21 February 2011

Fee-for-Service Teaching

With the events in here in Madison over the past week, there has been much to discuss and watch. (And we all know how easily distracted I am….)

First there was Governor Scott Walker’s Budget Repair Bill and its combined proposals to increase state employees’ contributions to healthcare and retirements and benefits, remove some employees’ benefit eligibility entirely, and drastically curtail collective bargaining rights. This, in case you haven’t been watching, has resulted in large-scale protests, all-night committee hearings, and an Illinois-bound exodus of democratic State Senators. Next, information merged showing that the Chancellor of UW-Madison, Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, and the Governor’s office have circumvented the UW System President and Regents to hatch a backroom plan that splits the state’s largest campus from the other campuses.

Regardless of how these issues play out, they have come to the fore this week for one simple reason. The current administration is using the dubious, but politically expedient, practice of nesting major policy changes and political agendas inside budget proposals. To put it simply, in the current economic and budgetary climate, many people are concerned with price tags before policy; and combining political agendas with budget legislation is an easy way to give the impression that it’s just about the money. A-a-and, it’s working.

However – believe it or not – I don’t really want to talk about budgets. I am more concerned about the issues that our budget debates tend to overlook.

In one of the less venomous comments posted to an online news story about the budget/labor law and the teachers who oppose it, one reader offered what I’m sure he felt was a genuinely meaningful response. Teachers are sellers of a service and the state is the buyer of that service. And, as he saw it, the buyer in this case is not willing to pay the price that the sellers are demanding. End of proverbial story.

Is it, though?

Question: When we talk about teachers providing a service, what does that mean? What does teaching actually entail? What are our tax dollars really paying for?

Answer: Teachers are people who possess information. Students need that information. Teachers, therefore, are hired to convey that information.


Yeah, except… not really.

The problem with this vision of teaching – that a person who knows something can simply be hired to teach it – ignores some significant variables. Teaching and learning are not only a matter of imparting and receiving information. A qualified and effective educator needs to be able to share information, its intricacies, and its relevance to learners. An educator is responsible for helping students learn the facts and turn those facts into understanding. Anyone who has sat through an interminable staff meeting or professional development seminar with an informed but horrendously ineffective presenter knows that being knowledgeable is one thing and the ability to teach what you know is another. In education research, we call this extra component pedagogical content knowledge. This, in the end, is what seems to be missing from fee-for-service view of teaching and our political, bottom-line debates about the cost of public education.

Consider another major intersection of politics and education: science. Our political, economic, and educational leaders like to put their weight behind the power of science and technology. There is, almost daily, a call for our schools and universities to produce more scientists and engineers. This has given rise to the term STEM education. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math; and it would be difficult (downright stupid, in fact) to deny the importance and centrality of these disciplines in our society and economy. But STEM education is particularly vulnerable to an incomplete, just-the-facts view of teaching and it’s worth asking, What sort of STEM education do we want?

Is it sufficient to focus our attention on preparing a highly skilled population of university, government, and industry researchers; or is there a need to bring greater STEM awareness to American citizenry in general? What level of STEM understanding does modern life require? How can we meaningfully promote that understanding? What are the respective roles of primary, secondary, and higher education in this endeavor? Who will be doing the teaching and what, exactly, do we expect from them?

Somewhere between the political theater and actual governing, these are the kinds of substantive questions that desperately need our attention.

Economics and government finances are not my forte. I simply do not have the expertise, attention span, or fortitude necessary to scrutinize and refute or defend thousands of pages of government funding schemes. However, today’s fiscal discussions are an invaluable opportunity to explore important issues. So, I’m going to stick with these issues. You know… all that “other” stuff that online commenters (and Governors) generally neglect to mention.

What does STEM education mean to you? What do we need in order to achieve the bigger, better outcomes everyone seems to want?

Image: Sketch of Unknown Woman and Children, Probably a Teacher and Pupils, by Louisa Anne, Marchioness of Waterford

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