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Building Relational Trust

"Making Lessons Sizzle"

Marsha Ratzel: Taking My Students on a Classroom Tour

Marsha Ratzel on Teaching Math

David Ginsburg: Coach G's Teaching Tips

The Great Fire Wall of China

As my regular readers know, I am writing from China these days, and have been doing so four years so far. Sometimes the blog becomes inaccessible to me, making it impossible to post regularly. In fact, starting in late September 2014, China began interfering with many Google-owned entities of which Blogspot is one. If the blog seems to go dark for a while, please know I will be back as soon as I can get in again. I am sometimes blocked for many weeks at a time. I hope to have a new post up soon if I can gain access. Thank you for your understanding and loyalty.

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Monday, December 19, 2011

Illegal Immigrants Pay Taxes--Who Knew

At least the EdWeek article alludes to a fact many Americans consider unthinkable. Many, many illegal immigrants pay taxes. Furthermore, they pay at higher rates than citizens or legal immigrants. Because of Social Security and Medicare withholding, they pay a flat tax of 7.5%, taken right off the top. Even if they end up at the lowest 10% bracket, they are paying a full 17%. In addition, because they do not have valid Social Security numbers, they do not qualify for tax credits citizens take for granted.

They will never be able to claim Social Security or Medicare benefits because they do not have Social Security cards. “Estimates for 2010 are that ITIN tax filers paid $9 billion in payroll taxes to support Social Security and Medicare, according to NCLR.” Say 'thank you” to illegal immigrants who contribute so much to the rest of us.

Illegal immigrants have never been eligible for the refundable Child Tax Credit on the same basis as the rest us. Their credit is limited by the amount Social Security and Medicare withholding. Presuming they have three qualifying children, someone making $30,000 as cited in the article would not be eligible for the full $3000, but only for $2250 (7.5% of $30,000). Problem is, although they may have children, their non-citizen children do not qualify them for the Child Tax Credit. The payroll tax cut reduces their Child Tax Credit because it reduces Social Security and Medicare withholding. Instead of $2250, this past year the maximum Child Tax Credit for a family making $30,000 with three qualifying children was $1650. Extending the payroll tax cut means this is the second year the potential Child Tax Credit for those filing with ITINS will be reduced.

Illegal immigrants also completely lose the Earned Income Credit, again effectively raising the amount of tax they pay relative to citizens and legal immigrants. At the 10% tax bracket illegal many immigrants pay what is effectively a 17.5% flat tax, higher than Warren Buffet and his secretary.

The article conflates legal and illegal immigrants. It also conflates Child Tax Credit with Child Care Credit, a completely different credit unlinked to Social Security and Medicare Withholding. Again, many ITIN filers, even though they have children, may not qualify for the Child Care Credit.

Furthermore, while it is true that every illegal immigrant will use an ITIN to file a tax return, it is definitely not true that every taxpayer using an ITIN is illegal.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

It's the Poverty, Stupid: Part 2

This is the second part of a two part series. The first part discusses poverty in general, especially as it applies to the Occupy Movement. The second part relates poverty to the link between academic achievement and the economy.

Let me say this very clearly. The 1% are pretty much irrelevant to the education of (most of) the 99%. There is a motivating myth in our society that hard work will pay off financially. True to human nature, people cannot seem to resist putting everything in pendulum-swinging, either-or terms. Get an education and get rich. Forego an education and be poor. As if 1% of the population is rich and the full 99% are not. The Occupy movement got the Gallup people to wondering, so they melded 61 surveys to come up with a demographic comparison of the 1% and the 99%. What they found is startling.

The official top 1% of American households in 2010 includes those with incomes of at least $516,633, according to data from the Tax Policy Center as reported in The Washington Post.

Unsurprisingly, 49% of the 1% have postgraduate degrees, compared with 16% of the 99%. We have all heard critics of the Occupy activists say that if they stopped occupying and worked as hard as the 1%, they too might have a chance at becoming the 1% (a mathematical impossibility, given the nature of percentages, but never mind).

This is not to say that college degrees guarantee vast wealth. To the contrary, only a small fraction of all Americans who report having a postgraduate education (1.5%) or an undergraduate degree but no postgraduate education (0.8%) fall into the top 1% category. However, the comparable rates are many times smaller -- no greater than 0.3% -- at all other educational levels.

