Saturday, April 26, 2014

Why Teacher Salaries Should Not Be Tied to Student Performance

On paper, it seems like a great idea: good teachers should be paid more than bad teachers.  I mean, ideally there are no bad teachers, so let's at least say that the best teachers should make the most money.  Many different types of jobs operate in the same way; why not education?

This is why current federal legislation wants all states to adopt a policy of basing teacher salaries on student test scores.  The higher a class's test scores are in a given year, the better the teacher, right?  If a school has three fourth grade classes, with a roughly even spread in terms of demographics, ability, and previous years' test scores, and one of those classes does better overall than the other two, that teacher is clearly the best, right?  And if a teacher is good, their class's test results should steadily improve from year to year.  


I disagree with this philosophy.  I believe there are a number of reasons why performance-based salaries for teachers are illogical and ill-advised, and potentially detrimental to our nation's public education system.  I'm by no means an expert in this field - I'm a ballet teacher with a bachelor's degree in dance, which included some classes in dance pedagogy and teaching methods; and I'm the daughter of a public school teacher, and that's about the extent of my credentials.  However, this is something I feel pretty strongly about.

1. Performance-based pay presupposes that one teacher is solely responsible for their students' performance.
As a ballet teacher, I can attest to the fact that students do not come to us as blank canvases.  Education begins at home, and the quality of education children receive in their homes is radically different and based on a plethora of factors.  Some children attend preschool; others do not.  Some children can read when they enter kindergarten; some children have parents who can't read English themselves.  By the time students have spent just a couple years in elementary school, their academic knowledge is already the product of an amalgamation of many influences, from their parents or guardians to their previous school teachers to educational materials outside school (such as libraries, children's museums, and extracurricular activities) to the friends they have.  All this affects a student's learning style, learning ability, and learning level - which affect classroom performance and test scores.  A teacher should not be held responsible for the influence others have had in educating their students - whether positive or negative.  If a student performs well on a test, is it because the teacher did a great job, or is it because the student's parents read to him or her every night and make sure they do their homework?  On a broader scope, if one school in a town does more poorly than another school, is it because that school has inferior teachers, or because they are teaching students who are at an educational disadvantage because of where they live or their parents' income?  (As a side note, this is why many people support vouchers to make it affordable for students to go to a different school if their school under-performs - but again, how do you know the other school is better, and not just populated by children from affluent families, giving them more opportunities for success?)

2.  Performance-based pay assumes that tracking a teacher's results is the same as tracking student progress.
To me, this is the most obvious flaw in performance-based salaries.  You can't tell whether a teacher is improving by looking at their class performance from year to year, because they have a different group of kids every year.  If you do a six-year study of a new medication, but choose a new group of test subjects each year, you're not doing a six-year study; you're doing six one-year studies.  Every teacher will tell you that each class is unique and it's unfair to compare them to a previous class.  Some classes are bigger than others (especially in years when the budget is tighter).  Some classes have more students with behavior problems.  Every class is a different mix of IQ, income level, family situation, and other factors that contribute to their performance.  The only way to link teacher performance with student progress is for one teacher to teach the same group of students every year.  I feel like pointing out that this is exactly how ballet education works in Russia, the country that consistently turns out the best dancers in the world.  Each class has one teacher for eight years, the entire length of time they are in the school.  If a class begins to develop technical weaknesses, the schools' directors know it's the fault of the teacher because the students have had no other input.  It's a system that might be worth considering in academic education, really.

3.  Performance-based pay punishes good teachers for bad teachers' mistakes.
I am fully aware that some teachers are just better than others.  The problem is, when a bad teacher's students move on to a good teacher's class, those students are going to have a harder time no matter how good the teacher is.  My mom is a fourth-grade teacher in a public school.  In fourth grade, students are supposed to memorize the multiplication facts.  My mom has had so many students who, at the beginning of the year, do not know their addition facts and have to count on their fingers to add.  Obviously these students are already at a disadvantage compared to students who know their addition facts and have already begun multiplication.  Getting them on track requires them to learn faster than "bright" students.  My mom is a great teacher, and she works with these kids, but some of them still don't finish learning the multiplication tables by the time they leave fourth grade.  Performance-based salary means that not only is the initial "bad" teacher punished if their kids fail to show growth, but every subsequent teacher is liable to receive the same penalty even if their students improve, because they may never reach the top of their grade level.  That sounds pessimistic, but it's just reality.

