March 28, 2006

That NEA newsletter again

Writer Anna Quindlen writes in the latest issue of NEA Today:

After a lifetime of hearing the old legends about cushy hours and summer vacations, they figure out that early mornings are for students who need extra help, evenings are for test corrections and lesson plans, and weekends and summers are for second and even third jobs to try to pay the bills.

While I can sympathize with some of what Quindlen says -- especially the part about staying after school (or early mornings) for students that need extra help and many loooong evenings devoted to test/assignment corrections -- for me, weekends and summers are certainly not there to "pay the bills" via a second and third job. Exactly how many other teachers do this? 90%? 75%? 60%? Quindlen doesn't say. But with regards to summer vacation, the NEA Today itself provides an answer on page 14-15 of the hard copy edition: 42% of teachers across the country either teach summer school or work another job. So, obviously this means 58% of teachers enjoy a two to two and a half month break! That's right -- a two to two and half month break. What person in industry wouldn't love that? Quite a few, I would imagine. And, out of that 42% figure, how many actually choose to work -- meaning, to make extra $$ for essentially the heck of it, not out of necessity (like to pay bills, etc.)? I know quite a few teachers who do just this -- they choose to work merely to (monetarily) take advantage of the time alloted them by summer vacation.

This is why I cringe when I hear some teachers moan and groan about their "long hours" and "bad pay." This is when I think: "Look, you knew what you were getting into when you decided on the field of education. You knew the pay isn't great. However, especially here in Delaware and nearby states, the bennies are first-rate. Have you factored that into the 'bad pay' scenario? How much have you paid for hospital care? Dental? How many sick days do you get a year? Oh, and what's that -- your unused sick days carry over from year to year? Wow, that's nice!"

Yes, the hours are long during the school year, even on the weekends. But that's for the GOOD teachers, however. The lemons really couldn't care less. And this is what gets me thinking on what Quindlen says here:

The point about tying teaching salaries to widget standards is that it's hard to figure out a useful way to measure the merit of what a really good teacher does. You can imagine the principal who would see McCourt's gambit as the work of a gifted teacher, and just as easily imagine the one who would find it unseemly. Tying raises to pass rates is a flagrant invitation to inflate student achievement. Tying them to standardized tests makes rote regurgitation the centerpiece of schools. Both are blind to the merit of teachers who shoulder the challenging work of educating those less able, more troubled, from homes where there are no pencils, no books, even no parents. A teacher whose Advanced Placement class sends everyone on to top-tier colleges; a teacher whose remedial-reading class finally gets through to some, but not all, of a student group that is failing. There is merit in both.

Indeed. What is the best way to assess/judge teachers' competence? Delaware has an idea where some 20% of a teacher's evaluation (and pay raise) would be based on students' DSTP reading, writing and math scores ... no matter what subject you teach. That's right. And I teach Spanish. Yet, 20% of my performance evaluation would be based on my school's students' DSTP scores! Can someone explain to me how this makes any sense? What it does is give me an incentive to lessen the amount of time in class teaching Spanish, and tutor kids in reading, writing and math! As DSEA spokesperson Pam Nichols said, "If you're an art teacher, nurse or science teacher, your student improvement would be based on the math, reading and writing scores of the students you have. Why try a program we know won't evaluate this teacher on what they were hired to do?"

There's certainly no shortage of ideas when it comes to how best to assess teachers. Currently, at least in Delaware, assessments come from principal (or asst. principal) observations. The pitfall of this method is that these administrators may not be sufficently trained themselves (especially if they're new) and/or they may know little or none of the teacher's subject matter. Ideally, in my opinion, teacher assessments would be made by an expert -- or as close to an expert as you can get -- in the teacher's subject area. For instance, I'd be assessed by a "master" Spanish teacher. And, certainly, such evaluations would take place several times throughout the year with a final assessment at the end of the year.

Trust me, there's no shortage of people who think they know "best" how to assess teachers. Most of the ideas suck, frankly (just like the state of Delaware's, natch). The problem with my idea is one of the constant hassles with education -- money. Who would be the "master" assessor? Another district teacher? If so (and I wouldn't have a problem with that), the district would have to pay for a substitute when that master teacher goes to assess another teacher. Even though this makes sense, it is unlikely districts would go for it. (Which is a shame, too, because many districts will pay for substitutes so that teachers can attend workshops and/or inservices -- many of which are a total waste of time.)

