Sunday, February 17, 2013

What Education Could Learn from Soccer

In the February 16 Ottawa Citizen I was quite interested to read Richard Starnes' "Beautiful Game" column about changes to soccer for children in Canada.  In the column he talks about how children in under 9, under 10, and under 11 year old leagues will not be competing for titles.  Rather than focusing on winning games and trying to be first in the league the focus is meant to be on improving skills.

Starnes mentions that many parents and coaches will be unhappy about the changes but points out that this is a selfish reaction from the adults.  He does not say this directly but, the way I see it, those adults want to make themselves feel good by saying "my team/my kid's team won the league championship this year".  It is not about motivating the players, or rewarding the team that improves the most, it is about making adults feel good on the backs of children.

My mind immediately jumped to some conversations that I have had recently with other teachers about marks and marking.  In particular, talking to teachers who have children in the school system I get a sense of what parents are thinking when it comes to their children's marks.  Even for teachers, who ought to know better, the focus is about the mark, the number or the letter, rather than the mark as an indicator of learning.  Our whole culture, from kindergarten to university seems fixated on marks to what I view as an unhealthy degree.

Here is where the connection to soccer comes in.  I think that marks are only really serving parents. If a child gets all As, the parent gets to be proud and tell everyone.  It is like winning the league championship.  If a child has Bs or Cs or Ds you can talk about illnesses or injuries and how he or she will do better next year just like a sports team undergoing a "rebuilding year".  But none of that is about how much the child learned, whether he or she will retain that learning, whether he or she developed skills and habits to assist future learning.  And yet those items are what really matters in the long run.

I wish that education would take a cue from soccer and get rid of marks in elementary school.  It is well understood that almost all children will be moved up through the grades based on their age anyway, so marks really serve no purpose.  Instead of counting As and Bs on the report card, maybe parents will take time to read the comments instead.  Those comments take dozens of hours for elementary teachers to write yet my impression is that only a tiny minority of parents read them because all they want to know is "A, B, C, or D?"

It is great to see soccer putting the focus on learning and improvement for its young participants.  I wonder how long it will take the education system to do the same?

Saturday, February 2, 2013

More stuff about Bill 115

I have just been watching "The Teachers' Agenda" episode of TVO's Agenda program.  Looking at some of the comments posted as well as some of Steve Paikin's devil's advocate comments I wanted to raise a few issues.

1.  The issue of the banked sick days.  The provisions around those days were negotiated in previous contracts.  That means that the school boards and province typically had to pay less money in wages and benefits because the teachers were willing to make concessions in return for keeping the sick day banking and gratuities.  So taxpayers, school boards, and the province have already received value for those banked days and gratuity provisions. It is hardly fair for the government to take from teachers something that teachers have already paid for.
2.  The issue that the private sector has had a tough time over the last few years but that the public sector has not and that is why the government has to apply Bill 115.  True, the private sector has had a tough time recently.  But previously the private sector was doing really well (late 90s, early 2000s) while the public sector was being hammered by Mike Harris and his "Common Sense Revolution".  The private and public sectors tend to go in opposite cycles.  This is the nature of the beast.  The workers in the public sector do not expect 5% and 10% yearly wage increases when the economy is booming, even though that may be happening in the private sector.  It is not reasonable to pull the public sector down when the private sector is doing badly if the reverse (pulling the public sector up when the private sector is doing well) is not on the table.
3. Extra-curricular activities.  This seems to be the current lightning rod because Bill 115 has not allowed teachers any other method for expressing their displeasure.  Extracurricular clubs, groups, and teams are run almost entirely on the goodwill and volunteer time of teachers.  Teachers are not given any compensation of any kind for their efforts and, in my experience, are rarely even thanked by the students and/or the parents.  Yet many parents and media commentators are currently talking regularly about how critical and important extracurricular activities are for students.  I would be more sympathetic if the current pronunciations matched behaviours that occur when teachers are putting in all the voluntary time. 
4. Teacher salaries + benefits + vacations versus the private sector.  Back in 2000 I left a permanent teaching job and worked at Mitel Networks Corporation for about three years.  When I started at Mitel I got a significant yearly pay raise (roughly from $46,000 to $60,000).  Based on a ten month teaching year I was making about $4,600 a month teaching versus $5,000 a month at Mitel.  At Mitel I had various medical and insurance benefits, including sick days and the option of long-term disability, that were very similar to what I got as a teacher.  I also got vacation days that I could take at any time (unlike my time as a teacher).  Mitel also offered a pension benefit of 5% per year.  Finally, I was able to be promoted and earn raises based on my performance, which worked out to about a 10% raise after my first year, in comparison to the 2 - 3% raise (starting from the lower yearly salary) I would have earned as a teacher.  So my experience in the private sector was that compared to teaching I was able to earn more money, get similar benefits, and get two weeks of vacation that I could take any time.
5.  Hourly salaries.  This issue came up in the comments.  Every once in a while some commentator takes an experienced teacher's salary (about $90,000), divides by five hours of work a day (the absolute minimum that a full time teacher can work) and roughly 200 work days a year and gets a value of around $90 an hour.  I don't have statistics for all teachers but I know that my wife, who does not yet make $90,000 a year typically works 50 hours a week, not including any volunteer activities, when she is teaching full time.  Based on working about 40 weeks a year, that means that she works right around 2000 hours a year, the same as anyone working forty hours a week for fifty weeks.  So my wife is making less than $45 an hour, unlike the $90/hr that biased commentators like to invoke.

My point with this post is to try and provide some information about teachers and their working conditions that are based in reality in contrast to the ideas and numbers being thrown around by teacher-hating commentators.  I hope it helped.