4.  Performance-based pay holds teachers responsible for things outside their control.
There are two parts to this point: a) class composition and b) class curriculum.  In a school that has more than one classroom per grade, many factors go into dividing the students: student behavior, performance, ethnicity (if one of the teachers is multilingual), disabilities, class size, and in some schools, parent requests.  Most teachers have very little, if any, say in who gets put in their classrooms. And once classes are set, they don't always stay that way.  Kids move to or away from town.  Behavior problems may result in a child getting moved to another class.  Some students may be selected to join a magnet school, or the parents may decide to private or homeschool their children.  Teachers have no control over these factors, and performance-based pay doesn't take these things into account.  Another factor teachers have little control over is curriculum.  For the past few decades, our country has been scrambling to fix the education system, and one of the primary ways it's been doing that is with new curricula.  Many schools are adopting new curricula on top of new curricula before they even have time to try out one system to see if it works.  Adopting a new curriculum is hard; it takes time to get familiar with the material, to learn to navigate any digital materials that are part of it, to work out the bugs and find errors (because that happens), and to develop a sense of pacing and flow.  This can affect student performance either positively or negatively, and there's really no way to know how it will go until it happens.  A performance-based pay system does not allow for variances in test scores that are the result of using a different curriculum.

5.  Performance-based pay discourages collaboration.
In a world where competition and bitter rivalry mark most career paths and corporation, education stands apart as the one field in which information is freely shared, because good educators recognize that one person's success is everyone's success.  A performance-based salary model puts teachers in the same boat as retailers, news stations, and Internet providers by creating an environment of competition rather than collaboration.  Most teachers are collaborators by nature.  We are always going to other, more experienced teachers for ideas and advice on how to be more effective at what we do.  There are teacher-created websites, Pinterest boards, and blogs dedicated to teachers sharing lesson plans, activities, and strategies with other teachers.  This is on top of the numerous workshops and meetings teachers attend each year.  We all want the best for our students - that's why we got into this business - therefore there is no reason not to help each other.  A salary based on student test scores alters this paradigm.  In a school with that kind of model, teachers will recognize that their best chance for success is to keep all their good ideas to themselves.  It is easy to imagine how this could negatively affect our school system - new teachers will not be inclined to share the latest theories on teaching with those who have been teaching for many years, and the experienced teachers will keep their wisdom to themselves rather than helping young teachers grow.  And who will suffer the most? Students, because in a performance-based pay system, other people's failure is my success, and "other people" ultimately means students who are in someone else's class.

I do think our education system needs work.  I think there are things we can do to help fix it, but I don't think this is the way to do it.  I'm not convinced that legislators understand how teaching actually works or how children actually learn.  I think the best ideas for improving our school system need to come from the people who know best - from the people who are actually teaching.

Friday, April 18, 2014

I Want to Be Like Mary Magdalene #StoriesofEaster

Mary Magdalene occupies an odd place in Christendom.  Tradition identifies her as the woman of unsavory reputation who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.  She’s also been labeled an adulterer and a prostitute, a woman of low character, an outcast among her peers and even among Jesus’ own followers.  She has become the embodiment of the “sinful” woman.  None of this comes from the Bible, but for some reason, she’s acquired a less than saintly reputation.  When little girls in Sunday school say they want to be like one of the women of the Bible, she probably isn’t named too often.

Well, I want to be like Mary Magdalene.

 What do we really know about this woman?  We know she was from Magdala (a town near the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus called his first disciples), and that she followed Jesus to Jerusalem, along with many other women.  We know that Jesus cast seven demons out of her.  We know she watched Jesus die, that she witnessed his burial, and that she was among the first both to hear the news of his resurrection and to see him alive.  Beyond that, the Bible doesn’t talk about her.  Luke is the only writer who even mentions her name before the crucifixion.  In literary terms, she seems like an afterthought.  The two other Marys in the gospels – Jesus’ mother and the sister of Martha and Lazarus – get a lot more character development.  It seems odd that she’s the one to whom Jesus first revealed himself after he rose from the dead.

