now, when I was a kid, I remember some quite sweltering classrooms (we had no air conditioning then, too) but that was only during the last couple of weeks of school before it let out in June. I also remember summertime temperatures in the 110+ degree range, but I wasn’t taking summer classes. I also wasn’t in underperforming classrooms trying to get students to achieve at rate greater than they were used to.
Now, I am not saying that effective management of teachers is not an issue, I think it is a big issue, but there are others. While I was in high school, occasionally a few students got into trouble by drinking beer or even (gasp) hard liquor. There was no drug scene then. There were no gangs in my neighborhood. My classmates weren’t getting shot from time to time. Virtually every one of my classmates had two parents (the quality of which I cannot vouch for, but. . . .).
What we were expected to learn was different. The textbooks were better then, yes, better. The best thing I can say about modern textbooks is that they certainly are heavier than they were in my day. Oh, yeah, in color, too, but also poorly written, unfocused, written by committees, overly dry, uninteresting, etc.
There are more than a few problems in our public education system, but most will not be resolved with a “reward the good, punish the bad” simplistic system, especially since these are extrinsic rewards and punishments and teachers are intrinsically motivated.
But educational reformers (a pox on their house) have to have a drum to beat, one that sounds reasonable, and this is their current choice.
We must stop thinking we can solve complex problems with simple schemes.
We must ask hard questions like: if a principal is supposed to help a struggling teacher, how are they supposed to do that? Does anybody know? Is any educational research facility looking into this question, an answer to which would actually be helpful? And a principal is responsible for how many teachers? How much time do they have to spend with new and/or underperforming teachers? And how qualified are they to do this task?
And we need to stop undermining the intrinsic rewards of teaching. When I was a youth, teachers were a much admired class of workers. They were admired for the reasons that we all know: smart people who got college degrees and then opted to work with kids to make the kid’s lives better for low pay. Now teachers are “the problem” with our schools and, by the way, they are greedy, too, with their lush pensions and summers off.
Well, I have one of those lush pensions, having worked teaching college students for almost forty years. My pension provides me an income that is comparable to the national average, not the average of retired college professors, the actual national average, hardly lush. And my salary, as a college professor, was approximately half of what someone with my qualifications would have been making in the chemical industry (based on published industry-wide salary surveys). So, ask yourself: would you give up half of your salary for two months off during the summer?
Please think about this and not just reflexively, think hard about this: our future and our kid’s futures are deeply affected by education.
(Steve Ruis was a tenured Chemistry instructor at ARC and the LRCFT’s chief negotiator)