Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Tue 10th May, 2011

Performance Pay for teachers considered harmful

Mikal Still blathers about performance pay for teachers - he thinks that "the only people who object to performance pay are those who secretly know they under perform?".

Well, I for one object, and they're worth a blog post.

The problem is: how do you judge the teacher's actual performance? How do you separate this from the abilities of their class? How do you know, empirically and repeatably, that they're better than another teacher?

The answer is: you can't. A teacher's ability to teach is an intangible thing, like an artist's ability to create. It covers not only the obvious skills of passing on information and concepts, but also their ability to engage the class, work with good and bad students, and to keep the whole group interested and active. The best teachers I've had have not been those in which my entire class did brilliantly, or where our class's results were demonstrably better than the others. They've inspired me, sure - but maybe other people in the class still found it a chore, or just didn't care that much about the subject.

And we've already seen teachers cheating on marking students' work to make sure their class gets a better grade. Link that to pay and there will be a much bigger reward for that kind of bad behaviour. Then you have to have all sorts of extra supervision and suspicion, which costs money to implement and hurts morale. And exactly how do you say "this person's artwork isn't as good as you marked it"?

And how do you reward the teacher aide who got given the entire year's worth of difficult students to babysit while the teachers went off and rewarded their talented students? By assessing how their problem children went? This happens even now.

Morally, judging one person by the performance of other people is wrong, especially when those other people are affected by a lot of other factors besides the teacher's 'ability to teach'. Would one suggest performance pay for police based on the amount of crime in their suburb?

And practically, no-one who suggests 'performance' pay for teachers also suggests increasing their average pay. So it's only rewarding those that artificially do well by cutting pay from those who already can't afford it. This doesn't trim the fat, it only makes the back-stabbing and cheating pay off more.

The larger question is really "what will it take to get teachers to be better respected in our society?". The answer, in my opinion, is three fold:

  1. Take back the control of how things are taught from people in the education department, who may never have taught in a classroom or done an education degree, and give it to a body of teachers who have real-world experience.
  2. Pay the teaching profession in proportion to the amount of work they actually do now. Teachers are treated as if their job is simply from nine to three, but in real life every teacher I know has spent countless hours before and after school and on weekends preparing lessons, doing research, marking, helping some students, training, watching over the children outside of lessons (e.g. 'playground duty') and more. Teaching is paid as a thirty hour a week job where it's more like a sixty hour a week job.
  3. Don't make education the forgotten cousin in the budget. We waste billions of dollars on defence projects that never see the light of day, millions are spent commissioning great swathes of reports which are never acted on, yet the increase in actual school funding is minimal.
In short, as it is said:

"It will be a great day when schools get all the money they need and the army has to run a cake stall to buy a tank."

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Mon 18th Apr, 2011

Unexpectedly finding oneself playing 'Mao'

One of my favourite games, when I get to play it, is ' Bartok' - a Nomic-like card game where you start with an initial set of rules (similar to the popular card game 'Uno') and each time someone wins they get to add a new rule and another round is played. After a number of rounds, remembering what rules are in play, and what you have to do to obey them at any one time, can be an interesting challenge. I usually don't play with the question rule ("asking any question is illegal") because it makes the game a silent, tense affair.

Next up the scale, then, is "Mao", where one person decides a secret set of rules that no-one else knows. Players try playing and are told whether their play is allowed or not, and they have to try and work out the rules. Of course, not telling the other people what you've worked out is a standard way of getting ahead in the game. I like Mao less than I like the question rule, because it's all about trying to work out everything in your head and saying anything is a distraction. And, as the name implies, throwing in one or two nonsensical or counter-intuitive rules (e.g. "it is illegal for someone to play a jack and not immediately play another legal card") is just part of the fun.

So I was somewhat disturbed to realise, in trying to book international flights recently, that I was in the middle of a game of Mao without realising it. Airlines have an extremely complex, ever changing, and sometimes completely bizarre rules about what flights are offered and how much they cost. Then each of the many flight searchers - Zuji, Skyscanner, Expedia, Lastminute, etc - has their own way of combining these options. Seemingly sensible outward journeys will be combined with ludicrously long returns; prices will suddenly seem to jump up for no given reason, and route options you'd think were right there - indeed, that you can easily prove exist with other queries - are ignored.

The nonsensical rules I've discovered so far are:

And then there's the misinformation:

This is not to say that these are the only deficiencies. Most sites make it difficult to order the flights other than by obvious methods (e.g. price). All provide no way (that I've seen) to exclude certain airlines or airports, or set cost or time ranges. Excluding options listed on the fly would also be an invaluable feature. I'd love to see a site that allowed you to select a range of seat pitch and width options. It's sad to say that the regular things that would make these sites a pleasure to use - quick load times, low image count, reduced advertising, simple and readable layout, presenting all useful flight information when requested, being able to compare different options easily, being presented with useful alternative information, being able to print or select options for email easily, and search forms that are easy to fill out from the keyboard alone and change on the fly - are almost forgotten in the frustrations of these sites.