Actually, we do know a little more about Mary than just what I listed above.  Though she’s rarely mentioned, three things in the gospel accounts stand out about her.  First, she not only followed Jesus, but ministered to him.  That implies she spent time with Jesus in a personal setting, probably when he was hungry and tired.  Secondly, she went to the Eleven immediately after seeing Jesus alive.  That she knew where to find them when they were hiding out for two days means that either she had been hiding with them, or she was at least close enough to the group to be privy to their secrets.   Third, she called him “Rabboni.”  The Hebrew word “rabbi” means “teacher” or “master”; it designates position, like saying “Professor So-and-so.”  “Rabboni” means “my great master”; it is a term of the highest respect, used of second-generation disciples to refer to their teacher.  It’s personal, familiar.

I look at all that and I realize that Mary wasn’t a groupie; she was a member of the band.  She listened to the sermons, observed the miraculous signs, and even, perhaps, was present during the Last Supper.  In short, she basically lived the same life of discipleship the Twelve did – leaving behind whatever home and family she had to follow the Teacher, her Teacher.

When Jesus was arrested, everyone with him fled.  Peter followed at a safe distance for a while, buts at the crucifixion we see only John and some of the women – Mary among them.  The other disciples were hiding from the Jews lest they also be arrested and put to death – and I can’t really blame them for that.  But Mary didn’t hide.  She didn’t care who knew she was a follower of Jesus, or what it would cost her.  And when the rest of the disciples continued to hide over the next few days, she and a handful of other women ventured out to anoint Jesus’ body.  They had to know it was risky to approach the guarded tomb of an enemy of their religion’s leaders, but they went anyway.

I want to be like Mary Magdalene.

Peter was the guy who never hesitated to make bold declarations of loyalty and faith.  James and John were hoping for power and authority.  Thomas was the guy who asked questions, always trying to figure things out.  Meanwhile, there was Mary, working quietly in the background.  If she said anything profound or provocative or probing, we don’t know it, probably because nobody paid attention.  By all accounts, she just wasn’t important.  She’s not counted among the disciples or even named among the crowds.  We don’t even get to read the story of her exorcism.

All Jesus’ disciples gave up everything they had to follow him.  In return twelve of them (the Eleven plus Matthias) are remembered as saints, as men of legendary faith and tremendous miraculous power.  Mary Magdalene is remembered as a slut (a reputation she may not have even earned).  And she had the audacity to call Jesus “Rabboni,” a title we only see twice in all Scripture.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” [. . .]

 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”  At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

(John 20:1-2, 11-18 NIV)

Every time I read this passage, I have to stop when I read of Jesus calling Mary’s name.  Somehow, that one word transports me back in time and it’s like I’m there in Mary’s place.  I can hear the depth and richness of Jesus’ voice, the gentleness and yet the power as he says the word that cuts straight to her heart.  I can feel how her heart must have swelled, the tears that sprang to her eyes, as realization dawned and she turned to fix her eyes on the face she thought she’d never see again.  “Rabboni!” my heart cries with her.

I want to be like Mary Magdalene because she was the first to see Jesus alive, the first to know the true joy and power of the gospel, the first human to share the news of the resurrection.  I want to be like Mary because she called Jesus her Great Master, boldly claiming the role of a disciple although Jesus’ own followers never acknowledged her as such.  I want to be like Mary because she wasn’t afraid to be seen with Jesus when nearly everyone else was. But most of all, I want to be like Mary because Jesus called her by name, and she recognized him – and seeing him for the first time, she ran to him, clung to him, so much that he had to tell her to let go.  I want to be like Mary because she loved Jesus more than anything else in the world – more than home, more than power, more than security, more than decency.  Reading her story ignites in me a longing to see Jesus as she did, to know him as she did, to hear him call my name and run to him with reckless abandon.

Several years ago I wrote a poem that came out of a prayer and some jumbled thoughts about Easter.  A good friend of mine, Gregg Hart, put the poem to music, and a very talented singer, Aleena Korell, recorded it with him a few years after that.  I think it ties into this blog pretty well as it mentions Mary, so if you want you can listen to it here.  I think it sums up my thoughts on the matter.

I wish everyone a Happy Easter.  Christ has died – Christ is risen – Christ will come again!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Modesty in Tights: A Dancer's Perspective on Modesty Culture

This essay was originally posted on my husband's old blog.  I'm reposting it here because one of my friends asked for it and my husband has since deleted the blog where it was located.  So for what it's worth (slightly updated, and with pictures for visual aids) . . .

