Sunday, August 21, 2005

Why Do Teachers Say What They Do?

An old friend says his wife, a teacher, has this objection to merit pay: "If a teacher's bosses didn't like her, her raises might not be as big as the other teachers'."

Well, yeah.

We all reason by introspection. To understand eduspeak, and where it comes from, try putting yourself in the shoes of a typical elementary or secondary school teacher:
  • I'm a successful teacher. I always got poor grades on standardized tests. If they meant anything, how could I have gotten where I am? Standardized testing is bad.
  • I didn't get great grades before I became an education major, and it always made me feel bad. I worked hard, and think grading on effort would've been fairer. Maybe I'll even use student portfolios and let the parents do the evaluation.
  • I get raises and promotions based entirely on the amount of time I've been working at the district. If a student's attended class, why shouldn't I promote him to the next grade?
  • I've advanced my career by getting advanced degrees in education, like an M.Ed., or an Ed.D. Okay, these aren't academically challenging, but they require time, and money, and jumping through well-defined hoops. Education is about credentials, not knowledge. High school graduation rates are more important than making sure our graduates know stuff. My job is to get my students a degree.
  • The government runs my job and most of my friends' jobs. Why would anyone object to the government's running theirs?
  • Money comes from the state and from federal grants. How much I'm paid depends on politicians, not my achievement in the classroom. State and national politics are part of my job, and the bigger government is, the better off we all are.
  • It's not hard to get a teaching certificate. There's a glut of people who want my job, so in a free labor market teachers' salaries would be lower. Of course obligatory, collective bargaining is the right way to set salaries.
  • Lots of people out there want my job. If they compete with me for it, I'll spend my whole career having to prove myself. I've never been very competitive. Tenure makes complete sense.
  • I've had summers off my whole life. How could your job only give you two weeks' vacation a year?

I honestly don't mean this as a criticism of the average teacher. I do think there's plenty to criticize, but I'm suggesting this as a Darwinian -- selection-based -- explanation of something: teachers say what they do because they got where they are in very different ways from the rest of us.

To change education, we have to change the way teachers think. To change the way teachers think, we have to change their jobs.


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