Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Fun With Hypotheticals

I love to engage in hypothetical arguments, they are a wonderful way to raise questions, get to the heart of one’s assumptions, and engage in some meaningful creative and critical thinking. I have two for us to play with:

 For one year, let’s take all the kids from West Windsor-Plainsboro’s Village Elementary School, Community Middle School, and High School South, and bus them to an elementary, middle, and high school in the Trenton school district, and vice versa. Only the students will move, the teachers, administrators, will all stay put. What do you think will be the resulting learning outcomes of the students. We can really play around with this and scenario and have the kids go to live with the parents of the child they are switching places with.

 Let’s take two teachers, each with 10 years experience. One is a Calculus teacher, the other is a Physical Education teacher. When they open their respective pay checks this Friday, all else being equal, should they be seeing the same amount?

In the first case, we are delving into the question of what variables affect a child’s learning outcomes. How much of a role do teachers play, as opposed to other things such as parenting, the physical plant of the school, or local environment? And what do I think? It is my contention that the inner city kids will show a slight increase in their grades, due primarily to a better overall faculty.  Further, I believe that the West Windsor kids may show a slight drop in their grades but in all likelihood their grades will stay just about the same.  Why? Well the way I see it, parenting and the dynamics of the community one lives in are the main determinants of a child’s academic success. By parenting by the way I include such variables as a child’s diet, sleeping and daily habits. If I am correct the ramifications are significant, because it means that we cannot improve the success of a child in school without also making changes to the environment in which the child resides. This is both an expensive and delicate undertaking, with undertones of race and income lurking on the scene. I do believe that the quality of teaching in wealthier districts is better than that delivered in the inner city, and I believe that the support services in the school are better; this is partially a function of the person doing the teaching, partially a function of the quality of professional development provided for teachers in this wealthier schools.  It means that parenting is a critical, primary determinant in a child’s performance in school. Parental expectations are different, peer pressures are different, the exposure to positive role models is different, and access to supportive resources is different, all to the benefit of wealthier children and to the detriment of poor children. All of these realities combine to limit the positive impact of moving inner city kids to West Windsor for school. I think that the success of programs like the Harlem Children’s Zone, for example, in a way confirms my suspicion that these variables (parenting and community realities) are indeed significant.

There is one other variable in play that must be mentioned. I believe that kids in wealthier districts have learned how to advocate for themselves and have a much greater sense of empowerment when it comes to education and making sure that the education they are receiving meets their expectations, which are high. I do not have data to support this, but I have spoken both informally (extemporaneous conversations) and formally (organized discussions I have run in the community) with inner city high school kids, and dropouts, and feel confident in drawing this conclusion.

This does not bode well for inner city education in the immediate future, but it does identify the difficult challenges we face in trying to improve learning outcomes and the performance of our inner city schools.     


In this second case, issues of equity and performance pay are raised. As to the paycheck, my answer is that their paychecks should not be the same, but not because one teacher instructs a more rigorous curriculum. Quite frankly, I can make the point that physical education is as if not more important than a calculus class, at least for the majority of students not planning a career requiring proficiency in calculus. I could actually make the case that, under the right circumstances, that the phys ed teacher should be paid MORE!

Now the way educators currently receive remuneration, with years of service and years of personal education as the only two variants, is perhaps the most asinine way of paying teachers that I can think of. It is the reason why you see phys ed classes where kids in the springtime seem to do little more than walk around the track for a half hour to get exercise. The current pay system provides absolutely no incentive for excellence in teaching, for innovation or creativity, for performing at the top tail of the curve rather than the middle. Phys Ed and health teachers have an incredibly important job to play, especially in this age of childhood obesity, risk taking behavior, and an overall ignorance of proper health, nutrition, and fitness. The need for “lifelong learning” in this department is critical for the overall health of our nation.

The bottom line is that the amount in the paycheck of the math teacher, and the paycheck of the phys ed teacher, should to a great extent be in the hands of the teacher, and this is done by instituting a system of performance pay.

I’ve discussed, and will reintroduce again in a future blog, the fact that metrics are available that are “teacher friendly” but still rigorous and legitimate enough to support scrutiny by those that want to hold teachers to a high degree of accountability. I realize that no system is perfect, but the system in place now is the worst possible system, especially in the absence of any real program in place to provide comprehensive clinical supervision of our at risk, non-tenured, and low achieving teachers. Keep in mind that the majority of teachers in place today were drawn from the middle to low end of the performance scale in college. Why would we expect their performance to be any different on the job?
I'm curious to know what you think about these hypotheticals and how you see the scenarios play out. Feel free to share! 

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