A Career in Public Education Isn’t That Hard

or, Why Teachers Should Not Be Praised Because They Chose Teaching

It's about time!

The problems facing public schools today are vast and myriad, but one thing is for certain: public schools are failing to deliver on their promise of a free quality education for all. Once upon a time we didn’t have a way to know this without speculating based on our own beliefs and assumptions, as well as what we personally witnessed either as students, parents of students, or adults interested in the well-being of children. Now we do. We have at least two tools at our disposal that can offer us insight into what, exactly, is the matter with public education: student test scores and teacher’s ratings.

It is an oft-repeated belief that teachers suffer from aspects of life that make their jobs improbably difficult, if not downright impossible, and that we poorly compensate them, so we should forgive them whatever failings they may have. If you don’t want to teach, so they say, you’ve no right to complain, in what is an adaptation of the old political phrase if you don’t vote, don’t gripe. Teachers as saints is the prevailing conventional wisdom. But what if it’s not true? What if teaching is not that hard, and what if teachers are not poorly compensated? Can we look at this from a different point of view in order to see a larger picture subject to more rhetorical clarity?

At the end of the day, teachers are people. Because of their chosen profession, we can tell a lot about them based on the demographic profile. Teachers are overwhelmingly female, white, and middle class. Those descriptors tell us something about them as a group. For example, are you dissatisfied with the quality of math teaching in this country? Then why in the world would you think it’s a good idea to leave the instruction of such in the hands of the one group of people who have demonstrably less knowledge in the subject matter?

That women in general struggle with math is no secret in our culture. Volumes of data have been recorded, and theories have been developed to explain the phenomenon. Surely it’s a result of the inherent sexism of our culture, beliefs that are still neatly espoused by the likes of Larry Summers, former President of Harvard and the economic weapon of choice for the last two Democratic presidents. And while that’s not fair, it’s also not fair to promulgate that ignorance down the supply chain of knowledge to innocent children of both genders, thus complicating matters. We must either bring females up to speed on math, or we must forcibly open the field of teaching to more men. Preferably a mixture of the two is ideal.

If we can accept that teachers are people and not saints, then we can begin to come to some areas where solutions become readily apparent. Let’s take a look at teacher’s ratings, which we get our first exposure to as New York City became the first school district to release these data points publicly on their math and English teachers in the fourth through eighth grades (NYC students take standardized tests in grades 4 & 8, for the record). This release has been fought vociferously by teachers who, few can really deny, have a vested interest in promoting the teachers as saints model. This model keeps teachers protected from judgment about their work, and keeps the public believing that teaching is a very hard job that is not properly compensated, and thus some level of failure is to be expected.

Except it’s not. It can be tedious at times, and frustrating, too, but so can other jobs. I’d like to see a teacher entertain the idea of taking over the school janitor’s job some time. It just wouldn’t happen, because whatever barriers there are to success, success is not impossible or even improbable, and the poor compensation is still lots more than cleaning up after people. The teacher’s ratings prove this out. The top 5% and the bottom 5% generally consist of the same names with similar numbers year after year. This suggests some people aren’t cut out for teaching, and should thus be cut out of teaching. And cutting is what is required with a strong protectionist union that has resisted just about every proposed change–with the exception of pay increases and pension benefits–since Ronald Reagan created the Department of Education. Continue reading

Parker & Palin: On Men & Their “Tells”

In poker, a “tell” is an evident change in behavior that gives other players clues to the hand of the behavioral changer. For example, a player might be dealt a winning hand and then begin to whistle or hum. We all have “tells” and they don’t just apply in poker. My eye twitches when I lie (which is the second reason I don’t often do it, the first being my character). A woman who is interested in a mate might unconsciously express it with the flip of her hair during a conversation. These are all tells.

Two posts from around the intertubes discuss this issue either directly or peripherally: Dr. Violet Socks’ The Ease with Which Men Imagine Women as Prostitutes and Myiq2xu’s Crawdad’s Re-writing Herstory, about the new HBO Sarah Palin documentary.

Let’s start with Dr. Socks’ post. In it she discusses her frustration with a new biography of Bonnie & Clyde by Jeff Guinn, which she summarizes thusly:

A book about Bonnie and Clyde which I just started reading, and which I have now stopped reading in order to write this post: Go Down Together, by Jeff Guinn. It claims to be the “True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde.” To which I say: horseshit. I’m thinking it’s more like the true untold story of the inside of Jeff Guinn’s head. He has decided, on the basis of absolutely no evidence whatsoever, that Bonnie Parker was probably a prostitute before she hooked up with Clyde. Why? Because she could have been. It was theoretically possible for a poor girl in Dallas to become a prostitute, so that’s probably what happened. In Jeff Guinn’s mind.

This reminded me of an essay I read once by A.S. Byatt (the name of which I now forget; if you know it, please post it in comments) in which she discussed the mutilation of female biographies by what was at that time a nearly universally male discipline, namely history. So this topic has been discussed culturally speaking for some time now. As Dr. Socks’ and Crawdad’s posts clearly demonstrate, the problem has not resolved after a half a century of feminist work and discourse. For the record, the dominance of men in the discipline of history has not been stemmed much by that wave of feminist action. But history is not the only discipline in which men dominate and in which their “tells,” in this case telling of their gender bias, are evident. The male gaze, as it has been called in academia, effects so much of our cultural production.

Cultural production includes our academic content, journalism content, entertainment content, etc. Anything that is produced to deliver a message, especially an opinion-based message, may be considered cultural production. It differs from material production and service delivery in that it provides the framework for the big-picture view, whereas these other two make up the smaller details of our day-to-day lives. It is the male gaze in this area of cultural production that is the issue with the cultural productions Dr. Socks and Crawdad’s are discussing. It is the “tell” of this gaze imprinted upon the cultural production itself that is the problem, and one that should be addressed.

Here’s Crawdad’s beef with the new HBO Palin documentary: Continue reading