Let's get this straight. Although nearly half of the 1% have postgraduate degrees, only 1.5% of postgraduate degree holders are members of the 1%. In other words, the 1% did not get there by virtue of their education; they were born into the 1%.

Maybe we should look at the median knowing full well that raising the median income will also move the median. There will always be an amount that 50% fall above and 50% fall below. The 2010 median income in the US is $49,445. Instead of obsessing on statistics, we should focus ensuring that all students have a fair shot at reaching their potential. Fact is, poverty dramatically reduces those chances. Fact is, Dad's socioeconomic status is the major predictor of children's socioeconomic attainment. Fact is, worthless either-or polarities aside, education is still the best route out of poverty.

More generally, college education is strongly correlated with household income. Nine percent of Americans earning less than $20,000 per year are college graduates; this rises to majorities of adults in all income groups above $100,000. Similarly, few adults in low-income households have postgraduate education, and this rises only into the teens among middle-income adults. But it sharply increases among those earning $100,000 or more, peaking at 49% among those earning between $250,000 and $499,000, and those earning at least half a million.

What the rich do for their children is put them on a different “trajectory” of wealth.

some high poverty schools that were also high performing. These schools were able to lift student achievement, close gaps, and set their students on a trajectory of success.

The different trajectory includes different frames of reference, work approaches and loci of focus. Rich kids “inherit” a different ability to compete and different access to opportunity. Even the family junk mail is different. We could begin by funding all schools equally, ignoring the protests of those who say they do not want their tax money paying for other children, or those who hesitate to donate if they cannot designate which school receives the donation.

In the United States, we actually fund poor schools less than other schools. The highest performing countries do the opposite. More than that, the highest performing countries have less poverty because they invest in infrastructure designed to expand the middle class. In the United States, we are killing the middle class, and our student achievement will pay a dear price.

We could stop pointing to achievement outliers as feasible role models. Just because Abe Lincoln did it does not mean everyone can (and the corollary: it's your own darn fault if you don't). Every field has outliers. Not every highly talented cellist can be Yo-Yo Ma. Not every great tenor can be Pavorotti. Not every terrific actor can be Meryl Streep. Not every highly skilled computer geek can be Steve Jobs. Most of us do not realistically have a chance at being the 10%, never mind the 1%. If you make more than $138,000, you already make more than 90% of the population. $138,000 puts you in the top10%.

In my experience, success at high poverty and high performing schools is not based on merit pay, high stakes testing, vouchers, bureaucratic personnel evaluations systems, alternative certification, or any other glitzy idea that politicians seem to embrace so easily.

In fact, what American education needs most of all is a blessing high performing schools enjoy on an individual basis, a blessing high performing education systems take as a societal given, relational trust. Another disturbing fact: too many powerful stakeholders in our society are well-satisfied with the education status quo for their own self-interested reasons.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

It's the Poverty, Stupid: Part 1

This is the first part of a two part series. The first part discusses poverty in general, especially as it applies to the Occupy Movement. The second part relates poverty to the link between academic achievement and the economy.

Tracking the stories we tell each other can reveal societal and cultural priorities. When the middle class was big, strong and vibrant, preachers claimed that when God promised His people abundant life, he meant believers would be healthy and wealthy in today's world. Now that income inequities have never been greater, churchgoers do not hear the “prosperity” gospel so much.

On another front, the US Census Bureau recently modified the determination of poverty levels. However, as Aaron Task points out, media avoids covering the rising rates of poverty in America.

Rising poverty is a national tragedy and a brewing humanitarian crisis in America...Most groups saw their poverty rates increase using the new calculations, including married couples, whites, Asians, immigrants, homeowners with mortgages, those with private health insurance and the elderly...I didn't hear one word about this during the Republican Debate on Wednesday and you probably didn't hear much about it either...I'd like to take the rest of the so-called serious media to task for burying this story.

I get that poverty is a depressing topic and a change to how it's measured is a complicated story to tell. But I've never had a viewer tell me they want LESS depth or more 'infotainment.'

More than ever Americans want news organizations to focus on the hard stuff...instead of the salacious (Victoria Secret's runway show), the sensational (Sharon Bialek's press conference), the sophomoric (Rick Perry's 'oops' gaffe) and the ridiculous (anything about the Kardashians) developments that pass as "news" in our society.
Blaming the media is easier on the collective ego than each member of the 99% taking personal responsibility for their contribution to the problem. Media companies sell what they perceive consumers want to buy.
Bashing the press is great fun. But the fault, dear Brutus, is not entirely in our media stars or their corporate's important for all of us to be aware of the messages we're sending to the media in the stories we watch, share, favorite and Tweet about.

