Saturday, November 27, 2010

THE WEAKER SEX

“Frailty, thy name is woman.” Hamlet refers, not to women’s physical weakness, but to their moral weakness, an idea going back at least as far as the Biblical story of Eve’s succumbing to the Serpent’s temptation. The fact that women are physically weaker than men has, on the assumption that might makes right, led to the idea that women are morally weaker than men. Of course, the assumption embraces a pro-male bias favoring physical strength.

Human evolution and group organization placed a premium on physical strength (as well as speed, stamina, and throwing ability) in the millennia when it counted for the survival of the species and the success of states. Reliance on physical strength inclined groups to accept male dominance and gender-based divisions of labor. Throughout human history, these adaptive arrangements have become societal norms in almost all cultures. A man’s place is in the world; a woman’s, in the home—so goes traditional thinking.

But—O temporal, o mores—they are a-changing. Medical science supplants myth about biological strength. Males may be physically stronger, but not all strengths are physical; in fact, females are stronger in other ways, from start to finish. Boys have a higher infant mortality rate, and men do not live so long as women. Disease for disease, injury for injury, men die at higher rates than women. Physiologically, if not physically, women are stronger than men.

Thanks to labor-saving devices, physical strength matters less and less. Such devices have reduced the number of people working on farms and ranches; in mines, forests, and fisheries; and on assembly lines. A need for heavy labor may always exist, but the market for it will continue to shrink. In post-industrial economies, more jobs require less brawn and more brain—not a change favorable to physical strength, male dominance, and gender-based divisions of labor.

Women are also stronger psychologically and morally. Although they suffer from depression many times more than men (from male domination?), women better support each other, work better together, and do the same work better. Women’s greater emotional and social competence suggests their greater moral strength of compassion, consideration, and cooperation.

The Industrial Age created the conditions for women’s efforts to secure rights comparable to men’s. Because cultural change lags technological change, progress has been erratic and slow. Women did not get the vote until 1920. They did not get many jobs until World War II, but were displaced by returning veterans. Not until the advent of women’s liberation, did women begin to make sizeable in-roads in the male-dominated economy and male-dominated professional fields. Their struggle for careers outside traditional women’s jobs—from low-level jobs as seamstresses, secretaries, telephone operators, waitresses, and other service jobs; to mid-level jobs as librarians, nurses, and teachers—and for compensation equivalent to their male peers has significantly, but not entirely, succeeded.

Men maintained dominance in education and employment as long they maintained economic hegemony. However, when women have had equal opportunity for education and careers which relied on intellectual capabilities, they have not only succeeded, but also surpassed men. They get higher grades than men; more women than men attend, and graduate from, college; and more women than men now enter the professions of engineering, law, and medicine. Women now run major corporations, and their numbers as elected state and federal officials are growing. All of these developments are good and for the better.

But not all the consequences are good and for the better. We are making progress toward a gender-neutral society, but that progress has its costs. One obvious cost is the decline in public education as many of the best and the brightest women who once entered teaching now enter professions previously denied them, to be replaced by their less academically oriented and talented sisters.

A barely acknowledged cost is the effect of this social change on men. Because of unprecedented competition in school and at work, men are leaving fields or losing benefits once reserved almost exclusively for them. The asymmetry of the change hurts. Women have long aspired to “men’s work”; men have long belittled “women’s work.” When women do “men’s work,” men, sexist as many are, redefine it as “women’s work.” The directionality of mobility also hurts. Women’s upward mobility corresponds to men’s downward mobility. As women enter the world of men, men exit it; as women move into academic positions and technical professions, men move out of them. Few appreciate the issue created by women’s equality with men: men’s equality with women.

Can men accept equality, and can they achieve it? Today, the weaker sex has its work cut out for it. Many men are confused about their identity and worth, and uncertain about roles no longer defined by physical strength or rewarded by men-only privileges. Many failing to cope increasingly resort to brute force to re-assert dominance; one result is increased domestic violence. Images of men show masculinity by a two- or three-day stubble and male vulnerability by a knee or blow to the groin. Advertising identifies “real men” by their interests in watching sports, drinking beer, ogling big breasts and flat bellies, and driving rugged trucks over rough terrain at unrealistic speeds. The cliché “boys will be boys” has an ominous significance. America now needs a concept or model of mature manhood to liberate men and make them strong enough for the so-called “weaker sex.”

Saturday, November 13, 2010

MERIT AND MONEY IN PUBLIC EDUCATION

Merit pay for public school teachers is an idea which refuses to die. Born during the “Reagan Revolution,” along with privatization and supply-side economics, the idea relies on a simple principle: reward better (teaching) performance more (and worse [teaching] performance less?). I understand that Republicans and some reformers glommed onto merit pay in their desperation about the decline in student education in public schools evident even 25 years ago and continuing since.

