Sunday, October 26, 2014

It's True: Grit.

In college, I never ascended above the status of second-best trumpet player. Lebanon Valley College was, and is, a very good music school that attracted exceptional music students from throughout the Northeast and beyond. Still, if second sounds pretty good to you, I'm going to guess that you're not a trumpet player. Despite having a certain amount of talent for it, and some measure of desire to win, I never quite made it to number one.

Department lore had it that the guy ahead of me would frequently practice trumpet for three hours a day. While I was known to sometimes hang out in the practice rooms for three hours at a time, I usually spent much of that time talking to a pretty girl if I could find one (I married one of them, so I maintain that I actually won in the end). It became prevailing wisdom that there were two top trumpet players in my class--one who worked, and one for whom things came easily. Contributing to this narrative, the other guy was dyslexic. For him the very act of reading music (or anything else) was significantly harder than for the rest of us. To celebrate the efforts he'd made to overcome his difficulties (or maybe because we were jerks), we would write his name backward (MOT NODDES) on the black board--sort of like a SmartBoard, but not as colorful--in the band room. We'd list it among the other pieces we were scheduled to play in that rehearsal, just to see if anyone would notice. This guy has since earned his doctorate and landed a professorship at a distinguished institution of higher learning. So, it seems that, despite obstacles, beating me at trumpet was to be the least of his accomplishments.

Speaking of talent (but otherwise unrelated), my high school had one of those families that probably exist in most communities. There were five children, all of whom were physically beautiful, athletically dazzling, engaging writers, and math and science whizzes. Consequently, they were star athletes, prima ballerinas, prom kings and queens, and valedictorians of their respective classes. Though each worked very hard in a variety of arenas, it was difficult to shake the perception that they were swimming in a different talent pool (did I mention that they also won races in pools?) from the rest of us. If they're starting to sound like the vampires in that book, maybe picture something like that, but not rich. Or douchey. Or homicidal.

They have followed a wide variety of degree and career paths, as well as some more eclectic pursuits. Among them are a few post-graduate degrees from Duke and MIT, a published doctoral thesis,  residencies at summer arts incubators, write-ups in the New York Times, and appointments to the faculties of fine institutions of higher learning. Conventional (i.e. boring) accomplishments like these are mixed with more eclectic triumphs, including a stint teaching Greek...in a Jesuit school...on a lovely little island; building an off-grid farmstead from the ground up; and playing in a rock band successful enough to play weekend nights(!), in bars with doors on the bathroom stalls(!!). None are doctors, or lawyers, or business executives, but any of the five could have been any of those things if they'd chosen to go that way.

It should therefore have come as no surprise when the youngest of the children recently become suddenly famous for her novel, The Girl in the Road. Unlike the smattering of self-published efforts that likely pollute your Facebook feeds, this is a real deal book with a reportedly six-figure advance, and an even more enviable accomplishment--being blurbed by Neil Gaiman (yes, that Neil Gaiman). 


I started to wonder how she did it, in case I ever complete my NaNoWriMo book. I've read lots of books that have made lots of money. I know lots of smart people, some of whom have written professionally (or amateurly with professional quality). Yet, I have never personally known anyone who reached the point at which he or she could conceivably make a living writing fiction. I toyed with the idea of asking her how she managed it, but luckily hadn’t followed through before she told us all. Slacker tendencies rescued me from yet another embarrassment.

In a piece originally posted to her blog, and later run as an article in the Washington Post, Monica detailed how she got so “lucky.” You are welcome to read it—in fact, avid Slacker Guide readers will wonder where the other 1,200 words are—but even more succinctly summarized: she developed the book over many years and then submitted it (along with a number of other pieces) over and over to agents, contests, publishers, festivals, and so on. Along the way was rejected nearly as often as she submitted. She enriches the story told by her spreadsheet by differentiating those rejections that involved some sort of personal interaction, like something scribbled in the margin of an otherwise boilerplate rejection letter--in other words, she parsed out the failures from the failures with an asterisk. Her rejection rate was something like 96% (not even close to a B-), and yet she has achieved tremendous success by any measure.

