Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Teacher Myth

A lot of high profile people have been saying some things about teachers in a lot of high profile venues that I think are based on a main faulty assumption with some therefore faulty corollaries. (If, for some bizarre reason you don't care about K-12 education and think that this has nothing to do with you, I'll get to that in a future post on the trend toward online teaching. For now, humor me.) I'll call this set of faulty beliefs "The Teacher Myth" and attack them point by point below.

The Teacher Myth in Education Reform:
Teachers are the problem. - In an effort to believe the best in everyone, I believe that this negative statement actually comes from a positive belief: "Teachers are the solution." I do believe that. (Of course, they're not the only piece of the solution, it's a multi-part problem that many people/communities need to work together to solve.) Teachers are the main point-of-contact between students and schools. They're the public relations department and the product of a school. And a few remarkable teachers have the amazing ability to single-handedly save a bad situation. That may sound like I'm saying that teachers are the problem, but having the ability to solve a problem is not the same thing as having caused it.
  • Unions are the problem. Teaching is a field dominated by women, so it has traditionally been paid as if it is a second income job. In other words, less. In fact, if I'm remembering the stat correctly, teachers make less money than any other field with the same education level. (For more accurate stats and general explanation about this point see Teachers Have It Easy.) Teachers also work longer hours under harsher, more critical conditions than most other professional fields. Even finding time to use the bathroom can be challenging in a teacher's non-stop day. This is precisely the type of job that needs a strong union. Unless you don't believe in unions? That's a different issue.
  • Tenure is the problem. There's a bizarre idea that many people hold (and that many teachers perpetuate) that teaching is a calling - as if it were the priesthood. Teaching is a job. It's a job that requires a high level of education, doesn't pay very well, and has long stressful work hours. It does have one important perk - job stability. That perk "makes up" for some of the lack of pay. People operating under the teacher myth believe that we have a shortage of good, qualified teachers. Removing one of the main job benefits of teaching is not a good way to get more.
  • Anyone can teach. Teach for America and other similar organizations have done a great job perpetuating this sub-myth. It's great that these organizations are convincing more people to go into teaching in the short term, but their goals aren't to create professional teachers - they expect recent college grads to teach for two years and maybe stick around for a year or two after that. It's something to do before going back to law school. But teaching is a profession and teachers, yes, need to learn how to be teachers. It takes time, skill, training, and effort. Just like all professional jobs.
  • Paying good teachers more is a solution. Paying teachers more is great. Teachers should be paid more! But this also implies that bad teachers should be paid less. Who are "bad teachers?" Have they been branded as such permanently? I believe that no-one goes into teaching, or any profession for that matter, trying to be bad at their job. The "bad teachers" want to do a good job! Why not focus on training them to do that? I just started as a Software Engineer at Google. I got 2 weeks of intensive training at the beginning. I'm still in the middle of 10 weeks of at-my-own-pace online lessons. And I have an assigned mentor who sits near me. This is all despite the fact that I have a Ph.D. in Computer Science. Don't teachers, starting jobs after their own academic training programs, deserve at least as much before they're permanently labelled as failing?
  • Bad teachers can be easily identified. Or, restated, bad teachers are like porn, you know them when you see them. One commonly encouraged way to identify "bad teachers" is to use standardized test scores - the bad teachers will be the ones with the low student test scores. But what are the students like in their classrooms? What are the students' home lives like? How long has the teacher been teaching (they do get time to learn themselves, right?)? And, the biggie, who says that standardized test scores actually measure anything relevant? If they don't, then do we trust principals to evaluate teachers? Will superintendents step in to evaluate the principals' evaluations, etc.? To use the "you know it when you see it" metric, someone besides the teacher will need to take the time to show up in the classroom regularly and give thoughtful, constructive feedback. This is all too rare. And obviously, bad teachers aren't like porn. It's much more complicated.

So please, before you jump on the bandwagon of some reform idea (or movie) or another, stop to think about it's underlying ideas. Is the teacher myth one of its axioms?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Superman's Statistics

Wired Magazine has an article in their September issue on "7 Essential Skills You Didn't Learn in College." One of their proposed new courses is Statistical Literacy. Indeed, this is one of the areas in which many American students leave school unprepared. The new movie Waiting for Superman capitalizes on this fact to discuss, ironically, school reform. Here are a two statistics from the movie* that school should have taught us to question:

  • On average, more money is spent per-student now than in 1970. Did they really just cite a mean statistic when talking about money in the US? The top 1% of US earners throw everything off and are also likely to live in the same neighborhoods, putting money into the same schools. What are the median statistics? Also, how has the student body being served changed over that time? For example, are there more English Language Learners (ELL) students? Are more students being diagnosed with ADHD and getting the extra services they need? There are many such trends that might increase even the median amount without actually increasing the "average" money spent per "average" student. Plus, why is spending more money on our public schools a bad thing? What's the average cost per private school student?
  • Average US test scores have not increased since 1970. Again, I say average? Student body composition? Composition of students taking the test? Also, what test?

In addition, the schools that they do highlight as doing well on standardized tests (is that the appropriate goal?) actually spend much more than the current national average per student to achieve that, so in addition to the statistics being murky, they're not actually making the movie's point.

In a later post, I'll hopefully get to the many other issues of this movie. For now, let me just remind you that, as Mark Zuckerberg would agree, you shouldn't believe everything you see on the big screen.

* Obviously, I don't remember the statistics or wording exactly from the movie. So, disclaimer, this represents the gist as I remember it. Of course, since their statistics weren't explicitly derived to begin with, these might just be the same numbers under a slightly different model.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Water in a Cube

I don't often come across visualization problems that I can't see the answer to in a few seconds. (I mention this since I too frequently come across people who assume that because I'm female I must be bad at this. Remember, I do geometry.) So I was very excited when I was recently given the following tricky visualization problem:

Suppose you are given a cube. Stand it on one vertex so that the diagonally opposite vertex (the one with which it shares no faces) and your vertex create a line perpendicular to the ground. Now fill the cube halfway with water. Looking straight down, what shape is the surface of the water?
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