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Friday, July 10, 2009

School Compensation Systems: Salaries vs. Grades

Schools reward their inhabitants in two amazingly different ways: teachers get salaries, and students get grades. Not only are these systems vastly different, but I'm not sure teachers would accept a pay scale that's built like a grading scale, nor would students accept a grading scale that's built like a teacher's pay scale.

The vast majority of schools pay teachers according to a "salary schedule," a rigid, two-dimensional matrix of dollar amounts with credits across the top and experience down the left side. The more credit hours you've earned, and the more years you've taught, then the more you'll make. I don't feel it's a fair system, but it's a system that most teachers will agree to use, putting it ahead of most any other pay system available. It's a simple system, perhaps too simple. Its simplicity allows us to easily print and read the salaries on a sheet of paper, and I think that's one reason we continue to rely on it. Now, forget merit pay for a moment. Suppose we simply wanted to add a third variable to the schedule, such as student count. The number of students you have definitely has a measurable impact in the effort it takes to be an effective teacher. (Certainly an impact comparable to credit hours, for example.) Addition of a third variable would turn the salary schedule into a three-dimensional model, not easily displayed on a piece of paper, and probably requiring the use of an algebraic formula to calculate every teacher's salary. So however incomplete and unfair, teachers opt for the simple and straightforward.

If you put ten teachers in a room and asked each to describe their grading system and practices, I guarantee you'll get ten different descriptions. My goal is to have a grading system that accurately reflects each student's ability and achievement, and I fail at that every single grading period. I always seem to find at least one student for which the numbers just don't reflect my personal feeling of what he/she has learned. As a math teacher, I think I'm especially critical of my grading methods, and thus I've never graded exactly the same two semesters in a row. Teachers are allowed so many choices: grade weighting, extra credit, curving scores (using normal curve or other methods), dropping lowest scores, partial credit, use of "pluses" and "minuses"...the list is considerable. These variables are in addition to the simple idea of being a "tough grader" vs. an "easy grader." Is a "C" average? Should every class have "A" students? How many failing students is too many? Teachers are generally allowed to include any combination of variables, and we expect our students to adapt to each of their teacher's grading systems.

As a teacher, I find it ironic that we resist making our compensation system more complex, yet we subject our students to some of the most esoteric grading rules imaginable. Maybe I'm comparing apples to oranges, but maybe not. If my ideas are valid and the writing of sufficient quality, feel free to compensate me for my efforts. Hmm...should I be simply paid by the word? Or should we develop a multi-variate rubric to assess the quality and effectiveness of the piece across a variety of audiences depending on my grammar, word choice, sentence structure, paragraph organization, and tone?

Monday, July 06, 2009

A Look Into the Future (From 1998)

While digging through some old papers, I came across a copy of PC World magazine from January 1998. The headline on the cover reads, "YOUR NEXT PC: What's New for 1998 -and Beyond." Predictions are fun to make, and more fun to make fun of looking back. Let's see where PC World hit, and where they missed.

In one section called "The Desktop Computer in Ten Years," PC World asked Mark Weiser, chief technologist at Xerox PARC what to expect by 2008. Here's his list:
  1. The PC will move into a closet, and we can expect gigabytes of RAM and terabytes of storage.
  2. Displays will be flexible and you can fold them up in your pocket.
  3. Voice recognition will not replace the keyboard and mouse for privacy reasons.
  4. Wires will become built into walls and the furniture and we will have wireless mice, keyboards, and phones.
  5. E-paper will be standard for everything from books to business cards.
  6. We will have "pocket net computers" that allow us to log on to the internet from anywhere at any time.
As predictions go, I'd say Mark Weiser did okay. Not great, but 10 years in the tech business is forever. PCs have gotten powerful, but they're still on the desk. The flexible, portable display is still vaporware, as is his vision of e-paper. Voice recognition has come a long way, but I think he's right about the impractability of talking to your computer in an office setting. Wireless phones, mice, and keyboards are easy to find, but I bet he would have been surprised to still find PS/2 ports standard on most motherboards. Lastly, most of us do have "pocket net computers" - our cell phones. Most people I know never browse the web on their phone, but the capability is there.

Weiser's predictions are at least better than Bill Gates's contribution:
"In ten years there will be better input systems - handwriting, speech, visual recognition...As much as 90 percent of the operating system code will go to these new capabilties. When we look back at today's personal computers, we'll say, "Hey, these were the machines that couldn't listen, couldn't talk, couldn't see."
I look back at my computer from 1998 and say, "I can still run linux just fine on that thing." In fact, it has Crunchbang installed on it right now. The smartest comment might have been from Stephen Manes in his back-page article, who claimed, "Hardware will continue to get faster, more powerful, cheaper. Software will continue to be a pain. And that's as far as I'm willing to go."

As much as the articles, the advertisements are worth a chuckle. Zip drives. CRT monitors. (There are a couple LCD ads, but you can't even find a price for them in the back page mail-order ads.) 166 MHz Pentium notebooks for $3599. A revolution for the mouse: the scroll wheel. A Eudora Pro CommCenter ad, offering a $20 rebate on the $59 street price. (What would we have paid for Gmail?) US Robotics 56K modems. Mindspring ISP featuring IE 4.0. And my favorite: Creative's PC-DVD kit, complete with decoder card, for an "incredible value" of $379.99.