Saturday, June 29, 2013

Struggling is hard, one of the reasons the best don't teach

In my old job (Engineering) my family lived within our means.  We were careful with money but because of our style of not living extravangent we never had to worry about money.  My wife did not work and we easily got by.  Then I became a teacher.

Eight years ago we realized the struggle financially and planned for it.  But I also believed in 2006 that in 5 years we would get back to even (so long as we bought a cheap house, and had no car payments) and now I am in 2013 still struggling to make ends meet.  (Teaching pay has not kept up with inflation coupled with 2 pay freezes and an 6% pay cut)   I have a house payment of about $700 (as cheap as a family of 6 can own or rent), no car payment, my wife now works (because our kids are older) and yet it is nip and tuck every month.  I pick up work during the summer and do whatever I can to get some extra income.

But think about the whole statement above and it is no wonder that the best don't teach.  I am really driven, I really love teaching, yet every May and June I have to sit down and figure out how to balance our families books.  I know there are a group that think - yeah, tough, what about me?  And I understand that point of view but the focus in this post is about getting the best people to teach and stay teaching, and not very often do the best struggle as hard financially as teaching currently requires.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Too many teachers, too little quality -- Sure, just look at the pay

You get what you pay for, period.  I recently read an AP article: Report: Too many teachers, too little quality and it discussed how we graduated too many teachers for available positions with too easy of a path through secondary education.  But it is simple, if teaching is a disrespected profession, and it currently is, you will get what you pay for --- period.

I worked as engineer & manager for a decade prior to teaching and I know from that time as a manager how respect (pay/benefits) directly correlated to skills. It is simple economics for career choices and job choices, smart people go for respect (and the salary/benefits that come with it).   You will have a few that excel at the lower end, but the true "rock-stars" typically move along to the more respected positions.

Currently teaching has little respect and while a good hunk of teachers are good at their job, have "high-level" skills and ignore the disrespect (me for one - I believe) that leaves another hunk who don't have great skills and are giving an effort equal to the respect (which is often not good enough).   And again it starts with what is expected at college.  In Engineering there were "flunk-out" courses which thinned the herd of students who wanted to be engineers.  Is there a thinning class in education?   What about the following:

1) Student teaching -- if you cannot do it well, then you should not become a teacher.  Except all schools put it at the end, where flunking a student would mean a lost of 4 years of schooling so failing a student rarely happens; meaning we pass some truly mediocre teachers into the profession.  (Who usually cannot get job due to poor interview skills)

2) Should we expect all new teachers to be good at Algebra & Geometry?  Seems reasonable but is far from the norm in my experience. We move K-8 teachers through school where they survive math versus understand it, then they become our 4th and 5th grade teachers who teach procedure versus concepts (though I am lucky at my school).

3) A truly deep education class at the beginning of the sophomore year where students really study, learn classroom management, the brain, learning styles and how to deeply reflect -- but currently early education classes are pretty "cupcake."

But those expectations are only going to happen if the education field is respected and wants the best people.  Cause while a few of the best come because they want to, a great deal fall into teaching.  The rigor of secondary education will follow respect, not vice versa.

And even if a teacher has the true prerequisite skills to be great, how many really bust themselves to deliver -- again without respect, effort wains.  It is too easy to say they don't pay me to be great, they pay for what they get.  Thus a few late nights or weekends, a few extras but not consistently pushing for greatness.  That is hard, you need respect to truly work hard.

And finally the article says it is hard to remove teachers, but it is completely possible.  I simply notice a lack of effort to get it done, a culture of accepting poor performance by the highest paid, theoretically most qualified people - administrators.  After being mentored as a manager I became very forceful with less than stellar performers -- education can be the same.  High expectations - period.  But the compensation must be in line too and it isn't - so we live with mediocrity because that's what we pay for.

So as we are changing education and complaining about the field we must remember one simple fact -- you get what you pay for. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

It's 2013, shouldn't HS daily homework look different than 1985?

So it is 2013 and homework looks the same as 1985.  As a math teacher I believe there is value in practice, if you don't use it you lose it.  As a math teacher I know students need feedback on their work, so it is improving them - homework done carelessly does not help.  As a former student I know I only wanted to do the minimum (I am one of the weird educators who wasn't your "good" student), thus unchecked homework is usually done carelessly.    And finally as a small school teacher I know I do not have time to review student homework and give feedback on a daily basis, there just isn't time.

So what to do about homework.  In the last few years I have simplified to a 2 prong strategy, first only assign work that leads to improvement of the student and second don't assign the concept taught that day until Algebra 2 (students need to see a concept more than once before they practice alone).  The only reason I start assigning some new material the same day in Algebra 2 is to prepare the students for college math (depending on the professor you need to be able to "learn on your own").

So 1985 - no cell phones, no internet, very few computers in schools (heck my school still had typing class with typewriters) and math was done by paper/pencil ; fast forward to today: cell phones are more powerful than the scattered computers of yesteryear, internet with no wires, and math is done (typically) with paper/pencil - or projects are done on word processors (a really nice typewriter).  The math teacher of 1985 is completely comfortable with how we are doing it today in most classrooms, even if you are progressive - a good hunk of your daily practice, homework, looks just like 1985.  Why?  It is mind boggling that it is still the same.

So I am not going to be the same.  I am going to make the practice different.  Now my room was pretty different already, I only assigned 5-8 problems per night and used projects as a large part of their out of class work.   I am now looking at a 3 practice components: weekly practice, projects with milestones, and combo of workbook/text problems (1-2 times per week).