Monica’s book, not coincidentally, is clearly the output of a worker. It is the product of extensive research, a background in science (a graduate degree at MIT, no less), and deep and extensive rewrites. She describes the technology of the story's time period in such vivid detail and technological plausibility that you sometimes wonder if you could stop by Best Buy and pick up a few of them. Monica demands similar work of her readers: two protagonists with nearly identical names; two seemingly unrelated story lines—rich with back-stories of their own; and a Tolkien –esk geographical footprint that makes Middle Earth seem like a suburban backyard. Okay, Monica’s universe actually exists, but it’s all the way over there on the back side of the globe. Who can be expected to know their way around those places?

Monica's Washington Post piece is a stern reminder that her success wasn’t merely the result of her considerable talents. As previously mentioned, if her family's potential were translated into money it would be in the range of a moderately sized hedge fund. She was also blessed with the flexibility to travel for research (and eat food, and live indoors) while enduring all of those rejections. In the end, though, it seems she succeeded by way of that ever-so-trendy personal attribute: Grit.

We’re talking about Grit a lot in education these days. There are studies that demonstrate that students who can pass the Marshmallow Test, or are willing to work longer on math problems that are impossible, experience outsized success in their lives. Look it up if you want (here, for example), but studies show that Grit is a better predictor of all sorts of measures of success than the SAT, or even I.Q. Once they develop a standardized test for Grit we may finally be permitted to drop all of the others. Therefore, it would seem a simple matter of installing Grit as an optional plugin to students' operating systems. However, it would fly in the face of the entire concept of The Slacker’s Guide to School to allow this become a “try harder” post, so let’s see what we can do.

I submit that Grit, like height, is partially something you’re born with (or not). It is heresy to suggest that hard work comes from anything other than superior moral fiber, but why is it that we believe that hard work, and moral fiber for that matter, aren’t subjected to the same kind of have- and have-not distribution as all of God’s other gifts?

People with talent are sometimes defensive about how their talents contributed to their success. They resist being called geniuses or prodigies (see also: here, here, and here). MacArthur Fellowships are more often called "'genius' grants" than "genius grants," and when did you last hear the word "savant" without its prefix "idiot"? The truth is, while people of enormous talent sometimes work very hard, sometimes they don't (which is, sort of, the thesis statement for this blog). If you want to see someone who has accomplished great things freak out, complement him on his talent. If you want to see her truly lose her mind, suggest that her very capacity for hard work is in itself a talent. If his/her talents include the language arts, you can achieve similar results by using the word "literally" figuratively (see also: here).

I'm inclined to do it anyway--maybe because of all of that, to tell the truth. Thinking of Grit as a talent moves it out of the virtue column and in to the personal attribute column. We do have some control over our personal attributes--I've spent twenty years trying to convince myself that I'm a morning person, for example--but we are always working in concert with, or in conflict with, our natural tendencies. Smart, talented people work from a certain advantage. Stick-to-it-ive people from a certain advantage. It may be more possible to escape the powerful Slacker genes, than those of diminutive height, good looks, husky build, or fabulous hair, but we're not all working with the same raw materials. Taking note of our gifts and deficits isn't license to never improve, but it may be helpful in recognizing our own personal starting line.


Monday, July 28, 2014

SLO Descent Into Madness

Evaluating teachers is hard. Avid Slacker Guide readers have heard this one before (see also: here and here). It's tempting to say that because it is so hard, we shouldn't bother. However, the quality of a teacher has a huge impact on the quality of a student's education, which means that we can't just leave this topic alone. Moreover, weak teachers drag all teachers down by association and by way of increasingly silly policies instituted to keep bad teachers from being so bad. Overall teacher quality is simply something that everyone must be invested in.

