Teacher Pay and Student Performance

Since becoming a teacher, I’ve never been one to complain about teacher pay. In all honesty, part of that is because I work for a school district that pays its teachers about as well as any public school district can and does. I know in that sense I am very fortunate. But having come from a different profession, and teaching economics where we frequently focus on incentives, this is a very interesting study.

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Peter Dolton and Oscar Marcanero-Gutierrez, two economics professors at the University of London and University of Malga respectively, collected data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) annual Education at a Glance reports, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) to determine the relationship between pay and student achievement. They concluded that – guess what? – better teacher pay leads to teacher quality and that leads to improved student performance.

In their analysis, Dolton and Gutierrez identify two key factors that determine how professional pay enhances teacher quality, particularly as it pertains to attracting new teachers. One, higher pay promotes competition and therefore more and better teaching applicants. Secondly, improving pay increases the “national status” of the profession, again making it more attractive to potential recruits.

Hummingbirds!

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One of the things I’m trying to do with our house, especially since we have some extra land and space around us, is make it a friendly environment for some critters. I put out a couple of bird feeders, and while their popularity has faded a bit, there were times this Spring when we had 50 or 60 birds at a time. It was pretty interesting watching the social rules – the female blackbirds ate together, but gave way to the males. The cardinals came and went, the bluejays irritated the other birds. The mockingbirds drove other birds away and the doves just walked around oblivious to the others.

The squirrels love to try to get at the bird feeders, and they delight in playing hide-and-seek with Winston the Shiba. So far Winston hasn’t caught one. So far.

I put up a couple of bat houses, but no bats this year. I’m hoping for a colony of bats next year.

But the triumph so far has been the hummingbirds. I put out a couple of feeders for them, but had not noticed any activity. Then early in August, we started to see a hummingbird at one of the feeders. We got out our bird guides and binoculars and paid more attention. Sightings became more and more frequent. We started to think there might be different little birds around. We added two more feeders at the front to go with the ones in the back. Sure enough, we started to see two or three at a time, more and more often.

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What marvelous creatures they are! No bigger than my thumb and able to move faster than my eye can follow. One likes to sit on a feeder perch for minutes at a time, and if one of the others comes near he will chase it away. We have aerial dogfights between these speedy birds, moving with direction changes that would tear a helicopter apart. And when I see them, I always remind them to tell their friends – our hummingbird hospitality mat is always out!

Here’s a link to some more amazing pictures of hummingbirds.

“Just Go There”

A pretty awesome tribute to Texas by Jay Nordlinger. And whatever he says about Dallas, Fort Worth is even better!

I arrived at the Dallas airport yesterday and headed to the taxi line. The man in charge was an older fellow — white hair. He said, “Would you like a bottle of water?” Somewhat startled, I said, “Sure.” He reached into a cooler and handed me a bottle of water. I was about to ask, “How much?” but then remembered that I was in an unusual part of the country, and world. I kept quiet. Or rather, I just said, “Thank you.”

The man put my suitcase in a taxi’s trunk. I handed him a tip. He said, “No, no, we’re not allowed to take that.”

I have been a fair number of places over the years — and I bet I could count refusals of a tip on one hand.

“Texas” is an epithet all around the world, because anti-Americans concentrate their fire on Texas in particular. When I say “anti-Americans,” I mean people of all nationalities, including Americans. (Americans are the worst and most insufferable anti-Americans, as I’ve written many times.) The hatred of George W. Bush increased an anti-Texas feeling, of course.

There is something I tell people who think they don’t like Texas: Just go there. That’ll cure you. Texas is distinctively hospitable, and the food, girls, etc., cannot be surpassed (though they can be matched).

Within Texas, Dallas is known as snobby, materialistic, and fake. I get that. But by world standards: Dallas is wonderful, warm, and genuine.

The Nanny State and Marshmallows

Another example of how the combination of a government that’s too big and too meddlesome, probably assisted by litigious plaintiff’s lawyers, combine to do things that are just silly. Ever wonder how we ever survived growing up without the government to take care of us and tell us everything we needed to know?

The US Department of Agriculture posted a 700+ word article on how to roast a marshmallow. I’m not making this up! And besides teaching you about proper marshmallow safety, they suggest healthier alternatives to s’mores. We’re from the government and we’re here to help you!

Wonder if this is part of why we’re $16 trillion in debt?

Thanks to The Blaze for spotting this story.

The Feynman Lectures

Another story from my summer at the Summer Science Program – the summer of 1974 doing orbital calculations on an asteroid. That was back when I wanted to be an astronomer/physicist when I grew up. Our teaching assistants were frequently talking about a great resource for beginning physicists called the Feynman Lectures – based on the lectures that a supposedly awesome physics professor at Cal Tech had given.