I could go on and on and on about this topic. But I won't. Instead, I'll get back to the main thrust of this post: The NEA is hardly the most objective source to get information on teaching and teachers. And I just happened upon a (further) terrific example: on the same page of NEA Today where it notes that 42% of teachers teach summer school or work another job in the summer, NT's Daniel Moise gives a glowing review to a book that many have absolutely lambasted -- Rethinking Mathematics -- Teaching Social Justice By The Numbers. He writes:

It may seem unconventional to discuss integers and inequality in the same lesson, but a new book says it's a great strategy for simultaneously teaching math and social justice.

You may ask yourself (as David Byrne once famously sang) "What the hell does social justice have to do with math?" (Or, even, how exactly is "social justice" defined?)


Almost a month ago, I read a scathing critique by college math instructor Moebius Stripper of Tall, Dark & Mysterious who admittedly actually hasn't read the book -- mainly because she's seen it all before:

What bothers is this: is anyone familiar with a movement among social studies educators in secondary schools to use math in their courses, or does the movement toward interdisciplinary studies of social justice only go in the other direction? I am aware of none. Why are the educators who are motivated by political issues - and who see numeracy as a means to that end - injecting those issues into the math curriculum, rather than injecting math into social studies classes - which seems more natural to me? If I think that potters would improve their craft by learning some elementary Newtonian mechanics, I'd sooner give impromptu physics lessons at the pottery wheel than drag my physics classmates to the studio.

Is the overall effect to the high school curriculum, a net reduction of mathematical content?

The authors of Rethinking Mathematics are unabashedly politically-driven, and from the table of contents it is apparent that the math they present in their book leads students, none too subtly, to such conclusions as the one that capitalism is a fundamentally damaging economic system. Leaving aside for the moment the validity of this conclusion - I personally dispute it - let's consider just how very involved a topic economics is. To come to any conclusion about capitalism requires one of two things: 1) a great deal of in-depth studies of economics and related issues, issues that Ph.D. students have written theses about; or 2) some superficial examination of pre-selected data (is this the Global Capitalist Economy Cartoon mentioned in the book's table of contents ?) that leads directly to the desired conclusion. In the context of a high school math class, (1) entails a huge use of the mathematics class's time to teach and learn economics, while (2) constitutes brainwashing.

Given how ill-prepared the majority of high school students are to either do mathematics or think (let alone "think critically", and the first person to point out case of that phrase being used by anyone who doesn't have an ideological axe to grind, gets a cookie), you'll forgive me if I can't get on board with either of those two options.

Diane Ravitch lays it all out against this text. She writes:

Among its topics are: "Sweatshop Accounting," with units on poverty, globalization, and the unequal distribution of wealth. Another topic, drawn directly from ethnomathematics, is "Chicanos Have Math in Their Blood." Others include "The Transnational Capital Auction," "Multicultural Math," and "Home Buying While Brown or Black." Units of study include racial profiling, the war in Iraq, corporate control of the media, and environmental racism. The theory behind the book is that "teaching math in a neutral manner is not possible." Teachers are supposed to vary the teaching of mathematics in relation to their students' race, gender, ethnicity, and community.

'Ya just gotta love it, 'ya really do.

Way back when at the old "Cube," I noted a Northeastern University course titled "Teaching Mathematics for Social Justice." (Link to the course has since expired.) The course description was as follows:

This introductory course explores principles of social justice in education as a lens in rethinking school mathematics. The course will provide participants with a) an opportunity to expand their knowledge and awareness of issues of social justice in the context of mathematics education; b) an opportunity to develop a pedagogical model for teaching for social change; c) a process to critically examine the content of school mathematics curriculum and instructional practices from the perspective of social justice; d) an opportunity to contemplate on the role of the teacher as an agent of change and “transformative intellectual”.

Throughout the course we will emphasize the relationship between theory and practice in an attempt to understand some of the complexities and challenges in addressing issues of social justice in mathematics teaching and learning.