Consequently, state boards of education rarely implement any method of education reform without also trying to shoehorn in a little teacher evaluation. For example, standardized tests (see also: here and here) aren't a bad idea on their own: let's see how things are going by putting all students through the same measurement device. The problem arises with the inevitable next step, in which we decide that test scores are a good way to evaluate teachers.

Similarly, differentiated supervision was devised as an alternative way to assess teachers. The concept, best I can work out, is that a once-a-year visit to a classroom is a poor measurement of what's happening on a daily basis, so let's do something else. The "something else" could be a book discussion group, development of common assessments (i.e. all Algebra I Honors students take the same final exam), or a research project of some sort. At this point things can get a little strange. Apparently, the thinking is that if you can conduct a proper research-based project, you have proven your effectiveness as a teacher. This is a little gem that we've taken from higher ed, even though I'm not really sure it's been proven there.

Out of Alternative Assessment® and Differentiated  Supervision® came the Student Learning Objective, or SLO® (not to be confused with SOL, or the SOL). Like so many other innovations in education, the underlying concept is sound: have teachers set a goal for their classroom (or classes--for the sorry souls who push carts around) and figure out a way to measure progress toward that goal. Of course, PDE (not to be confused with PDE--I can do this all day) takes the next logical step, which turns this good idea into a bad one. Since PDE has accepted the fact that there will never be a Keystone (okay, one more--see also: here) for certain subjects like chorus, shop, gym, or lunch, there must be a replacement measure for test scores to evaluate teachers of those subjects. So, PDE decided to link SLOs to teacher assessment.

The true genius of this plan is that teachers design their own SLOs, and the means of measuring whether achievement of this goal has been attained.

One of the most unexpected and wonderful moments of my teaching career happened just recently. I encountered my very staid principal quoting my very snarky analysis of the SLO to another teacher. Sadly, she has since retired from her position. Less sadly, though, one of the stated goals that she plans to accomplish in her retirement is to go to Harrisburg and get the Legislature to stop screwing up education. If she quotes me to a state senator, I may just declare victory and retire myself. 

My brilliant analysis (now hopelessly built up to the point that it will never measure up to your expectations) is that the SLO is a three-step process:
  1. Teachers choose a goal.
  2. Teachers devise a measurement device for this goal.
  3. Teachers assess whether the goal has been met.
It does seem a perfect system from the Slacker teacher's point of view: "Wait, you mean not only do I grade my own test, but I also make the test, and figure out the scoring system?"

Yes. Except...

PDE has figured out a way to make sure that teachers can't win, even with this goofy "grade-yourself" system. You see, teachers will be scored on a three-point system, but it has been made very clear to administrators that they are to rarely if ever award a "three." This means that the majority of teachers will achieve at best a 66.6%. In  my school that's an F, but even in normal schools it comes out at something like a D. I am absolutely sure that you will read a news story late this fall breathlessly decrying the sad fact that the average rating for Pennsylvania teachers is in the neighborhood of a D-, with only a tiny percentage even passing.

I  will admit that the previous scoring system was equally bogus. The rating system was so vague and ineffective that most administrators assigned most teachers a perfect score. Not pretty good, not well-above-passing, but a perfect score. If your assessment system yields nearly 100% of those tested with perfect scores, or nearly 100% of those tested with failing scores, you need to re-learn how to build assessments. You would think that an entity like the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which is in the business of designing high-stakes assessments like the PSSA and the Keystone, would know something about how to do this. It appears that they do not.

To be a normal Slacker Guide post this should really get another 750 words or so, but that's pretty much it. PDE has developed a way to improve effectiveness in teaching--teachers setting goals, and monitoring progress toward those goals--and then screwed it up by tying it to assessment and developing a scoring system that is no-win for just about everyone.