We took a field trip that summer to Jet Propulsion Labs in Pasadena, and stopped at the Cal Tech bookstore afterward. I decided to buy a copy of the Feynman Lectures, which helped me through college physics and have traveled with me ever since. I keep moving them from house to house, even though my physics days are long gone and I truly have no need for physics books.

I also became interested in Feynman himself – besides being a brilliant physicist he was quite a character. I followed his role on the panel investigating the Challenger Space Shuttle accident, and have read his books (Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman and What Do You Care What People Think). He’s a seriously interesting person. And so I can’t bring myself to get rid of the Feynman Lectures – they remind me of a time in my life I remember very fondly.

What brings this up? I read yesterday that the Feynman Lectures are now available free online. Here’s a link to the Lectures.

And even better, there are some of his lectures available on Youtube! Not that I have any spare time, but I’m going to watch these. I’m so out of practice, they’re probably way above my head now, but I can’t resist the chance to get to finally see and hear these lectures I’ve known about for so many years.

No Fear!

A quick thought for the start of the school year. For me, for my family, for my students. Heck, for everyone.

This is from a book our family is reading called A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math And Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra) by Barbara Oakley. I’m sure I’ll have more to share from the book, but this is a quote she includes from psychiatry professor Robert Bilder of UCLA’s Tennenbaum Center for the Biology of Creativity.

A motivational poster I received after giving a talk at Facebook headquarters reads: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” I try to look at this daily, and I aim to do something fearless every day. What are you afraid of? Don’t let it stop you!

So, what are you afraid of?

Don’t be – just go and do it!

Something So Right

It’s one of my favorite Paul Simon songs of all time, and the title kept jumping into my head as I cooked dinner tonight (chili for the next to last meal before Wiley heads back to college).

I’m about to begin my 15th year as a high school teacher. Absolutely mind-boggling to me, but it’s true. And for me, it’s definitely “something so right.”

How do I know? We’ve finished five days of meetings, talking about continuous improvement, comparison grades, strategies to review for the STAAR test, safety and security, and harassment. Ugh! We’ve had a convocation, and honestly that doesn’t do much to fire me up. Some teachers get charged by convocation; I don’t. Oh well. I’ve moved everything from my room completely across the building to new room and new hallway with new neighbors. I’ve got books put on shelves, some office supplies put away, and nothing on the walls yet.

I’m teaching a new course starting in 4 days, and as of tonight I have no lesson plans or scope and sequence finalized. I don’t know how many kids I’ll have, probably around 100 – 120. The new room presents some technology issues that I’m still trying to figure out. I’ve got a number of mandatory internet training videos that I have yet to watch.

In other words, I’m nowhere close to being ready to go.

But tonight as I was cooking, I felt the first twinge. What twinge is that, you ask? The first twinge of excitement. Who are these new kids? What are they like? Are they ready? How will they react to my classes? What tricks can I pull to get them fired up about Economics and the Theory of Knowledge? Who are the ones that will be my dependables? Who are the ones who will respond to my nudges?

I’m starting to get excited!

We’ve had conversations this summer about careers and pathways. We’ve had conversations about skills, abilities, and aptitudes. We’ve talked about passion, and also about finding pleasure in your work.

I still don’t really know a sure-fire way to find your path, to find your passion. But I know how to tell when you’ve found it – you’ll feel that tingle, that excitement, that sense of awe and anticipation. I can’t get used to something so right.

But I know I’ve found something so right.

Genius!

Many many many years ago, I had the greatest educational experience of my life. It remains one of the most significant events in my life in many ways – maybe I’ll talk more about this soon – but I spent a life-altering summer in Ojai, California at the Summer Science Program. It was a six week immersion into astronomy, Calculus, and an academic world I didn’t even know existed.

I flew by myself, at age 17, to California and made my way to a designated area to wait on a shuttle from LAX to Ojai. Gradually the non-Californians congregated at a designated terminal (“The White Zone is for loading and unloading . . .”) and started to get to know each other. I met a guy from Cleveland and we started to talk, mostly about baseball, seeing as how the Texas rangers and Cleveland Indians had only recently experienced the “Nickel Beer Night Riot.” Once we got to Ojai and the SSP, Mike Weiss became my teammate in our orbital calculation (along with another brilliant student, Solomon Friedberg. We teamed together on our major project, spending time together at the telescope late at night. Solomon was a math genius – he is Chairman of the Mathematics Department at Boston College now. An absolute genius and a friend I wish I had stayed in touch with over the years. I was the astronomy geek of the three of us. But Mike was the genius. Now, many years later, I don’t know that I have ever encountered anyone as brilliant as he.