Same with the Occupy Movement. The 1% did not cause the Great Recession all by themselves. Corporations had a lot of help from greedy members of the 99%. After all, the income line between 2% and 98% is merely $250,000. Remember median income means 50% make more and 50% make less. One reason for the backlash from the so-called 53% is that some of them are (or were) your next-door neighbors and their enablers such as real estate agents, financial advisers (read: salesmen), mortgage sellers, landlords, property managers, employers, et al, who take their cut and move on, leaving economic ticking time bombs in their wake. For example, in 2003 did any real estate agent tell prospective buyers NOT to buy because houses were so overpriced relative to the underlying demographic? No, like Pavlov's dogs, they drooled over the mere thought of those juicy commissions.

Remember what your mother said. When you point a finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at you. The story is told that Lord Chesterfield famously entered a contest to write the shortest possible essay identifying the biggest problem in the world. His response? “I am.” Members of the 99% who are actually serious must first look to themselves. For example, landlords need to charge fair rent relative to the typical income of tenants, instead of what the market will bear. Tenants need to take good care of other people's property. One-sided contracts must be rejected in favor of contracts that promote mutual benefit of both parties.

Wherever economic injustice is occurring, the 99% must make their power of their mass felt. For example, close bank accounts with exorbitant fees. Actually, banks should not be charging maintenance fees at all. The depositors own the capital that banks use to make money. For the privilege of use, banks should pay a fair rent, called “interest.” This interest needs to be equal to at least the rate of inflation in order to prevent erosion of value and buying power. If depositors lock up their money in a CD, then the interest rate should be greater than the rate of inflation, increasing with the term length.

Reject the bank manager's insistence that interest rates need to be near zero because the bank is a profit-making business. Paying fair rent for use of someone else's property is a cost of doing business. We know what would happen if a store owner told his commercial landlord he was no longer going to pay rent in order to make a profit. We have recently learned the power of consumers in mass when banks canceled their plans to charge monthly debit card fees. What was the consumers main argument? “It should not cost me money to use my own money.” Same goes for maintenance fees and interest rates.

Refuse to rent from landlords and property managers who charge rent in excess of the HUD zip-code-based fair market rates. Report poor landlords and their properties to your city. If you are justifiably afraid to do so, go to your local Occupy Movement and find out if someone there can collect a group of anonymous reports from present or former tenants to present to the city hall.
If you need a financial adviser, seek out the rare one who not a salesman. This is hard because certification is less about learning to be a competent adviser and more about getting a license to sell financial products. A clue: an ethical financial adviser will not try to sell you what you do not need, like stocks when you have an insufficient emergency fund.

“One critique of the protest is it lacks a unified message or mission. Indeed, in my reporting I found evidence of people supporting any number of issues, including:

* Higher Taxes on the Wealthy
* Prosecution of Financial Fraud
* Anti-Fracking and other "Green" issues
* Mortgage Modifications
* Campaign Finance Reform
* Anti-War
* Universal Healthcare
* Student Loan Forgiveness and, of course,
* Jobs, Jobs Jobs

So, sure, maybe the Occupy Wall Street movement is a bit unclear in its views and lacks leadership. But to those who mock the protesters, I have to ask: What exactly is it that you're defending? Crony capitalism? Bank bailouts? Rising income inequality and the slow death of the American dream?

March if you want. Sit on the grass if you want. In the meantime, take concrete steps aimed at encouraging the rest of the 99% to resist exploitative, zero-sum type capitalism in favor of fairness. Do not let anyone suggest that fairness is synonymous with entitlement or that other favorite emotional button, socialism. It is not. The 1% are not the only ones who keep the profits but pass on the losses. Many members of the 99% either do the same thing, or would if they could. The 1% do it so spectacularly.

I mean, what do you make of Santa Barbara's Occu-Pirate$?
The Occupy Santa Barbara protests on Saturday brought out the “Occu-Pirate$” to represent the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent of the people. Dressed as pirates, they wore signs and shouted slogans, including “Money Is Power,” “Profit Is King,” “All Hail the Mighty Dollar” and “Pirate$ for Corporate Personhood.” When the Occupy group marched up State Street, most of the crowd chanted, “We are the 99 percent!” while the Occu-Pirate$ chanted, “We are the 1 percent!”

