Another Reason We Fail to Educate

OK, we've all discussed the usual culprits out the ying-yang: Not all kids are adequately prepared for school,we're trying to mainstream too many special-needs kids, parents don't stay connected with their kids' schooling, "No Child Left Behind" makes everyone teach to the test (and doesn't award 'E' for effort), the teacher's unions make it impossible to fire poor performers, there's never enough money provided by government... Did I miss any?

Here's a new wrinkle that occurs to me: we're preventing our teachers from leaving.

Without an explanation, you could read any of a number of things into that, but here's where I'm coming from - Many people find out "when they grow up" that they really want to be doing something else. Maybe their profession was a poor pick from the start, or maybe, their interests have ripened and matured and lead in another direction.  Or they retire early, and then discover they want to try something completely different, just to keep their hand in, make some money, and stay relevant.

I've seen this in my own family. My mother trained as an RN and worked half a career at it. Then she went back to school for a library science degree and was a school librarian until she retired. My dad was a civilian engineer in the Engineer Research & Development Laboratory at Ft. Belvoir, VA. He retired early, and a couple years later satisfied an old itch to try surveying by taking a job in a county surveyor's office, until he died just before he turned 61. I spent a career in chemical research and manufacturing, retired early, and am now seeing about starting a second career in recording audio books.

I know lots of the movement between jobs/careers is driven by technology advances and market forces. How many lamplighters or trolley conductors are employed these days? And how many textile mill workers have had to retrain as something else as a result of the industry disappearing offshore?

But how about teachers? Teaching is the ultimate portable profession, because everywhere you go, short of the South Pole (and maybe there!) people are needed to teach/instruct/train/educate other people. So teaching is a good choice if you want to work in a specific place, or want to work wherever you find yourself. It mates well to a spouse with an itinerant profession, like the military, or one that restricts its practice to only certain places, like mining. And although we improve classroom technology with smart boards and such, we still rely on humans to carry much of the load of teaching.

"Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." Forget that old saw! Plenty of capable people take up teaching for the reasons above, or because they love working with kids, or - any of a bunch of reasons. But here's our little gotcha: when you decide to become a teacher, we make it darned tough to change your mind.

While the rest of the country was enduring downsizing, re-engineering, and the change from the traditional pension to 401K's - we insulated our teachers from most of it. If they were bright enough to survive X years of teaching at the early end of their career, they were swept into systems of tenure or into teacher's unions where only the direst circumstances would threaten their jobs. They were promised and awarded valuable benefits that had virtually disappeared from the working world outside of government. Work thirty years and get a pension. Get health care for life. Get opportunities for massively increased pay, if you choose to work more after retirement; I know where you can pick a year's salary for 30 days work post-retirement (I have a family member who enjoys that perk).

Most thoughtful persons agree that we undervalue teachers with respect to pay. As direct shapers of the next generation of workers, teachers have a huge impact on our country, yet we usually don't pay them as if they did. Part of this is explained away by the fact we continue to live with the vestiges of America's agricultural past, where children had to be released from their studies in the summer to help their parents get the crops in. In spite of our urbanized present, we still stick (largely) to this old practice of making education a 9-month-a-year endeavor. There is no doubt that students AND teachers like and appreciate a 3-month break from seeing each other. But paying a 9-month salary means that too many teachers need a second income in the family to live at a middle-class level.

We've added and kept the end-of-career perks noted above to retain teachers in the profession. My opinion is that we can no longer afford to use that device to aid retention. Various states are already flirting with reneging on their contracts with teachers (NJ comes to mind) because they are unsustainable. The accumulated promises far outweigh the money set aside to pay them. (Why? That's politics - and perhaps the focus of a future post!)

Why don't teachers worn out by the succession of education "initiatives" like "No Child Left Behind", worn out by budget cuts for basic supplies they feel compelled to purchase out of their own pockets, or just plain worn out from all the abrasion of dealing with unruly, parents-don't-care kids, leave and take a "real job" somewhere else? Why, when teachers feel a need to start a fresh career doing something else, do they suck it up and stay?

It's because we have too thoroughly given them incentive to stay.

They have "so many" years toward their thirty that they feel they can't afford to throw away all the promises. Even when the promises may well turn out to be hollow.

