Waiting for the Impossible

As September collapses into October it seems everyone is waiting for Superman – and they’re not waiting for the new ultimate Tea Party candidate who will whip out a revolver and shoot pesky reporters dead and then deport Obama to Kenya and declare no millionaire will ever have to pay taxes again, because Jesus says so. Nor are they waiting for the old Obama to return and say he believes “in a country that rewards hard work and responsibility, a country where we look after one other, a country that says I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper, I’m going to give a hand up, join hands with folks and try to lift all of us up so we all have a better future, not just some – but all of us.” Actually Obama just said that – and of course Glenn Beck will now weep and say that proves Obama is a Marxist and mass murder is coming next. Yeah, well – whatever. Opinions of just who is and who is not a political Superman do tend to vary. And that’s not what the buzz is anyway – it’s that new documentary – Waiting for Superman. The public education system is a god-awful mess, kids everywhere are losing any chance at a reasonable life, and their parents are beyond desperate, and there is no Superman. No one is going to fly in and fix this. It’s a crisis and all over CNN of course, and MSNBC is running what seems like an endless series of specials on what can be done, and what cannot be done about this – talk, talk and more talk. Of course it’s half of what you hear on National Public Radio. Google “Waiting for Superman” – there are well over nine million references at the moment.

Part of this is hard times – the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression. And you know what they say – go to school, get good grades, or at least take school seriously, and learn lots of things. Do that and you won’t get stuck spending your adult life living in a cardboard box under a freeway overpass. It’s a matter of hope, and hope is in short supply these days. A good education, or even an adequate education, is that one last hope that sits out there when everything else has turned to dust. You may never work again because your job went to three guys in Mumbai, and at your age no one will ever hire you again, for anything, but your kids may not have to face that. They can learn things, and learn how to learn things, so they won’t get left behind. These days that’s about all you can give them.

And now it seems you can’t even give them that – unless you’ve got a spare one hundred grand a year to send them to private school. The public school system has collapsed, or so it seems. The documentary argues for charter schools, but no one is buying that as the answer. Charter schools don’t work much better than the normal public schools – and sometimes they’re worse. The issue is public schools, and that had been addressed once before by Bush’s unfunded No Child Left Behind effort. That became No Child Left Alive – identifying underperforming schools where the kids had low scores on mandatory weekly standardized tests, and then cutting off funds to those schools and thus assuring such schools closed forever – rather than spend any money trying to fix any problems, just managed to close a lot of schools, except for those schools where the administrators faked the test scores. Bush made the Houston Superintendent of Schools his Secretary of Education because of that Texas Miracle – high and ever-rising test scores on all the mandatory standardized tests – but it turned out that Rod Paige had been cooking the books all along. Oops.

There are not a whole lot of answers floating around out there. There’s talk of getting rid of teachers unions – all they do is protect the incompetent with seniority and tenure rules. If teachers were more insecure, with few if any benefits and the lowest possible pay, and had no way to bargain collectively to change any of that in the slightest, then maybe they’d shape up. A few years at minimum wage with no benefits, and knowing they could be fired on a whim at any moment, would improve their concentration. All they need is tough love. Or maybe they should be considered professionals and treated as professionals, doing an important job – for our own flesh and blood. That would mean they’d be paid accordingly – ten times what they make now. But there’s no money for that. Or maybe teaching is a job anyone can do and they should all be fired – just like Reagan fired all the air-traffic controllers way back when. It’s just a job. How hard can it be? Grab some folks off the street. They tried that in Rhode Island – it didn’t work out well.

For anyone who has been a teacher all this is more than a bit distressing. Anyone who has taught feels ambiguous about the experience. What seemed like successes might not have been successes because of something you did – but those successes just might have been because of something you did. You never know. Was that kid naturally brilliant or did you encourage him and let the brilliance blossom, that otherwise would have stayed buried forever? You never know. Should you have been more understanding and listened more, or been a hard-ass to force the kid to do it – whatever it was – all on his own with no help from anyone? Did you really know which kid would respond to either approach, and on which day of the week? That eats at you too. And should you have taught to the standardized tests and had the kids memorize this and that, and not worried at all whether they were getting any concepts and fancy-pants stuff like that?

It’s a bit maddening. And then you might or might not get evaluated, by folks who have views that are all over the map about how the job is done. You end up being told you really ought to do what you know hasn’t ever worked – you were there, after all – and getting a lot of advice that’s sort of a mixture of academic psychobabble mixed with a bit of Oprah and Judge Judy. And you learn your supervisors’ personality disorders – being told good teachers are bullies, because the world needs more bullies, because that toughens up the kids for what they’ll face in the real world, by a guy with lifelong fear in his eyes, is a bit disconcerting. You understand. You’re on your own.

