Friday, June 5, 2009

My middle school teacher drives a porsche

Interesting NY Times article (Elissa Gootman, "Value of $125,000-a-year teachers") today about a charter school experiment in which engaging, outstanding teachers were hand-picked to be part of an 8-teacher "dream team", working with students who were lottery-chosen with a preference towards underachieving students. The idea of the experiment is to address questions about the role of a good teacher in the classroom, and whether massive salary increases will encourage recruitment and retention of these individuals.

What makes an "engaging, outstanding" teacher? Well, engagement is measured by the ability to command student respect and also entice their immersion in the learning process (there are other formal pedagogical definitions out there if you're interested). The teachers are also stand-out in terms of their backgrounds... a Harvard graduate, a previous coach of the LA Lakers, etc. I believe they're also all current educators and were observed in the classroom as part of the hiring process.

My only remark is that, while I realize how difficult such a program would be to implement on a national scale, I think it's a terrific idea. We need innovative approaches to get us out of our over-burdened, bureaucratic ways. It reminds me of an Obama call to reward innovative solutions to pressing social problems ( If we did pay a little more attention to improving something as key to our social foundation as education, we would stand to benefit significantly. You've heard it before- lower crime, more innovation leading to more and better jobs, more civil engagement. There's even a study called "The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America's Schools" (McKinsey) that found if the US were to close the gap between our educational achievement levels and those of the top-performers (Finland, Korea), our 2008 GDP could have been $1.3-2.3 trillion higher. Yes, trillion. That's a 9-16% increase.

Reading about this topic (an oldie, but a goodie), you see that one (of the many) factors involved in our wealthy nation's lack of K-12 excellence is the "social status" attributed to teaching. Teaching is not considered a prestigious position the way law or medicine is. Studies have found that beyond the lack of financial incentive, people who have a natural gift and inclination towards teaching will pass this up for more socially prestigious roles. I know many people personally who have PhDs from top schools, love teaching, but would consider it just a "fall back" profession. I even remember my high school English teacher specifically saying - "never go into teaching! It should be a fall-back profession." This coming from a man who was very successful and innovative in the classroom.

Who knows what would happen if we starting treating professions with respect merited by their long-term contribution to society (what could be more impactful than shaping future generations?). For example, a teacher being considered a profession of great honor as opposed to, say, a lawyer or investment banker (no offense to my friends in those professions!). We would also need more training and investment in teaching so that it really would be seen as a highly skilled job.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

None for you

An ambitious, talented, narrowly focused postdoc I work with, let's call him High-horse (HH), recently took it upon himself to give me some generous advice. Knowing I was interested in applying for postdoctoral fellowships to support my work next year, HH told me not to bother. He said they're very hard to get, and I shouldn't count on it. I wanted to point out that HH had managed to acquire just such a fellowship. But I suppose all these fellowships must be limited to postdocs named HH who are brimming with condescending advice.

Yes, I still plan on applying.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Oscillation and Deprecation

FAEP (see my blog list) recently posted about oscillating between feeling on top of the world and overwhelmed in her assistant professorship. I remember feeling the same swings in graduate school, and I used to tell myself that it meant I was exactly in the right place. I think being in a stimulating environment is worth the trade-off in self-confidence from time to time (or else maybe I'm just a sucker for punishment). Otherwise why would I keep running back to just such an environment despite the lack of $$? This is in contrast to my experiences in industry where at times I felt so bored I would literally start counting down the days until my internship was over (this was after I had already bugged every manager into giving me extra projects to keep me busy). [In general, it seemed that the size of the company scales proportionally with the time workers spend just browsing the web and their personal email. I suppose that's what happens when you have so many levels of bureaucracy that everything slows to an over-engineered trickle of progress.]

On another note, I'm not sure I've heard any men (even incompetent ones) express the lack of self-confidence that seems to plague so many of the talented women I know. A friend of mine told me about a woman she admires who has an MD from Harvard Med School, a PhD from MIT, successfully leads an amazing research program, and still is self-deprecating. Another accomplished woman I know, a full professor at a top MRU, called herself a loser once for what she considered a publication rate that wasn't good enough. I was thinking, man, if you're a loser, the rest of us might as well quit and go home!! Humility is a wonderful trait but it has limits. I wonder if there's something to be said for women needing to be able to show confidence more often, even if they're just faking it for the sake of all of those who look up to them.

That being said, I often share my past insecurities with young students when they seem to need it. I think it helps them relate to me, and builds them up. Maybe the moral here is to be more aware of how we present our insecurities to the world (eg, yes when it helps students, no when it's presenting your research to a room full of faculty).