Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Chicago's School Strike

Today's big event in the world of education is the Chicago teacher's strike. On her Washington Post blog today, Valerie Strauss discusses the major issues at hand, emphasizing that disagreements about teacher pay are not the reasons why this strike has occurred. Here are the points she mentions and my thoughts about each.

Test based evaluation and merit pay.

The problem with test based evaluation is not that tests are poor measures of teacher performance, but that the actions generally taken to create good test scores are usually misguided. Test scores go up as a result of good teaching, not because of direct efforts to make them go up. Good teaching requires intense commitment to doing a good job. Test scores will go up as a byproduct of teachers having fun doing the work they chose to do, not as be all and end all of their work.

The problem with merit pay is that it’s a misapplication of an approach that has value in a different environment. In a profit-making venture, merit pay is a way of sharing the earnings that the company made among the employees for the work they have done. There may be systems that share the bonuses of a profitable year equally among the employees they have. There may be others that give different bonuses, promotions, and pay raises based on what the individual did. But the company needs a pool of money from which those financial rewards comes that can expand in response to the good work that is done. That does not occur in public education. The pool of incentive money is fixed, this creates unproductive competition between teachers. In fact, it forces the system to look for and find teachers who are doing a bad job. What if everyone deserves a lush raise because the school as a whole did a bang-up job? There is no place for that money to come.

Charter Schools

I'm a firm believer in charter schools, but not for the reasons that are typically given. It has nothing to do with competition pushing public schools to do a better job. It's a civil rights issue. Parents of privilege have choice. My wife and I debated among ourselves whether to send out children to a public or private school. In the end, we compromised by purchasing a more expensive house in a different community and, in a sense, buying our children’s education with the mortgage and tax dollars we paid. I have no way to compare the quality of education our children got by making that choice. As parents, we had to make a choice and between our old neighborhood, our new neighborhood, and a private school, we made the choice we did. Further, we can feel reasonably confident that even if we had made a different choice, our children would have been educated and given the opportunity to move on to a functioning adult life. Children in the inner cities, particularly children of color, run a huge risk of getting into trouble with the law, and with that the possible loss of civil rights protections. Once they have a criminal record, they face legalized discrimination in employment, housing, and many other areas of the ordinary life we citizens enjoy. The issue goes beyond the scope of schools alone, but to deprive parents of the opportunity to make choices they feel will best protect their kids, is not sensible. Even if every city school excelled, it is not right for that to happen on the backs of people who lack the ability to choose among different possibilities.

Longer School Day

I'm addressing these issues in the order they were presented in Valerie Strauss' post. Perhaps, I should have put this one first since it interacts with homework. I have no qualms about a longer homework day. I think educators must consider how much time they need to teach children the things they need to learn. In general, I want my children to learn school-stuff when they are in school. There are many life lessons to be learned in the home after school is done. For children, parents are the first and primary teachers. We need to let them teach those lessons of life without the curricula being set by the schools in the form of excessive homework. A longer school day coupled with reduced reliance on homework: I'm all for that.

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