Personally, when I came back from a long sojourn overseas quite a while ago, I was appalled at what had happened to America while I was gone. I felt like Rip Van Winkle as I took steps to re-establish myself, opening bank accounts, buying health insurance, etc. I said at the time that I wondered why Americans were not marching in the streets. A friend recently told me that I have gotten my wish. One reason for the long apathy might be the lack of financial education in our schools. It is a common canard that a democracy requires educated citizens. That education must comprise both civics and finance. Finance is not yet another curricular add-on for an already overly burdened education system; it is an absolute necessity for our students' adult lives.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Omnipresent Poverty and US Competitive Advantage

Using test-scores to hold teachers accountable for student education variables not under teacher control is clearly wrong-headed, but for some reason, it makes illogical sense to many education policy-makers. Similarly, using test-scores from international comparisons to hold teachers responsible for the nation's economic health makes even less sense. There are just too many variables outside teacher control.

“Although we cannot predict future economic trends, we do know that test-score rankings are a poor basis upon which to understand these trends or to know what to do about them. The reason is clear: Other variables, such as outsourcing to gain access to lower-wage employees, the climate and incentives for innovation, tax rates, health-care and retirement costs, the extent of government subsidies or partnerships, protectionism, intellectual-property enforcement, natural resources, and exchange rates overwhelm mathematics and science scores in predicting economic competitiveness...

“It is specifically the low-income populations... that are at the most severe disadvantage in competing for jobs in a global economy.”

For example, the children of a local county supervisor did not have to go looking for high school jobs. The shakers and movers CALLED HIM to offer his children great jobs. Nevertheless, "the adverse effects of poverty and concentrations of poverty in schools (affects) student performance in all countries." Even so, if international comparisons favored the US, we would be crowing, not attempting to explain them away.

First, our rhetoric has assumed that test-score rankings are linked to a country’s economic competitiveness, yet the data for industrialized countries consistently show this assumption to be unwarranted. For example, the World Economic Forum’s 2010-2011 global-competitiveness report
ranks the United States fourth, exceeded only by Switzerland, Sweden, and Singapore. Many of the countries that ranked high on test scores rank lower than the United States on competitiveness—for example, South Korea, No. 22, and Finland, No. 7.

The same report shows that the US has actually lost two places in the last year, dropping from No. 2 to No. 4, while Sweden, Germany, Japan and the Netherlands, all in the top ten have each gained two places. What we need to remember is that test-score rankings may be a leading indicator, that is, the significance of the rankings is that they may foreshadow future competitiveness (or lack thereof). The sheer size of the US economy may guarantee its competitiveness, at least in the near term.

Many observers worry about the future competitiveness of the U.S. The reason may be the increasing poverty of US students at a time when US income inequities are increasing at alarming rates.

The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent. Their lot in life has improved considerably. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent. One response might be to celebrate the ingenuity and drive that brought good fortune to these people, and to contend that a rising tide lifts all boats. That response would be misguided. While the top 1 percent have seen their incomes rise 18 percent over the past decade, those in the middle have actually seen their incomes fall...Economists long ago tried to justify the vast inequalities that seemed so troubling in the mid-19th century—inequalities that are but a pale shadow of what we are seeing in America today.

My local newspaper just reported that 50% more people fell below the poverty line this year. Poverty, especially chronic poverty, limits opportunity in ways the public does not fully understand. As a simple illustration, even junk mail is different. The poor get credit card offers, the rich get stock tips.

First, growing inequality is the flip side of something else: shrinking opportunity. Whenever we diminish equality of opportunity, it means that we are not using some of our most valuable assets—our people—in the most productive way possible

For example, a poor child is not going to be able to study violin to a proficiency sufficient to make a decent living. The instrument, lessons, books, sheet music, competitions, concert apparel, etc. all cost too much. Even a talented musician who works really hard to overcome the effects of poverty and persevered by his own tenaciousness may find the poverty disadvantage too overwhelming. Such an academically high achieving musician will likely be compelled to abandon music in favor of a career that will actually pay the bills, and relegate his superlative violin-playing to a “hobby.” Who knows how much talent has been lost?

