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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Pieces of Paper

There are few things more deceptive that a Master's degree. It conveys an often illusory sense of expertise. Better than a Bachelor's but not quite as knowledge laden as a Doctorate. It's holders still able to hold relatively normal conversations with other human beings. The problem with the Masters, and most liberal arts degrees, is not that they are inherently worthless, but just as their subject matter is qualitative in nature so is there value. There is no specific skill the liberal arts major can point to and say, yes I can do this. He cannot build, design or even just reject the null hypothesis. Yet a civilization cannot long exist without the liberal arts. The day to day getting and spending would continue apace but man, as the Bible tells us, cannot live by bread alone. The liberal arts is the study, ultimately, of being human. 

Education as a subject fits itself in the liberal arts tradition. Certainly no one in the ancient or early modern world regarded education as a fully independent subject, so much as a skill one acquired from practice. Some teachers had an ability, finely honed, to communicate information, concepts and ultimately a methodology of thought to their students. Others read aloud from textbooks and kept their free eye on the water clock, sundial or Timex to run out. A good teacher was one who knew his stuff and had a knack for explaining it to others. Not dwelling too much on arcane details only a specialist would care about, capable of punching up dry material with a memorable, yet relevant, anecdote. The big picture meshing and eventually integrating in the mind of the pupil with the small details. That teaching cannot really be taught, that like the liberal and educated mindset it is something that has to be practiced to be understood. Years ago a teacher of mine, a reactionary old Tory, quipped that an MA in Education was about as useful as a university major in driving a car. It seems some in the educational establishment are beginning to understand:

But current teacher training has a large chorus of critics, including prominent professors in education schools themselves. For example, the director of teacher education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Katherine Merseth, told a conference in March that of the nation’s 1,300 graduate teacher training programs, only about 100 were doing a competent job and “the others could be shut down tomorrow.” And Obama administration officials support a shift away from using master’s degrees for pay raises, and a shift toward compensating teachers based on children’s performance.

Posted by Richard Anderson on August 26, 2009 | Permalink


I find it ironic or at least interesting that Obama's education policies are an affront to teacher's unions sacred cows. Here in Washington State the democratic Governor has so far refused federal (education) money from this administration as it allows the establishment of charter schools.

As for liberal arts colleges, I liked former Vancouver Sun columnist, Les Bewley's words, " you could replace all liberal arts colleges with library cards". If that is too radical why not shut most down and encourage the very best lecturers to teach online, sell off all that expensive architecture and save a whole lot of money and carbon footprint. There is virtually no student-teacher interaction in a 400 seat lecture theater anyway.

Posted by: John Chittick | 2009-08-26 10:50:01 AM

Compensating teachers based on their performance will never be accepted by teachers' unions, although it would be the only rational thing to do.

I agree with Les Bewley's description of liberal arts colleges and programs. Liberal arts used to mean something totally different, especially in the teaching of analytical and critical thinking along with a solid knowledge of English and Latin and Greek.

Posted by: Alain | 2009-08-26 11:18:30 AM

Compensating teachers based on performance sounds good, like compensating manufacturing employees based on piece work. However the idea falls apart in practice because one teacher will sabotage another in order to get students to spend more energy on their class, or sport etc.

Furthermore, it might be seen as "racist"* or at-least "regionalist" but some schools are populated by kids that are quite frankly "dumb as sh*t". These children grow up with little stimulation at home, little encouragement and are raised in a culture that places no value on educational achievement or life achievement in general. "The man" telling them to do better in school is like telling them not to smoke, drink or hang out with the kids that do.

They're not "dumb as sh*t" because of who they are physically, they're that way because they're raised that way and communities share culture and that's why a school can be full of them.

Pay for performance will continue to stop teachers from going to "those" schools. Besides, why waste the best teachers on kids who aren't going anywhere anyways. Even if they do get the best forced education, their aspirations will still be skewed by their cultural and social contexts.

A better idea is privatize the schools and let kids attend -any- school they want and have competitive admission at every level. Smart kids can go to smart schools and spend an hour on the bus.

I had to spend a hell of a long time on a bus to get to the elementary school my parents wanted me to get to.

Also, as a businessman I tend not to hire people with "advanced" post secondary credentials; they make bad employees. They make especially poor "thinking" employees as they've learned to be lazy narrow minded regurgitating cogs. It's nearly impossible to get anything unique and useful out of them, especially if no one has done anything like it before.

If you need problems solved and things done in new ways, it's far better to hire people with a track record of, and experience proving they can think and deliver.

Those high-grade "thinking people" people I've found almost never have anything beyond an associates degree, but more often they have some kind of certificate or were kicked out of post secondary before completing something.

Posted by: Pete | 2009-08-26 3:51:14 PM

Pay for performance is a good idea that needs a way to be implemented. Good students need good teachers but so do lower stream students. I once saw a situation where the math department of a high school complained bitterly because a teacher who taught non-academics was appointed as department head. He had never taught the upper stream and was not as good a mathmatician as others in the department. He had proven that he could motivate students that the others had given up on. He was the correct choice.

There are several schools in Edmonton (in both Public and Catholic) that are located in less than desireable areas and they are notable because of excellent levels of achievement. Indeed they impress more than some schools that are considered stellar by the boards. Performance based pay can be related to the circumstances. Placing the students first and the pay will follow. Very few teachers are naturals. Teach them well and give them the tools to succeed and miracles will follow.

There are examples of schools that have been "turned around" by innovative administrators and teachers. The Harlem Boys Choir comes to mind as do schools that adopt an "Outward Bound" philosophy. Teachers Unions look after teachers and only pay lip service to students. They have a place but they must be put in their place.

An aside Pete- if your highest academic achievers are simply regurgitators please consider that they have been trained not educated.

Posted by: DML | 2009-08-26 11:14:36 PM

"compensating teachers based on children’s performance."
This is far too logical. This is common sense. From what I have seen, a Masters and common sense are totally incompatible.

Posted by: peterj | 2009-08-27 10:53:13 PM

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