Remember the beginning of this post? People often change course, make a fresh start, rejuvenate their flagging enthusiasm with a mid-life career change... except in teaching. Teachers are trapped by the promises. Even if they desperately want "out!" of the classroom, those promises stick their feet to the floor. And there is no corresponding incentive to draw in mature workers from the outside, so it is imperative that experienced teachers be retained.

What is my solution?
  • Make teaching a year-round job, so that it commands a 12-month salary. (Do that any way practical! Do away with summer vacations, if necessary, or stagger school sessions on a 4-session per year schedule so that teachers can work even if the students get 3 months off.)
  • Evaluate teaching at all the various levels against productive work in the private sector. 
  • Establish a competitive market salary for someone doing equivalent work at an equivalent level of experience and personal education.
  • PAY at the competitive salary rate.
  • GIVE BENEFITS in accord with private norms.

This will allow the free flow of talent out AND IN to teaching. Retraining to take up a new profession is normal, so you can still expect a midlife changer to get education credentials to become a teacher. But paying the 12-month salary makes teaching a desirable profession for someone who is tired of the routine in industry or commerce. And getting seasoned people who have invested half a career in another field gives new emphasis in schools, because these people have seen what works and what doesn't work.

That's it in a nutshell, folks. We get better, more motivated people in charge of our kids' education when we put teaching on a par with other professions, and don't stack on inducements that only kick in after 30 years!


The Business of College Athletics

The news is rather shocking.

Not too long ago, the newspaper reported that only about 20% of NCAA football programs paid for themselves. That is, their ticket sales, booster club contributions, TV cut - all that didn't meet their costs. The reason is clear: everyone is trying to keep up with the Joneses.

As a local example, USA Today reported in March that the Clemson University 10-man coaching staff compensation increased 56% (http://www.usatoday.com/sports/college/football/2010-03-09-coaches-salaries_N.htm) despite running a deficit and taking state-ordered furloughs. That was before Head Coach Dabo Swinney got his bump-up from about $800K to $1.75million this year.   From the best data I could winkle from Google, that's about SEVEN times what Clemson's President, James Barker, makes. And that's just the guaranteed money; he can earn bonuses like the half-mil he landed last year.
Swinney's pay doesn't take him up but to about the median of big-school salaries for head coach.

Why are we paying the head jocks like this? A University is an institution of higher learning, but it seems that it is becoming an annex of the NFL.  The usual defense for expenditures like these are hard to quantify. The University of California-Berkely says its sports program "adds to campus spirit and unity, provides free advertising for the campus, helps in branding, and provides a link and outreach to alumni."  Woohoo. Here I was thinking that people attend U-CAL to get a degree and that its record in producing peer-respected graduates is what attracts new students. This pap about "branding" says the Marketing School is taking itself too seriously!

USA Today (as printed in The Greenville News) asserts today that colleges are meeting their deficits in the sports programs by instituting and raising mandatory student fees. "Students were charged more than $795 million to support sports programs at 222 Division I public schools during the 2008-9 school year."  Six schools in Virginia each charged over $1,000 per student per year in fees to support athletics.

And athletic programs are so fond of dumping scholarships on skilled athletes that the NCAA has found it necessary to institute minimum standards for the percentages that actually achieve a degree. Does anyone need to be told: scholarships are funded by other people's money?

To my mind, it's not surprising that other countries are producing more of the people who will make the world run than the US these days. We seem to be going for a lock on entertainment.


Everlasting Growth

Today I read an article in the newspaper revealing that American births declined last year. With a birth rate of 13.5 per 1,000 (the lowest in the last century; in fact, in 1909 it was 30 per 1,000), the article expressed concern lest we slip into "choked growth" similar to that suffered by Japan.

The economy is disappointing all the economists - growth is too low, < 2% per year.  Seems the US consumer is actually trying to conserve cash, since jobs are iffy.  Credit is tight for consumers and businesses - the bad debts of the past year have resulted in the purse strings at lending institutions being drawn shut. So we can't get enough money moving to "unstick" the engines of growth. And growth we've gotta have.