America has long suffered from an under-investment in infrastructure (look at the condition of our highways and bridges, our railroads and airports), in basic research, and in education at all levels.

Schools do not lead society; they reflect society's priorities. Education is simply not a priority for US society.
“The top 1 percent may complain about the kind of government we have in America, but in truth they like it just fine: too gridlocked to re-distribute, too divided to do anything but lower taxes...But one big part of the reason we have so much inequality is that the top 1 percent want it that way.”

The same could be said for education.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Lake Wobegone Effect Plagues Parent Surveys

THEN (not so then)

A 2008 poll from Education Next and the Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) at Harvard University found that Americans are increasingly disappointed with public schools, and that by a 3 to 2 ratio believe that Democrats have a better record on education than Republicans (Q18) and are more likely to improve schools (Q19). The other, a Phi Delta Kappa (PDK)/Gallup poll, found that most Americans believe President Barack Obama (46%) would be more likely than President John McCain (29%) to improve public schools.

As with surveys in other fields, respondents rate themselves higher than others.

As other surveys have shown, the public’s evaluations become somewhat more favorable when the subject turns to the public schools in their own communities (see Figure 1)... But teachers offer the schools systematically higher grades than the rest of the public. Thirty-four percent give the schools an A or a B, while only 14 percent give them one of the two lowest grades (Q.1).

The demographic at the losing end of the achievement gap ranked the nation's schools even lower. This group also depends most on public schools.

On the whole, survey respondents offered slightly lower evaluations of the nation’s schools in 2008 than they did in 2007, and some groups posted sharp declines. Twenty-seven percent of African Americans gave the public schools an A or a B in 2007, but in 2008, that figure fell to 20 percent. Meanwhile, the share of African Americans giving schools a D or an F rose from 20 percent to 31 percent. The share of Hispanics awarding schools a similarly poor grade doubled during the period, from 16 to 32 percent.

Although public school teachers (34% A or B) graded public schools significantly higher than the general public (20% A or B), nevertheless teacher opinion implies that a full 66% of teachers believe public schools are performing below expectations. For the education system of the richest, most powerful country in the world, a C or below is simply unacceptable.

40% of teachers gave schools nationally an A or B grade, but 61% gave their local schools an A or B grade. It seems obvious that teachers are essential to school reform, but if all politics is local, and by extension, all education reform is local, education reform must overcome teacher satisfaction and consequent inertia first.

Perhaps surprisingly, given union activism on the issue, somewhat more public school teachers (47%) favor the formation of charter schools (Q11) than the general public (42%). On the other hand, twice as many public school teachers (33%) oppose charter school compared to the general public (16%).

The survey concluded, among other things, "...while Americans retain an abiding commitment to public education, the grades that they assign the nation’s schools are increasingly mediocre."


The 2011 Gallup/PDK poll found 69% of Americans give high grades to their local teachers.

Perhaps the most significant finding was that more than 70 percent of Americans said that they have trust and confidence in the men and women who are teaching in public schools. The percentage of Americans who would grade their local schools as A’s or B’s continues to be at an all-time high. The percentage was even higher among people under the age of 40...

69 percent of Americans would grade teachers in their communities with an A or B – higher than their principals or school boards. This confidence also exists despite the fact that most Americans said that they hear more bad stories than good stories about teachers in the news media.

As usual, people graded their community schools higher than the nation's schools (page 18 and 19). 51% gave their their own children's schools an A or B, but 81% rated the nation as a whole C or below.

In Lake Wobegone, all children are above average. Most Americans seem to think their children go to Lake Wobegone schools.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Teachers' Social Security Safety Net

Over at Justin Baeder's blog, there is a lively discussion of Social Security. I suspect I provoked some of it. Please read the original blog entry and its comments for the context of what I am about to write.

Justin says, “...but as a 30-year-old, I'd much rather just pay SS tax and never get anything back (to provide a societal safety net for others) than have additional money taken from me only to be given back later at a very poor rate of return.”

Kudos to you, Justin, if you are really fine with paying in and never getting anything back in order to provide a safety net for others. There are plenty of people who resent Social Security precisely because it is a safety net. They would rather think of it as an investment or an entitlement instead of the insurance program it was designed to be. Before the Baby Boomers came along (don't blame them, blame their parents:), the 1% premium was cheap insurance. In the 1980s, it was raised to 6.2% to save for the Baby Boomers. It would be nice if the premium could drop back once the Baby Boomers are gone, but I do not see this happening for at least three reasons.