Participants will:

•Have the opportunity to explore the complex relationship between mathematical knowledge, power, and learning
•Conceptualize a socially just mathematics curriculum and instruction
•Be encouraged to reflect critically on the role of mathematics in society and formulate a philosophy of mathematics teaching and learning
• Develop instructional activities based on a pedagogical framework for teaching mathematics for social justice.

Required readings from the course were:

  • Social Justice and Mathematics Education: Gender, Class, Ethnicity, and the Politics of Schooling.
  • Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights.
  • Multicultural Mathematics: Teaching Mathematics from a Global Perspective.
  • New Directions for Equity in mathematics education.
  • Multiple Factors: Classroom Mathematics for Social Justice.
  • Changing the Faces of Mathematics: Perspectives on African-Americans.
  • Multicultural and Gender Equity in Mathematics Classroom: The Gift of Diversity.

Is it any wonder why schools of education get so little respect? Nutjob courses like the above (sort of like these) which do little if anything to actually prepare prospective teachers to teach, and the dismal nature of current educational research are huge factors. Quindlen notes in her article "In recent years, teacher salaries have grown, if they’ve grown at all, at a far slower rate than those of other professionals ..." Maybe if schools of education got their collective acts together and cut the nonsense they and the teachers they produce would get the respect they feel they deserve. Those other professions -- like, for instance, computer science, engineering, medicine -- don't often utilize quackery-masquerading-as-research/learning in their fields of study.

Posted by Hube at March 28, 2006 05:38 PM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

Oh my sweet Aunt Fanny. What on earth will the education system come up with next?

I don't bitch about my pay. It's pretty good. I do bitch about the lack of respect and the people that throw that 2.5 months of vacation in my face. They can come and manage 25 different personalities in a classroom 5-6 times a day all the while trying to teach something. Then they can grade papers until the cows come home, while making their own teaching materials. I'll sit in their office where no one fiddles with the stuff on their desk, answer their email in a leisurely pace while I'm sipping my coffee and listening to soft music. Heck, I'll even deal with the paperwork on their office and make a few phone calls.

Wanna tell me what's easier?

Posted by: Bronwen at March 28, 2006 07:08 PM

Good points, B. Lack of respect from students ... and administrators who think you have the IQ of an orange!

My response to people bitching about summers off is usually along the lines of this: "Don't blame me for your dissatisfaction with MY career choice. Don't like it? Lobby your state legislator."

Then, when that inevitably leads into how "easy" teaching is, I'll always say "Come on in and try it for two weeks. I get to pick the class, OK?" Quindlen was dead right about this aspect in the beginning of her article.

Posted by: Hube at March 28, 2006 08:00 PM

Very balanced critique of Qindlen's article. Good work.

I was surprised to see a writer of her reputation writing for what is essentially a trade magazine. Guess they paid her well. AND I suspect the story will get a lot of national play as it is sympatheic to teachers but does not bash wasteful school boards and administrations.

Where did you first see the article?

Posted by: AJ Lynch at March 29, 2006 09:15 AM

I for one have taught school, worked in a major corporation and for a small business, and owned a small business. The latter was by far the hardest, and the other three had positives and negatives.

I think tying pay to performance is lacking for the reasons you stated. I like the idea in principle, but in practice it is impossible.

Posted by: Delathought at March 29, 2006 06:48 PM

AJ: First saw it in the NEA Today hard copy that I get mailed to me each month.

Posted by: Hube at March 30, 2006 08:38 PM

Hey! I like my time off. I do not do any work outside the duty day. You will NEVER get from me what you did not pay for. Period.

My duty day-by contract-is from 7:15 to 2:45. That is all you have purchased from me. Want more? Make an offer.

Right now I make $60,000 a year for 192 days of work. If you want 240 days (like most workers) then you will have to raise that pay to a minimum of $75,000. Oh, and you will have to raise my pension from 32% of the average of pay for the last three years of teaching (We have to pay taxes out of that 32%!) to 75% (and tax free!).

If you want more from me you WILL pay me. Right now you ARE getting what your elected officials negotiated. To me, that time off IS part of my pay. So here's the deal: I get to keep the time off and you don't have to pay more in taxes. Deal?

Posted by: Miller Smith at March 31, 2006 09:47 AM

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