I'm perplexed, unhappy, and worried.  Anyone with a lick of sense can tell you where unbridled growth in the human population is going to take us.  At some point, we're standing shoulder-to-shoulder and sleeping while standing, as there's not enough room on the planet to lie down. (Now, I know we won't reach that point! Countervailing currents will take action before then, but that IS a mathematical certainty of unbridled growth in population.)

Some of the sense that we MUST increase population comes from the realization we haven't funded Social Security adequately to handle us Baby-Boomers. (Well, we tried... but Congress kept robbing the Trust Fund. That's another rant, for later.)

When I was in school, there was an organization called Zero Population Growth that advocated restricting births to the replacement level (assumed to be 2.1 children per woman). I see from a Google search that it still exists, as "Population Connection", today. That philosophy rang truly in my thoughts then and does now. We simply can't support (adequately, at least) an ever-expanding human population.  Population Connection says that the world has increased from 3.5 billion humans when the group started in 1968 to 6.9 billion now.  We're headed towards 11 billion by 2050.

The people in the Third World want to move up. That's understandable. I've read that just in China, economic expansion has forced them to bring a new power plant on-line every week. For those of you fond of the global warming panic - think of what "more humans" means to the planet.

It seems to me that the next thing economists ought to be doing is researching how we can operate a First World country in a no-growth mode. I've read horror stories about stagnation, deflation, and such - they seem to be bigger bogeymen than inflation, which to us Boomers is a big concern.  But do we HAVE to keep growing our business to be happy, well-fed, and supplied with enough personal electronics? Wall Street rewards companies that grow, but isn't there a case for companies that simply make the same healthy income every year?  It appears the answer to that is "NO" in the world as we know it.

I suggest we'd better find out how to make that answer "YES."


Social Justice

We are led to wonder, here at the TechSmiths' house, why entertainment pays so well?
You hear a lot about the high cost of gasoline, of food, clothing, mortgages, TAXES... but why do you hear so much less about the price of tickets to shows, admission to sports, or the price of beer and cheese fries at the local pub?
Are we out of line by wishing that people were paid according to their value to our society or country?

The NFL Draft is what is at issue right now. This evening, the first round began.  According to a story in The Wall Street Journal, based on last year's salaries for first-round picks, each of the first nine players will be offered contracts higher than the compensation received by the CEO of IBM, Mr. Sam Palmisano. Let's put that in perspective.
None of these young men has played in the NFL before, and based on past history, fully 50% of them are expected to bomb out. Mr. Palmisano is an experienced executive who has served high in corporate ranks for a considerable time. First point is experience and it goes to goes to the Businessman.
Mr. Palmisano is responsible for running IBM. None of these young men is responsible for doing more than playing his own position and there are ten other similarly-talented fellows playing alongside him. Second point, responsibility, also goes to the Businessman.
Mr. Palmisano has to be up on his game all year, although he can take a vacation. These draftees have to display their ability only four months a year, although they are expected to condition in the off-season. Third point is diligence, and Businessman wins it.
IBM's revenues for the first quarter of this year were $23 billion, surely quite a pot of money for Palmisano to be caretaker of!  The NFL has annual revenues now reputedly pushing $9 billion. But hey! There are 32 teams, and each of them has dozens of these over-muscled genetic outliers. What part of that $9 billion is Mr. College Hotshot responsible for generating? Fourth point is impact, and Businessman wins by so much you can't see even see Sportsman in the running!
So! WHY does the Sportsman get more than the Businessman?? 

We have to inform you - YOU are responsible for this miscarriage of social justice. It certainly is not we.  Although we are fans, we do not go to games, we don't have an NFL Ticket on our cable service and we don't buy branded merchandise. (OK, it's true we have a Washington Redskins trashcan in the house, but Mark got that as a gift about thirty years ago!) So we calculate our dollar contribution to the business of NFL football to be shy of single digits. And that means YOU are grinding away at your work, complaining about the poor pay, and then throwing way too much of your cash at your entertainments.

We think that a value system that pays NCAA head coaches more than the presidents of the universities where they work is a miscarriage of justice. We would rather have the professors get star pay than the jocks-in-charge. We think the educators are providing value to the community. The sportsmen are providing diversion.

And if enough people thought that way, the world would change. Start today - say "thank you" to a teacher!