Common Sense Comes to Town!

Common sense is the most fairly distributed thing in the world, for each one thinks he is so well-endowed with it that even those who are hardest to satisfy in all other matters are not in the habit of desiring more of it than they already have. (Descartes)

What Is a Teacher?

Posted on | January 10, 2011 | No Comments

The quality of education dispensed in schools is a touchy topic, the more so if you have school-age children. The importance of education is underlined by economists and artists alike, and politicians as well. Still, we have odd ways of recognizing its importance and most of all the importance of the multitudinous artisans behind what we call the school system.  

First, what do we expect to gain through education? Should if bestow knowledge, skills or values? We ceaselessly pound in the “market” approach to education, the measurable one: return on investment, test results used to compare schools and countries. While some sort of quantitative measurement is necessary, we find ourselves at a loss to evaluate the more qualitative aspects o education. Are school training circus animals or citizens? Are newly minted graduates in any way able to contribute to society’s evolution? Are they really doing so? How are they getting involved in their communities? Do they vote regularly? Are they generous or self-absorbed?

These questions are cast aside when we only focus on quantitative results. Nevertheless these values are necessary to any healthy democracy. As we never sought to evaluate them, to rate them, we never sought to reward those teachers who took pains to instil them in their pupils.  average salary was, in 2005-2006, 52.688$, slightly more than university graduates on the whole (48.600$) but less than college teachers (58,092$ in 2004-2005) and half that of university professors, who raked in 2007-2008 an average of 100.124$  (I was unfortunately unable to gather consistent data for a single year).

The pretext used in this case is that a university professor has a higher degree of specialization, hence a higher salary. The merciless economic argument is that it is easier to train a pre-collegial teacher; since the supply of graduates his higher, actual wages will drop to reflect the market. But it could be argued that university professors have found a more efficient way to quantify their job output, notably their contribution to their chosen field, through the number of articles published, conferences given, etc.

Are lower-level teachers really less specialized? Or did they simply fail to quantify an important aspect of their duty, which is to transfer social values and norms to students? This question is more important than it seems. In a market environment, we tend to deliver only what we are paid to do (for more information on this topic, see chapter 4 in Dan Ariely’s excellent book, Predictably Irrational) If teachers are asked to form clever animals who can correctly answer the department of education’s exams, this is what we’ll get. This is one of the perverse side effects found to the No Child Left Behind policy in the USA, which relies on classification tests results at the expense of a holistic education involving arts and sports as well.

It is probably worth our while to stop and think about what we expect of our schools and teachers, and the manner in which we, as a society, will evaluate the results of education in general.

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