The site that I have to give most credit to - including a link - is Skyscanner. It has a good range of flight options and sort options - total travel time and departure time are very useful, for example. And then tonight, after I'd near given up in despair, I found the options on the left-hand side that I'd ignored, which allowed you to set a maximum journey time, remove airlines, and (most importantly) choose an outgoing and return flight in separate lists. If only I'd spotted that yesterday!

They still need flight details expanding on the page, the ability to limit flight selection by price, and to realise that for some routes - e.g. CBR to just about anywhere - you're going to have to pull together a couple of separate flight options rather than only go with carriers who fly the whole distance or with code-shares.

And still, I had more success with a travel agent - in fifteen minutes she could find all the options, try every possible combination out, eliminate the obvious wrong ones, and present me with a simple list of the best options available - including a 'Y' journey where we go to one destination and return from another nearby. And at a competitive rate, too.

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Tue 22nd Dec, 2009

Power from the people

I read the article at http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/stories/s2778257.htm with a kind of despairing interest - because what it says is absolutely right, and it makes me feel very sad about the democracy we supposedly live in.

A precis of the story is: the "Mandatory Filtering" the Federal Government is proposing to introduce will not be stopped by writing letters to your Member of Parliament or to Senator Conroy, signing a petition or blacking out your home page or avatar. It will be pushed through, because the ALP is (supposedly) indebted to the Australian Christian Lobby (the ACL) and because they wield enormous lobbying power at the highest levels of government. We need to change our tactics of getting through to our politicians, Josh says, or fail to stop the filtering being enacted.

The problem here, I would argue, is not that those opposed to the mandatory filter (like myself) are mumbling to themselves. We are doing all the traditional things that people do when trying to get their members of parliament to listen to their opinions: writing letters to politicians, talking to our friends and organising media coverage. These have worked for most issues in the past. Trying to organise avatar blackouts and internet recognition is a way of socially protesting in modern times, and it isn't really intended to reach the politicians.

The problem I see here is that politicians such as Senator Conroy and the various other ministers I've written to and spoken to are all basically plugging their ears to the voice of their electorate. We get form letters that reiterate their invalid, nonsensical and specious arguments, don't answer a single point we raise, and keep on going in their own direction without listening in the slightest to anything we say. They're listening, instead, to the ACL, who get to whisper in their ears directly and imply that they have all these unseen, unnamed christian voters out there who agree with them. As Josh says, the ALP owes the ACL a few favours - favours that the ACL are more than happy to imply are worth much more than they really are.

And the opponents to mandatory filtering are not without friends in Parliament House. Politicians from Senator Kate Lundy and NSW Minister Penny Sharpe down are trying to also counter the spin and the denialism of Senator Conroy and the ACL. But what are the ordinary people supposed to do? Have a cake sale and raise a couple of hundred thousand dollars to buy a couple of high-profile lobbyists? Start setting fire to cars and blowing up ISPs? Donate some money to the ALP with a little note in the bag? Do as Bernard Keane suggests and create a letter so complicated and confused that bureaucrats actually time to answer it (as if...)?

The problem here is that the public are not being listened to. A majority of Australians don't want mandatory filtering. It's being sold as stopping child pornography but the Minister has said that it could be extended to blocking information on euthanasia, abortion and safe sex - things which the Christian right gets all hot under the collar about but where the information alone is not illegal in Australia. It doesn't stop the real criminals, or even a determined teenager, and the whole illusion of children being randomly exposed to 'unwanted' content is a nebulous decoy.

What are we supposed to do if the politicians who represent us don't listen?

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Thu 30th Jul, 2009

The cost of beliefs

I was recently walking around the Australian National Botanic Gardens with friends when we discovered a sign that had been vandalised. References to geological times had been scratched out in a crude attempt to remove any reference to how long ago various features of the Australian continent were formed. My partner, who frequents the gardens, noted that the Creationists had vandalised the sign. It was certainly hard to refute - nothing else on the sign was touched, and the erasure was limited to those specific words, so there's little evidence for any other objective than obscuring the date ranges of geological periods.

I have a large amount of contempt for the vandal(s) that did this, and those that think that defacing public property is reasonable as long as it supports their own world-view. It costs the gardens about $1000 to replace that sign - that vandal has just asserted that their point of view is worth $1000 or more. And in the grand scheme of things it's hardly proving their point - they leave no other information or evidence to prove any contrary assertion. So really this is just a childish attempt to stop someone else from being heard by shouting louder.

Yet this is not done by a child - the scratching is fairly precise and it's too high for a child to reach. So some adult has thought that it's perfectly valid to deface public property to keep their own little world-view intact. The same adult would presumably be outraged if their church was defaced; so why is their defacement OK?

The thing that really annoys me is that it's not even a scientific debate. There's only one type of person who does this - people who believe that a literal interpretation of their own holy book is absolutely right and no amount of scientific evidence can show differently. They're so prepared to ignore scientific evidence they'll try to remove any sign of it. These people fiddle with scientific procedures to prove their own conclusions - they put their hand on the scale when weighing the evidence. Science and logic has always tried to reason out its arguments based on common ground that we all agree on. This person hasn't even tried to be reasonable.

Why do we keep being reasonable with them?

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