The principle works in commercial and manufacturing sectors, but not in public service sectors, especially public education. The reason: what works in competitive contexts and cultures does not work in non-competitive ones. No one becomes a public school teacher expecting to get rich, and none is disappointed!

No matter how school districts have designed and implemented them, all merit-pay programs, launched with fanfare, have collapsed as failures from which other school districts have learned nothing. Despite this unblemished record, the survival of this idea testifies to the strength of its ideological appeal in defiance of facts and factuality.

Some 10 years ago, while driving through Cincinnati, Ohio, I stopped for lunch, picked up the local paper, and read about a soon-to-be implemented merit-pay program. It resembled nothing so much as the multi-year failure attempted over a dozen years before in Fairfax County, Virginia. When I got home, I placed two calls. First, I called the president of the Cincinnati School Board, who was not a little hostile both to me as a perfect stranger and to my bad report about the highly touted merit-pay initiative. He admitted that the School Board had not considered the experience of other school systems which had attempted merit-pay programs, but assured me that Cincinnati’s would work.

Second, given that reception, I called the local teachers union and spoke with the its vice president, who immediately understood my concerns. I explained why the program would collapse, predicted that it would probably collapse within a few, maybe only two, years, and forecast that his membership would be angry not only at the school board, but also at its leadership. I could hear the alarm in his voice when he agreed. When I suggested that the leadership get to work at once on a plan for a smooth transition process when the program failed, he thanked me. Two years later, the program ended.

All merit-pay programs thus far have failed because they are inevitably unfair and eventually unaffordable. All offer large salary increases to teachers who significantly improve student academic performance. Everything hinges on the selection process, which hinges on the evaluation process, which hinges on the criteria of student academic performance, which are biased or unreliable. For, inevitably, every year, teachers face different students, different mixes of students from different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, with different family educational backgrounds and attitudes toward education, and and from different schools, teachers, and curriculums. True, pre- and post-testing scores can measure student change in one year. But the same teacher working at the same level of competence and effort can have students making more or less improvement in one year than in another—hardly a reliable measure of or reflection on the teacher, surely an adverse influence on results-based evaluation and selection, and certainly not fair.

Another reason for failure reflects the effort to be fair by basing awards on multi-year evaluation and selection. The unintended consequence is the creation of a two-class teaching force and, with it, the personal and professional ugliness of “class warfare.” A rigidly structured program giving some teachers large, long-term rewards for improved teaching cannot terminate them without bruising egos, causing embarrassment, and lowering morale. Worse, because of budget limits, those first awarded merit pay keep others from getting it, even if they improve their teaching—a self-limiting, if not defeating, program outcome.

Merit-pay programs have continued to fail, the academic performance of the public schools continues to decline, and the causes of decline abide, some beyond, some within, the control of school districts. In the end, all school personnel—teachers, principals, superintendents, and school boards—must do what they can do: play the cards in their hands, not carp about the cards still in the deck.

Most people assume that more money for education means better education. Many believe that raising teachers’ salaries by more than a cost-of-living adjustment will increase student academic performance—nonsense, of course. Teachers offer three main reasons for higher salaries: they are professionals but are paid less than others; they do, or try to do, their job, but cannot overcome factors beyond their control (socio-economic conditions, unsupportive parents, or recalcitrant students); and current schedules of compensation cannot attract better teachers.

True, teachers are not paid so much as other professionals, but they are not poorly compensated. They do not work in, and take the risks of working in, the private sector; instead, they have job security except in very bad economic times, itself a form of compensation. The academic demands for teaching are lower than those for other professions, though the differences are smaller at higher grade levels. They receive additional compensation in health coverage, retirement payments, and a shorter work year.

Most important, if teachers are correct to claim that poor academic performance or the decline in student education results from the factors beyond their control, then higher salaries can do nothing to reverse these results. It is absurd to ask taxpayers to pay teachers more if they cannot improve student academic performance or if they tout only their benign motives, worthy intentions, and determined efforts.

Last, if higher salaries are required to attract better teachers, those higher salaries should be paid to them only, not current teachers also, unless they have or acquire the qualifications of the better teachers. Otherwise, attracting a few better teachers becomes unaffordable because of the huge surge in cost of across-the-board higher salaries for the large majority of no-better-than-they-already-are teachers.

I suggest a simple program to give annual awards to a few teachers for distinguished performance by relying on teachers’ professional holistic judgment. Every school receives a salary supplement amounting to a small percentage of the school’s aggregate teacher salaries (say, 1%) and distributes it to a small percentage to its teachers (say, 10%) for notable professional performance. By secret ballot, each teacher nominates 20% semi-finalists, the school principal combines and ranks the nominations and uses the combined list to guide his or her selection of finalists, and the superintendent reviews each school’s lists to ensure reasonableness and fairness, and approve the distribution of awards.

Such a program could be a first step toward enhanced professionalism, and fair and affordable means to reward better teachers by treating all of them respectfully.