But you like to think you’ve done the job well. But then there’s Lake Wobegon – Garrison Keillor reports the News from Lake Wobegon on A Prairie Home Companion every Saturday afternoon – and Lake Wobegon is where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” And that leads to the Lake Wobegon Effect:

Illusory superiority has been found in individuals’ comparisons of themselves with others in a wide variety of different aspects of life, including performance in academic circumstances (such as class performance, exams and overall intelligence), in working environments (for example in job performance), and in social settings (for example in estimating one’s popularity, or the extent to which one possesses desirable personality traits, such as honesty or confidence), as well as everyday abilities requiring particular skill.

You always think you’re doing okay, or hope you are, because you want to be, and you want to be above average. Everyone wants to be above average, which is the Keillor joke – if everyone is above average then above average is average and one travels into the realms of the absurd.

And if you’re going to consider the realms of the absurd, then you really ought to consider the new Tony Danza reality show.

Aaron Traister does that in this review:

The 59-year-old actor brought his trademark mug – and a few TV cameras – to a year-long job teaching 10th-grade English at Northeast High School for an A&E reality show called “Teach” (Oct. 1, 10 p.m. EDT). The school is situated in a sprawling section of Philadelphia known locally as the Great Northeast, which houses both bombed-out buildings and manicured suburban lawns, with a mixture of not just black and white students but Asian and Russian immigrant populations as well. You can say Danza is guilty of naiveté or narcissism, but you can’t say he doesn’t try; he brings more showmanship to the classroom than the second-stage headliner at Harrah’s in Atlantic City. Much of “Teach’s” first seven episodes are devoted to Danza’s efforts to become more involved in and out of the classroom: He tap-dances, he sings. He even cries. If he were a better actor, I might doubt his sincerity. But I’ve seen “Who’s the Boss.” He ain’t that good.

Traister, who has done some serious teaching over the years, was not prepared to be impressed:

I didn’t want to see complicated issues that led to my painfully smart students dropping out reduced to the insipid platitudes of “Dangerous Minds” and “Freedom Writers.” I didn’t want to see Tony Danza portrayed as the great white hope encouraging his students to rage against the dying of the light or some nonsense like that. I didn’t want to see Tony Danza portrayed as a hero for showing up briefly and impersonating a teacher while the real teachers and administrators, who have dedicated their adult lives to bailing out the sinking ship of urban education, get portrayed as a lazy greedy horde by politicians and talking heads who know that because of systemic failures on state, local and federal levels (and yes, within the teachers unions themselves) teachers are left as the punching bags for a restless and frustrated population.

Most teaching experiences don’t end with a perfect graduation rate like that of Jaime Escalante in “Stand and Deliver” or with your classroom breaking into song, and I didn’t want to see another program that tricked people into thinking it was the other way around.

But Traister was moderately impressed.

In “Teach,” Danza often looks far from heroic. He bursts into tears after his teaching coach ever so gently busts his balls – for breaking into tears. He’s so culturally tone-deaf that he jokes about living in Malibu, expecting the Northeast High School football team to actually get what “living in Malibu” implies (I don’t even get what that implies). His students rip on him for sweating too much and suggest that he should wear a double layer of undershirts. Actually, the kids rip on Danza about a lot of things, from his grasp of the material to his classroom management, to his crying. Danza comes off as socially awkward around the other teachers and the students. He insists on singing a birthday song of his own creation instead of just singing “Happy Birthday.” It’s weird.

But these gaffes feel surprisingly honest. Another less scrupulous reality show could have edited out these moments, or manipulated them to make Danza seem in control or valiantly struggling. Instead “Teach” lets it all hang out there like a desperate squirrel on a broken branch on a windy day. Danza looks neither valiant nor in control. He looks kind of silly and awkward. And as anyone who has ever stepped in front of a classroom of students for the first time knows, looking silly and feeling awkward are job requirements. …

It’s oddly endearing, because for all of Tony Danza’s classroom and social failings, I don’t doubt his sincerity in wanting to do a good job. I also get the sense that he showed up every day ready to work, which strikes me as unusual in the pantheon of celebrity do-gooder reality shows.

There’s more, but for Traister, in spite of all that, the show is a mess:

Is it a call to service for baby boomers wondering what to do with their retirement? Maybe. Is it a show about the challenges facing first-year teachers? Probably. Is it a show about Tony Danza being a socially awkward weirdo and desperately trying to win over a skeptical group of 16-year-olds? Definitely.

Make no mistake that this is tangentially a show about teaching. But it’s primarily a fish-out-of-water show about a person who’s been given too much money, too much fame, too much attention, trying with all his might to do something good in the only way he knows how: with cameras, tap-dancing, overacting and catchphrases. As likable as Danza is, as central as his fame is to the premise, he is also the biggest roadblock to making a show with anything real to say.

And this is what it should be:

If reality TV ever wanted to rise above being a mockery of its name, the students and the staff of teachers and administrators are the ones who would really be the stars of this show. They are beautiful and, in a bizarre twist, far more natural in front of the camera than Danza. They look and sound like actual humans. When Danza gets out of the way long enough, we catch glimpses of a big city high school and how it operates.