1. The Boomer Echo-Baby Boomers had kids, and the Echo Generation is having kids, so the population is permanently higher than without the Baby Boomers.
2. Spoiled Government-The government has gotten used to having the extra funds to borrow for General Fund expenses.
3. Longevity-People are living longer, thus needing the safety net for longer periods of time.

As far as the 12X return is concerned, please remember that one dollar is not the same as another. If I bought, for example, Netflix stock a year ago for around $150 and sold at about $200 recently, those dollars are roughly the same dollars, so the 33% gain is an accurate perception. However, if I bought GE in the early 1970's for $1.00 and sold for $55, close to GE's historic high 30 years later, it appears to be a super impressive 5400% gain. But consider what $1.00 could buy in the 1970's versus what it could buy in 2000. Here is a sample: A $0.05 ice cream cone from Thrifty cost $2.79 now, a 56x or 5480% increase. Here's another: It used to cost $0.25 to go swimming for four hours in the community pool. Now it costs $5.00, a 20x or 3100% increase. I remember these figures because I used to ride my bike to the pool every Saturday and get an ice cream cone on the way home out of my dollar a week allowance. In terms of buying power, the $1.00 of 1970 and the $55 of 2000 are roughly the same.

Consider an index fund that tracks the DOW. From the 1970's to 2000, the index fund would have posted a gain of only 14x or about $1310%. If you retire now, you have had no additional gain due to the “lost decade.” Beloved Thirty-Somethings, this could happen to you. If the index fund is your retirement, regardless of the appearance of being a multi-bagger, it did not keep up with inflation, and will only lose ground to future inflation during retirement when the typical retiree converts it to a fixed-income stream.

The 12x return on Social Security only has the illusion of being huge. The fact is the 12x increase is potentially sustainable because past dollars, present dollars and future dollars are not the same. Even so, the nominal 12x return on Social Security payments will not even pay the rent.

So Justin is partially right. Individual investors have the potential to get a return greater than that of Social Security. The question is whether individual investors can actually achieve such a return, and more importantly, keep it. Statistics say that regardless of what the historical returns of the market may be, the typical individual investor gets a 1% return. And to get that paltry return, they have to break the first rule of investing: do not put money at risk you cannot afford to flush down the toilet. Retirement savings surely qualify as money most people cannot afford to lose.

People have learned the hard way they cannot count on their 401(k) plans, not only because of market risk, but also because studies have found that most 401(k) plans are actually pretty low quality. In my mind, maybe the best thing to do is buy a house when the rent vs. buy comparison is in your favor. Even if you end up spending twice the price of the house because you took the full 30 years to pay, you would have paid a similar amount anyway as rent and have nothing to show for the rent after 30 years. At least with a house, after 30 years you have secured a roof over your head. You can keep it for only the cost of the approximately 1% property tax and homeowners insurance, reducing your total retirement expenses by at least 25%-30%. Then your Social Security benefits, if you need the safety net, can go toward other expenses---like food.

Many, many people, even after a lifetime of hard work and doing everything right, are finding themselves looking over the edge of the abyss. Dear Thirty-Somethings, this could be you. And if you are a public school teacher, there are people out there going after your so-called exorbitant pension.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Last Hired, First Fired Punishes Expert Teachers

Steve Owens has posted quite a fine article about the single salary schedule used by most districts to determine teacher salaries.

I'm afraid Mr. Owens' article leaves out some important information about how most schools actually implement their single salary schedules.

The single salary schedule rewards only teachers who stay in the same district their entire career. A teacher who moves to a new district is deemed an out-of-district teacher. IF such a teacher can even be hired ( and the more years of experience, the more unemployable), that teacher will have to take a pay cut to the level of 5 years since most districts will give credit for no more than 5 years of experience.

Pity the teacher who returns to the US after decades of experience overseas as a DODDS teacher. They are out-of-district for every district in America. They have to be willing to take a steep pay cut relative to their education (most have Masters degrees) and experience. They are bargain basement teachers, but most schools consider their extra pay too high when compared to a new graduate with no experience “because we have budget cuts, doncha know?”