As with Solomon, I wish I had stayed in better contact with Mike. He visited Texas once – his reaction to our family meal of black-eyed peas is a memory I cherish! But I was stupid and my parents weren’t quite liberal enough to let me travel to California for reunions, to stay and play after the SSP summer ended, or to ever think I could visit Mike in Cleveland. Oh how I regret that I couldn’t and didn’t. But we kept in touch a little bit. In moving last year i ran across some letters we exchanged during our college years. In the summers, I worked at a grain elevator or on construction. Mike worked at Arecibo radio Observatory in Puerto Rico and at Livermore Labs in California.

Okay, Ricky, get to the point. A few years ago I got to see Mike and his family (beautiful and also brilliant!) at a reunion of our Summer Science Program. I knew (through the miracle of modern Facebook!) he was a doctor at Case Western in Cleveland. But I learned of his research into diabetes and insulin. I mention him frequently in my classes – that he is the smartest (and nicest) person I’ve ever met, and that I fully expect to one day learn that he has been awarded a Nobel Prize. His research into diabetes and insulin is so far over my head I can’t even begin to explain it. But I love to brag that I know him, and I consider him a friend.

Here’s a link that he put up on Facebook last week about a discovery he has made that “promises to enable design of new insulin products that will do a better job of regulating the metabolism of patients with diabetes.”

Trust me on this – he’s a genius, and the work he does will save thousands of lives.

Mike – you’re awesome! I’m proud I know you!

Just One Word

Awesome! Or Awful!

One of the themes that has already popped up multiple times in our getting-ready-to-go-back-to-school meetings is the power to influence we hold as teachers, especially the power our words have. And not just our words, but our example and attitude.

At my school, which is a pretty nice, suburban public high school, we have an incredible variety of kids. Everything from rich to poor; Texan to Nigerian; Californian to Albanian; all religions and beliefs; all family structures imaginable; mansions to homeless. And it’s easy to fall into a trap of thinking all of our kids are doing fine. If you ask someone in the hallway, kid, administrator, or teacher, how they’re doing, they’ll likely say just that: “Fine.” And it’s easy to forget how much impact and influence we can have every day, for good or for bad.

One simple word or sentence. One expression of body language. One word or gesture of welcome or of rejection. Since we don’t always know what’s going on behind the scenes, what’s really happening with our kids, we run the risk of screwing up when we have the opportunity to do so much good. I’ve said a gazillion times how we remember our teachers – as far back as kindergarten. But I don’t remember my clients from when I was a lawyer; I’m sure those clients don’t remember me. When I was a lawyer, interactions were more focused and usually more brief and episodic. And when I didn’t have meetings scheduled, I could easily go a day or two with very limited interpersonal interaction. And as a result, I didn’t have nearly the influence or power I have today.

Because you see this teaching thing is different. We are with these kids every day for 3 months, 6 months, maybe 9 months. Maybe over multiple years. Sure, it’s only an hour (in my case 74 minutes) a day, and there are 20 or 30 at a time sharing in that togetherness. But I suspect for some of my kids I may be with them as much or more than their parents. It’s an interesting relationship we develop with our students. And because we teachers are older and have a position of so-called authority, our influence is magnified.

I’ll never forget the time I tried to tease a student who had to change out of my class for scheduling reasons, and because I was careless and flip and the student didn’t know me well, I teased in a way that was hurtful to them. Fortunately for me, they let me know, and I was able to explain and apologize. But I’ve never made that mistake again. And I’m much much more careful and aware of how I say thing to my students. And I’ll never ever forget the student this past year I encouraged by simply complimenting him on how hard he was working and how he has told me what a difference that made in his life.

This is a scary job.

Often I feel guilty for being so tired and stressed when a school day is over. It’s not like I’m in the 90 degree heat digging a ditch, putting on a roof, or working on an assembly line. When I was a lawyer, I worked on big big deals – involving tens and hundreds of millions of dollars. There was pressure to do everything perfect and there was big money involved, both in the deal and in the fees. But the pressure of being in front of a hundred or more kids a day, every day, with every word, every gesture, every action, every example being watched by dozens of eyes is unlike any pressure I ever experienced as a lawyer. And knowing how the words and examples of a teacher can influence and change lives only exacerbates that pressure. Why am I tired? Because I hold this power to do good or to do harm with every word and movement I make, from 7:30 am to 4:30 pm every school day for 178 days, now through May.

I’ve got a week to get ready for this coming school year. A week from tomorrow my words and example will be back on stage every day. I pray that I will remember the power of my words to influence; to encourage; to support; to lift up; to inspire. I pray too that I will remember the power of my words to destroy; to hurt; to discourage; to humiliate; to sting. I pray that God will give me the wisdom and the patience to use my words and my example for good and not for ill this school year.

I pray that every day, I’ll have that one word that makes a positive difference in someone’s life.

Every day. One word.