In other news, I did take a choral conducting class recently that could serve as a model for a better method of teacher evaluation and improvement. All it would require is nearly fifty-five hours of staff development time, an acknowledged expert master teacher, and participants willing to take what they have been doing thus far and leave it entirely at the door. In other words, something like the student teaching model applied to people like me with twenty years in the profession.

Student teaching was the last time that most of us were scrutinized on a daily basis, were subjected to a constant stream of feedback, and worked with a seasoned professional who had special expertise in our subject area. As long as we can find effective mentors for all teachers and provide the time and space for the teacher and mentor to spend considerable amounts of time together; as long as the mentor teacher has the kind of gravitas and credentials that allow the mentored teacher to feel comfortable starting pretty much from scratch with this person; and as long as this process can play out away from the classroom, where it could potentially undermine the teacher's authority; as long as we're willing to invest that kind of effort, this could really work.

Or we could track test scores and assign ratings to teachers' research projects.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Wage War

You should care about the minimum wage, even if you haven't earned this rate since high school. You should care because the minimum wage forms the basis for most real wages in this country. Though people my age tend to think of it as something we've outgrown (see also: parachute pants, pretty hair, and $.79 gas), most workers' earnings are indirectly set by the magic number of $7.25. Like acne, bad driving, girl troubles, and homework, the minimum wage is not just for high school kids. Unfortunately, this is one of many things that people just tell themselves to make it through adolescence.

It may come as a surprise that I experience the minimum wage from the other side--that is, from the perspective of a job creator. Note: I mean that I actually hire people to do work, not some more vague concept that if I spend enough money, someone somewhere will be hired to do the work. In our lives as struggling part-time farmers, my wife and I sometimes hire additional help. We never pay these folks just minimum wage, but it's not altruism at work. We calculate a wage that is far enough above minimum that our employees don't mind too much that they're going to lift heavy things, get very dirty, and sweat a lot. To tell the truth, I also sometimes pay attention to the Sheetz signs at the gas pump that consistently advertise jobz that pay a wage well-above minimum, and pay a bit more than that. I base my calculation on the assumption that Sheetz employees have, on average, a much lower incidence of getting petrified pigeon crap in their hair at work.

Sheetz and I have something in common in that we don't pay the minimum wage, but we're not ignoring it either. The minimum wage is a floor--the basis upon which other wages are built. It's may not be immediately obvious to people who don't physically build houses, but the roof of the house is held up by the load-bearing walls, which are themselves held up by the first floor. The particular kind of stagnation that we've seen in our economy--one in which companies do well, but workers don't--is directly tied to the leveling out (and the 10-year freeze from 1997 to 2007) of the minimum wage. In, houses, as in the economy, the height of the ceiling is ultimately determined by the elevation of the first floor.

I concede that there are some wages that are beyond the influence of the minimum wage. Just as above our figurative roof, one will find airplanes, and satellites, and solar systems, and lots of stuff further out than that, there is a segment of the economy that seems to exist under entirely different laws of physics. At some point, CEOs' compensation escaped the trajectory of worker pay, and even that of the value of their companies (see also: here). These two economies exist in the same universe, but they operate by such different rules that it would take a real Einstein to bring it all into one unified theory.

While there are wages so far above the forces that govern what normal people get paid, there are also some wages that are far below. For example, wages for employees who are expected to get tips are stuck at $2.13 an hour, where they've been for over twenty years. This means that a tip is no longer a nice treat you give a server in recognition of excellent service--tips are officially part of these workers' wages. Without tips, the hourly rate pretty much zeros out after taxes. This also means that servers' earnings take a significant hit from slow nights, bad weather, and--to put it mildly--jerks.


Even at $2.13 an hour, tipped employees aren't the lowest earners out there, however. We are in a global economy, and so the World Minimum Wage also affects us all. It's theoretically possible--and by that, I mean that it has almost certainly been postulated in conservative think tanks, or at least brought up as a arguing point at someone's Thanksgiving table--that the market could make the minimum wage meaningless. In this theory, the value of an hour of work will always be automatically set as jobs remain unfilled until the compensation level reaches the full value of the work. If someone is willing to do the job, the wage must be appropriate for that job. 