These don’t appear to be educators ready for the rubber room. They aren’t the greedy union horde. These people are professionals, real people who wake up every morning and try to help kids learn and grow, trying to nudge kids away from their comfort zones and into a world that doesn’t revolve around them. It would be great to get a glimpse at what they’re doing and the grace with which they are doing it, because it seems that a lot of Americans have forgotten what they look like.

Well, that’s the issue, isn’t it? And it boiled over here out in Los Angeles a few weeks ago:

Hundreds of Los Angeles Unified School District teachers rallied in front of The Times on Tuesday evening, protesting what they said was unfair reporting in recent articles that used a statistical analysis to rank the performance of thousands of instructors. The teachers, many of them wearing red union T-shirts, waved placards that said: “Shame on the L.A. Times” and “We Demand Fair Reporting.”

As organizers shouted through bullhorns and others stood on a podium that had been set up on the sidewalk, the procession marched in a circle in front of the newspaper building on 1st Street. They then listened as union leaders decried the newspaper’s analysis that used students’ test scores to measure teachers’ effectiveness.

The United Teachers Los Angeles president was saying that teachers “are more than a test score.” But he didn’t say what.

Of course all of this is about the Board of Education unanimously authorizing formal negotiations with both the teachers’ and administrators’ unions to develop a new evaluation system. The board wants to put students’ test scores in a teacher’s performance review, and the union and the teachers say standardized test results are an unfair and incomplete measure of a teacher. And they weren’t too pleased that the LA Times published the full names and school of many individual teachers from a preliminary study – ranked by their effectiveness in improving students’ scores on standardized math and English tests during a seven-year period. Parents all over the county could see if they should pull their kid from that teacher’s class. The union wasn’t pleased, and pointed out that even if that was somehow okay – which it wasn’t – the whole thing about teaching is about more than one test in one day. The Times seemed to be arguing that these were public employees and even if this somewhat new and experimental database of longitudinally arranged test score results was shallow and stupid, it was all we had. How else would you evaluate teachers? There wasn’t much else to go on.

And others agree with the Times:

The reports published in The Times used a so-called value-added analysis to measure the performance of elementary school teachers. The approach estimates a teacher’s effectiveness by comparing a student’s year-to-year progress on standardized tests. It largely accounts for such things as students’ English fluency and poverty. The value-added approach has been controversial among educators and researchers, but the method has increasingly been adopted across the nation. Proponents, including the Obama administration, say the analysis brings a measure of objectivity to teacher evaluations, which now rest almost exclusively on subjective factors, such as pre-announced administrator observations.

What are you going to do? You have to fight that Lake Wobegon Effect. And generally, most people think they’re above average and get really pissed when they find out their bosses think otherwise.

In fact, see Inequality at Work: The Effect of Peer Salaries on Job Satisfaction – that’s National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 16396 – behind a pay wall (five bucks on your credit card to read the whole thing) but with this abstract:

Economists have long speculated that individuals care about both their absolute income and their income relative to others. We use a simple theoretical framework and a randomized manipulation of access to information on peers’ wages to provide new evidence on the effects of relative pay on individual utility. A randomly chosen subset of employees of the University of California was informed about a new website listing the pay of all University employees. All employees were then surveyed about their job satisfaction and job search intentions. Our information treatment doubles the fraction of employees using the website, with the vast majority of new users accessing data on the pay of colleagues in their own department.

We find an asymmetric response to the information treatment: workers with salaries below the median for their pay unit and occupation report lower pay and job satisfaction, while those earning above the median report no higher satisfaction. Likewise, below-median earners report a significant increase in the likelihood of looking for a new job, while above-median earners are unaffected. Our findings indicate that utility depends directly on relative pay comparisons, and that this relationship is non-linear.

Matthew Yglesias calls this The Lake Wobegon Workplace:

The upshot for managers seems to be that an inefficiently undifferentiated compensation structure is sometimes the appropriate solution since making more fine-grained distinctions is going to do more to piss-off the non-rewarded than the reward the people you’re trying to reward.

But what these kinds of findings always make me wonder is how possible is it for people to self-consciously reform their thinking around this kind of question. I myself have been known to get peeved when something good happens to someone else even though I in no way suffer as a result. But I also recognize that emotions in this spite/envy/bitterness conceptual space are irrationally and ethically ugly and try to rid myself of them. Is this something society as a whole can get better at over time?

And flip that back to teachers thinking about how well they’re doing, and the lack of useful ways to evaluate how well they’re doing, and society telling them they’re wonderful professionals, and also greedy useless bastards, and comparing themselves to others doing the same job, and now Tony Danza is doing the job, as best he can, really, for big bucks paid to him by the producers of his reality show – all at the school where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

There’s a reason some of us left teaching. Yeah, wait for Superman, or wait for Godot. He’s not coming.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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