Modesty in Tights: A Dancer's Perspective on Modesty Culture

audition shot (high school); photo by Julie Waites

The issue of modesty has recently filled the blogosphere (well, the religious part of it anyway), especially as part of the rising movement against what we now call “modesty culture” and “rape culture.”  Up till now I’ve mostly stayed out of the debate – for some reason, participation in stuff that’s popular is repellent to me – but my husband pointed out that I have a relatively unique perspective on the issue, and as such, I may be able to contribute something fresh to the bowl.

You see, I’m a dancer.

More specifically, I’m classically trained in ballet with a general background in modern dance as well (largely Graham and Graham-based techniques, but not exclusively so).  I have a BFA in dance with an emphasis in ballet performance from an NASD-accredited university; I currently teach ballet, and I am a member of a contemporary dance company.  Oh, and my alma mater is a strongly Christian college, complete with a dance ministry ensemble and a missions-based mime squad; the studio where I teach is competition based (jazz, clogging, and contemporary); and I’m occasionally invited to dance in church and church-related events.  So I’ve got a foot in just about every corner of the dance world.  My professional wardrobe consists of leotards and tights (and more recently, sports bras and bike shorts).
senior action shot (college)

As for my Christian pedigree, I grew up in a traditionally conservative, fundamentalist home.  My family’s church is CMA (theologically similar to Baptist but believing in all the gifts of the Holy Spirit and emphasizing missions).  I was in AWANA from the time I was three until the program fizzled out in my late teens, and I even went to AWANA camp five summers in a row.  I attended a Baptist-based Christian school for 11 years, followed by the aforementioned Christian college that is loosely tied to the Presbyterian Church of America.  Needless to say, I’m familiar with “modesty culture.”

Neither my church nor my parents were particularly vocal about modesty.  They didn’t have to be, because my school had a very specific dress code.  In fact, my mom often expressed frustration with the restrictive rules about skirt and shorts length (because you couldn’t find any long enough in stores at the time).  I didn’t think much about the moral implications of a dress code until I was in junior high.  That’s when both AWANA camp counselors and teachers at my school started talking to us girls about the importance of modesty.  I was taught, in no uncertain terms, that if I wore a fitted shirt, every guy who saw me would lust after me.  Men are wired visually, we were told.  That’s the way God made them.  If you show off your body, they’re going to look at you the wrong way.  It’s our job as Christian women to protect our brothers.

But then I went to ballet, where I wore outfits far more revealing than anything one would wear to school.  Black leotard, pink tights – that’s it.  No bra, no underwear.  And the guys in my classes, most of whom were in fact straight, didn’t seem to notice a thing – not even in partnering class, which involved a lot of touching and a lot of sweat.  Not one guy I danced with ever made a suggestive comment to me or did anything inappropriate.  We were there to work on our technique, and that’s what we did (don’t get me wrong, we had fun in class too – there was just never anything sexual about it).  Maybe that’s really where the stereotype that all male dancers are gay came from – because dancers have been wearing leotards for decades, and as far as I know, no one has ever been raped for it.
Excerpt from La Bayadère Act 3 (college)
A Christian message board I once frequented had a discussion about modesty (this was before modesty discussions were cool).  I stated, as I had been taught to believe, that girls had a responsibility to dress in a way that didn’t tempt men, etc.  I also said I thought men had a responsibility not to look at girls that way, no matter how they were dressed.  Boy, did that last part get a lot of feedback!  I was told that I didn’t emphasize the woman’s obligation strongly enough, that my putting so much of the responsibility on men was unreasonable (maybe even morally irresponsible).  I was confused, because I’d always seen the issue as 50/50 – I do my part, you do yours.  But there on that message board, I was given the strong impression that I was mostly, if not solely, responsible for how men looked at me.  Later on in the discussion, a few guys pointed out that dressing modestly was no guarantee against lust.  One of my friends said that a woman could be wearing a burlap sack, and men could still mentally undress her if they wanted to.  I was shocked – and increasingly frustrated – to discover that my dressing modestly apparently didn’t even do any good.  If a guy wanted to lust after me, he just would.  So not only was I responsible for my beloved Christian brothers’ sin, there was also nothing I could do to prevent it.

