Saturday, May 28, 2005

Mix and Match

Matt Miller, a guest columnist for the Time Op-Ed page had an interesting column this morning about paying school teachers in California higher wages (base salary rises from $40K to $60K per year, top half teachers would average $90K, and the very best would earn $150K) all as incentive to bring in good teachers into poor schools. Presumably this part of the deal would be delightful from the Union's point of view. The bargain would be that the schools would be able to fire the under performers among the teachers. (Miller leads off with how he has heard from the good teachers in the bad schools about just how bad some of the other teachers are.) To me the interesting part of this suggestion is that it is straight "efficiency wage" theory, something I used to do research on ten to fifteen years ago.

Actually, it's a little sliver of an idea in Miller's piece that I want to glom onto. He mentions that before the 1970s women were not free to enter all the professions. Hence highly educated women were school teachers. By working at wages substantially below what their education would have predicted otherwise, they provided a massive subsidy to schools. In other words, the kids who went to the schools at that time got a better education than they were otherwise entitled to.

I was one of those kids. I started first grade in 1960 (in P.S. 31) and then after a year transferred to another school which was newly built (P.S. 203). That was in NYC, what is now called Oakland Gardens in Queens. My recollection is vague. I still remember the names of my teachers from then and I know that in 3rd grade I had my ten minutes of fame as the Sheriff of Hokum County in the play Bandit Ben Rides Again. But any of the particulars of the classroom are now long forgotten. I do have a sense that I got a good education there, for which I'm greatly appreciative.

Now fast forward 30 - 35 years. It's the late 90's and I'm teaching mostly intermediate microeconomics here at Illinois. Most of the kids are in-state. These kids attended elementary school perhaps 10 years earlier, in the late 8o's. I have found fault in the education these kids had based on how they behave in my class. Too many of them simply tried to memorize everything. Too few of them tried to "figure things out" on their own. I had always attributed that to their major. Most of the students were either business students or LAS students trying to become business students. But Miller's throw away comment has me thinking. Was it their teachers that made them this way - inexperienced, and not sufficiently educated teachers?

Not too long ago I recall talking with my younger son's teacher about my son's long division; he was having problems with that. The teacher said he just needed some drill on that. I'm not crazy about drill, especially when it seems forced. But in fifth grade I had Mrs. Stone and she made us do a speed test every day on multiplication and division (can't remember if it was 3 minutes or 5 minutes). Perhaps drill is not such a bad thing. You can't see the forest until you know what a tree is.

If K-12 matters so much, are there things that we can do in higher ed that would help, particularly in the lower grades? We are beginning to talk about a statewide consortium for the licensing and hosting of course management systems. What if through that we begin to have a program of content sharing across the campuses? What if further that K-12 becomes included and some of the content that is created is for K-12?

How does one address the "access issue" for lower income students? Can one have a program for decent networking and computers in the home? Or do the support issues suggest that there should be computer centers at schools and libraries where kids can get access?

Many years ago I was involved in a little project at Robeson school here in Champaign on the use of the Mallard software. My own view of the benefit of this software is as a good homework tool to let students work at their own pace and "do it till they get it right." Robeson had a lab where an entire class could work on the computers at one time. (They were the only school in the district with such a lab.) So they did Mallard as an ensemble activity.

This particular project was in Social Studies. The Social Studies teachers really didn't want short answer questions for homework. They wanted open end questions where the students could discuss the issues. For whatever reasons, the math and science classes didn't get involved in the project.

Where is drill when you need it? And more generally on the outreach from Higher Ed to K-12, will we forever be wrecked on the rocks of good intentions or will we come up with something sensible programmatically that is useful? If the latter, I could see turning my personal attention to this issue.

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