Weekly practice will be on online sites - where feedback is immediate (such as Khan, perhaps IXL, or along those lines).  This will replace daily homework, thus giving a lot of control on when, what skills a student practices.  I will use some metric from the online site to give credit - it will be standard based.  I will use the same system where this cannot be more than 2% (with written practice) of the student's grade (on a 70% scale).  And just like I have done in the past - it is required to be finished per my Homework FAQ.  The target is 20 minutes, 3 times per week - a solid hour outside of class per week of targeted practice.

Next is projects with milestones.  I have had large projects in the past, such as a Pay Day Loan project in Algebra 1, Stocks in Algebra 2 and Constructing a house in Google sketch up in Geometry (youtube video).  The problem is that large projects need multiple milestones, I had too long a span of time between the milestones and will add more steps (so students fall into my Homework FAQ guidelines when work is sub-par).  The key to projects is no one flunks - everyone needs to deliver a good project.  Just like the world, rework/revise.  Projects are about 12-18% of grade depending on class (leaves 80-86% on summative assessment).

Finally the workbook/text book combo.  I am currently looking for ways to move low level things out of my class (by flipping, out of class reading/note taking, etc) and doing a combo of text reading (needed for college) and using worksheets on low level things may have a fit.  This is the foggiest part of the plan.  I feel like I cannot completely get rid of written homework, because it will be an expectation at Technical colleges and universities.  It would be a disservice (I think) not to include some pencil/paper.  But these problems will be checked & scored, requiring rework.    We will use our text for some warm up, along with some note taking.  I think some homework will be to write procedures out and conceptually explain why.  Again - really not sure yet.  But for sure this falls into the same 2% (with the online). 

Will it work?  I see some pitfalls with the notes because I have not been good at checking student's notes in prior years.  I see some pitfalls on grading the work, but how I schedule due dates will be critical.  But one thing is sure, I am not going to be the same, welcome 2013 - or at least 2003.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Grouping -- Good Idea? Another swing of the pendulum

So I read an article that talked about ability grouping (A Classroom Divided), and I think it is called grouping now because "tracking" has such negative connotations.   I do believe teachers should create differentiatend lessons to reach all students, make all students reach their potential - without using time as major factor.  But ability grouping needs to be monitored closely because we have a fine line between differentiation and true "tracking."

Tracking, to me, is when a student is expected to do less, ends up in lower classes and simply pushed to HS graduation with no thought of the real skills he/she will need to make a good living after HS (fifty years ago - they were our blue collar segment - which could make a good living).  And lets be clear - not everyone needs college - but everyone needs to be able to do problem solving and higher order thinking.  And those things are the first to go in a lower expectation class, those things are hardest to teach. Problem solving and higher order thinking are what gives people the ability to roll with our ever-changing world.

Differentiation, in my opinion with respect to ability grouping, is expecting the same problem solving and higher order thinking but delivering it thru a variety of ways (and not slower & louder).  Thus setting up your classroom in a multiple number of ways - where one way is ability groupings.  BUT, if that is the only way the students are divided then you are on a very slippery slope!

Once you only use ability grouping I think you are setting up a dynamic that will not be good for the lower students.  Every class has projects that can use heterogeneous ability groups, and thus can make sure we are putting students in multiple situations for learning.  I know the argument is the "smarter" students do all the work, but isn't it our job to make sure that doesn't happen.  (Or that the "smarter" students get everyone to learn it too?)  The real problem is the students who struggle are not challenged to get the same set of skills.

But as long as education is set by age we will have these trappings.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Valuing Physics over P.E.? Wouldn't it be better to evaluate talent?

So today I read an article about different pay for different positions in a school versus the traditional every teacher makes the same pay scale, Valuing Physics over P.E. ....     As a math teacher on a personal level being paid more is rarely disagreeable, and I know that I am severely underpaid by what I can make in the private sector.  But the top pay in this district for Elementary and P.E. is 61K and for HS math is 82K --  that is a 30%+  premium, that is a lot.  (And again realize I am the person most likely to benefit from this.).  And this system still has the pitfalls of the previous system.

I again see this as education's way not to deal with individual teachers and still group employees (teachers) versus actively lead them (manage).  This is an attempt to sub-divide and simplify -- it does not allow for greatness in elementary (and who knows if it deals with crappy performance in the higher paid categories?)  I know there are great elementary teachers in a district of 3000+ educators that should be compensated well, I also know there are mediocre math educators who probably should not get top end pay of 61K even.  The issue is how to review and reward (also how to improve & motivate but that is a whole other can of worms)  -- and this system has the same deficiencies as all schools -- it rewards by job category - because adminstration cannot or does not know how to reward by performance.

I still cannot overcome how different it was in the private sector versus public education.  The private sector is easier though, the end product is easily defined in the private sector -- sales, profit, number of widgets.  Education is not a widget making industry - how a student is taught K-4 is the best indication of how well they will do in High School.  We need to get "rock stars" into the elementary grades but that also means evaluating and rewarding the "rock stars"  -- the system cannot greatly reward very good teachers.  Yet this system caps what elementary makes, and still treats all teachers as simple assembly workers - where they are just interchangeable. 

As person who went from engineering to HS math - I know we have a broken pay system, period.  We evaluate on categories because administration refuses to evaluate and reward.  We must make teaching close to the private sector, while realizing we aren't making widgets, and we must reward the "rock star" teachers wherever they are.  We must evaluate talent and reward it.

('How' is something I will think about and post my ramblings later....)