However, as long as companies can and do chase cheap labor all around the globe, we will never reach the bottom. As soon as a country's citizens are pulled far enough out of poverty to protest how badly they've been screwed, the global market goes looking for the next cheapest labor. Depending on the product, the order goes something like: USA--> Mexico--> Japan--> China--> Hong Kong--> Vietnam--> Thailand--> Philippines--> Bangladesh-->??? Not every job can be sent around like this, but the ones that can put downward wage pressure on the jobs that are left behind. If there is no longer a factory, or even a call center, in town paying a living wage, those with a high school diploma and maybe some college may need to be willing to take a job at Wal*Mart. Actually, getting even a shelf-stocking job at Wal*Mart isn't so much a given anymore.

There are locations where the minimum wage is almost impossibly low, and in some of these locations local governments have done something about it. Vacation towns, New York City, and the International Space Station all need to pay workers well above minimum wage, due to the ridiculous cost of living in these places. New York sanitation workers make about $70 K, but modest apartments there rent for +-$2,000 a month. Real estate in beach towns is so expensive that workers often end up sleeping in some kind of kennel-style housing as part of their compensation. I'm sure the guy who cleans the glass on the Hubble Telescope makes more than any of these folks, but the commute is a real pain.

We have our own version of all of this in education. School custodians make something a bit more than minimum wage and secretaries earn a bit more than that. Secretaries and custodians have their own pay-scales--which I can't tell you anything about because it doesn't affect me directly, and therefore I'd have to go look it up somewhere. Teachers' aides make something in the neighborhood of the better-paid secretaries, depending on the school, and the starting salary for teachers is a bit above that. The highest salary for teachers is substantially more than that; however, each step along the way is fairly modest. The assistant principals make a bit more than teachers (though not always a whole lot if you calculate in pay-per-day, and probably less per hour). The other administrators make more than the highest paid teachers, and the superintendent makes the most in the district. The whole system may not always be completely fair, because it's entirely possible that the secretary to the superintendent may be smarter than he is, work harder, and earn +- 1/5 the wage. However, the system is mostly logical. The more people you supervise, and/or the more education and certifications required to do a job, the higher the pay.

Also observe that even though no one at my "company" makes minimum wage, if you follow it all the way up, the superintendent's pay is based loosely on what we pay the cafeteria workers. Each salary in the system is calculated up from the one below it. It's possible that the superintendent's pay is also calculated based on chief executives of similarly-sized operations, but I doubt it. The average CEO makes seven times what our superintendent makes. Our guy doesn't even make it onto the bell curve here.

In the many months I was working on this post--well, not working exactly, more letting it sit around in draft form while I furiously scribbled 14,000 words for my grad school project (hardcore Slackerguide readers may someday get to read all of it by being directed to a sister blog called Enormously Boring Choral Music Writings)--people stopped caring about the minimum wage. The thing about the powerless is that their interests are so easy to ignore.

The real problem with discussing wages is that at some fundamental level it is a discussion of the worth of a person. What is the value of the guy who talks you into supersizing your fries? What about the guy who fixes that pothole twelve times in the same summer? How about the thousands of people who spring into action when we have a snowstorm (or ice storm) to clear the roads and hook the electricity back up? Mike Rowe has engaged in a one-man campaign to get people to value real work, but what about the guy who sells microwave burritos to those doing real work? At the very bottom of the pay ladder are workers that we don't even think about, and what they make is a direct shot to what you make. I think. What I do know is that something has seriously hijacked the process of people being able to pull themselves out of poverty with work, and there is one very simple unfunded mandate that could make a big difference. An increase in the minimum wage wouldn't solve all of the problems identified in this post, but it could raise the floor, and that could help to raise all of the floors above.