And again, I went to dance class, where by all appearances (let’s just say the male dress code in ballet is also revealing), the guys could look at me, stand next to me, even pick me up by the waist or grab me around the thigh, and not have a sexual reaction.  The guys I danced with in college were Christians, but the ones I danced with before that were not.  And yet it seemed they were better men than the Christians who apparently couldn’t help seeing my body as a sexual object, no matter what I did with it.  That, or men really can develop the self-discipline to turn off the part of their brains that thinks about sex all the time – they’re just not trained to do so (not in Christian circles anyway), because they’ve been taught that it’s the woman’s job to make sure they don’t lust – they’re told they can’t help it.

"Why Not?" choreographed by Laura Morton (college)

Jesus had a few words to say on the issue of lust.  A lot of people coming from the “modest culture” perspective quote, “If a man looks at a woman lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” and pointing to the word “with,” argue that the woman is consciously participating in the man’s mental adultery, and that therefore dressing immodestly is deliberately inviting extramarital sex.  They don’t usually continue on to Jesus’ next words, which are also about lust: “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  Jesus didn’t say, “If a woman causes you to sin,” or “If your right eye and a woman cause you to sin,” or even “If your right eye causes you to sin, it’s really the woman’s fault so blame her.”  He essentially said, to use the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship, “DON’T LOOK.”  Just because you’re tempted to do or think or say something, doesn’t mean you have to do it.  Every person is ultimately responsible for their own actions.  Adam blamed Eve for his sin, and we all know how well that worked for him.

I’m not saying women should walk around in leotards all the time, or that it doesn’t matter how we dress.  I want to make the argument that unless you really are purposely trying to sell your body (literally or metaphorically), modesty isn’t an issue of morality, but of propriety.

Clothing exists mostly because humans are not perfectly adapted to certain climates.  We put on however many layers are necessary to keep warm, or keep protected from the sun, or what have you.  Therefore, cultures develop a sense of propriety in dress based largely on the climate in which they live, and secondarily on other factors such as the economy, formal versus casual occasions, practicality, status, and so forth.  The problem is when we ascribe objective moral value to those customs, or when we elevate any one culture’s paradigm above the others as morally superior (which do we choose?), or when we pick one culture’s standards of propriety and try to make it universal (what about the people who lived before that standard was set up?).  Conservative Christian culture tends to elevate the social customs of upper-middle class America in the 1950s, but that’s just one culture’s short-lived aesthetic.  Poodle skirts would have been scandalous to pre-Depression Westerners, and the only reason women stopped wearing pantyhose was because the material was rationed during World War 2.  Ballet dancers developed the uniform of leotard and tights out of a necessity to see the muscles of the body, especially of the hips and legs, in order to perfect their technique.  The tutu was invented as a short dress that showed off that technique on stage.  Among students it has the additional implication of high status because usually only the most advanced students perform in them.

"Why Not?" choreographed by Laura Morton (college)

The Bible does occasionally talk about modesty, but never in the context of lust or causing men to stumble.  On the contrary, the apostles’ directions against certain hairstyles and accessories indicate that what they were really telling women was not to be ostentatious – that is, not to flaunt their wealth.  It’s not that braided hair or gold jewelry is inherently immoral, or that by extension anything fancy is bad; it’s just that in that culture, those things were considered too flashy, meretricious even (like wearing an opera dress to church or real jewels to a barbecue).  Propriety, or what is socially acceptable in a given situation, is the key factor.  It’s okay to wear a bathing suit at the beach; it’s not okay to wear one at work.  You can wear sweatpants to the grocery store (although What Not to Wear may ambush you for doing so), but in dance class you had better wear tights.  It’s not that any of these articles of clothing is inherently bad, it’s just that society has deemed them appropriate in certain settings and inappropriate in others.  In another twenty or fifty years, what is appropriate or inappropriate may be completely different from what it is now as our world changes.  Whatever the culture looks like, propriety means staying within the acceptable parameters for that specific culture and situation.

Finally, I think the only reason modesty is such a big issue is because our culture is so hyper-sexualized.  Whether people advocate having as much casual sex as possible or strongly forbid it in any context outside marriage, people are just obsessed with sex.  I think we could take a lesson from the men I danced with and just stop making everything about that.  Like my friends who realized dance class was about far more than what we were wearing, let’s focus on what we’re supposed to be doing here and act accordingly.

senior picture (high school); photo by Julie Waites