Mr. Owens states, “Seniority is "last in, first out" which prevents veteran teachers from being terminated in favor of younger, cheaper workers.” Last in, first out guarantees that newly hired expert teachers will also be the first let go, in favor of younger, cheaper teachers, never mind the expert teacher is a bargain to begin with.

He also states, “A large population of career educators has stuck around, and has acquired additional training and education.” It is exactly those teachers, who instead of being rewarded, get punished by the way the single salary schedule is implemented in most districts.

Many private schools have similar single salary schedules and implement them with the same deleterious policies and effects.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Why Data Drives (Instead of Informing)

According to Justin Baeder, “Data is merely one tool at the disposal of skilled, experienced, and knowledgeable professionals.”

The crux of the matter is no one is confident that our classrooms are indeed staffed by “skilled, experienced, and knowledgeable professionals.” In fact, just the opposite. Districts routinely reject expert teachers in favor of novices, whether traditionally or alternatively certified. Even more unbelievable, it is possible for expert teachers to encounter insurmountable obstacles to certification in other states.

No wonder expert teachers end up selling insurance.

No matter how much we debate teacher accountability and the control, or lack thereof, that teachers have over the variables which affect academic achievement, it is beyond dispute that teachers have a huge impact on quality of instruction. The first thing our society needs to do is value education, not only in word, but in deed, by ascribing to teachers the highest esteem. Only then will schools of education be able to become way more selective. Then our most able students might be attracted to a career in teaching.

Right now, about half our education students are idealistic and highly able, and the other half are pragmatically looking for a job. There needs to be a lot more of the first group. Nevertheless, Mr. Baeder's points about the role of data are well-taken. Data is in the driver's seat because teachers are not.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

“Do Education Schools Give Too Many A's?”

That is the question posed by a recent EdWeek article and answered in the affirmative by a recent study out of the University of Missouri which found that students majoring in education at public universities receive “significantly higher grades” than other majors at the same universities.

Several years ago a prominent local newspaper asked for and got a massive Excel file containing the grades all professors gave for an academic year at one of the state universities. As a courtesy, the university emailed the same Excel file to all the professors, and thus I acquired a copy. No student names were divulged; grades were aggregated by class, then section, and then sorted into grade categories without cross-referencing student majors. Nevertheless, it was very clear that education grades are one to two grade points higher than other course grades. Only rarely does an education professor hand out anything but an A. The main exceptions were the “Math for Elementary Teachers” classes, taught not by members of the education department, but by mathematics faculty. Frequently, as many as 50% of the students fail this gatekeeper class on the first attempt.

In this particular state university, students must pass “Math for Elementary Teachers” in order to apply to the College of Education. I have seen students repeat the class three and four times. One student, exultant that she had finally passed, confided to me that she passed only because the professor got bogged down in multiplication and never covered fractions, decimals and percents, the topics she failed the previous times. What grade does this student aspire to teach? Fifth, the grade that is all about fractions, decimals, and percents. And what did this student propose to do to overcome her evident math weakness? “I'll figure it out when the time comes,” she said. It made me wonder how many elementary teachers are trying to figure it out in classrooms all over the country.

Fact is, if they have not figured it out before they graduate, they probably never will. Targeted intervention has been a disappointment.

At the end of the second year of implementation, the PD program did not have a statistically significant impact on teacher knowledge.
Teachers cannot teach what they themselves do not know. Even more startling, the math teachers in the study were middle school teachers, not generalists like elementary teachers. Nevertheless, what makes the study somewhat generalizable to elementary teachers is that only 23 percent of the middle school teachers in the study majored in math or a math-related subject.

I am guessing the professor stuck on multiplication faced a dilemma. He was stuck because so many class members were struggling. Does he slow down in hopes of achieving mastery, or does he press on and cover the required material even though he knows he is probably guaranteeing failure? He actually has two dilemmas. If he presses on and fails the repeaters, some of them might abandon education. But the department wants the tuition money. Slowing down is a win-win for the professor and the department. The professor artificially passes students. They give him glowing evaluations and he gets to keep his job. The department is assured of receiving tuition dollars until students so passed graduate. However, it is an eventual lose-lose for the student and later as a teacher, the teacher's students.

High education grades are a puzzlement considering that education students typically have lower SAT and GRE scores. I recall a challenging professor in my grad student days. The class was educational statistics. My classmates complained bitterly and even circulated a petition to replace the professor with someone “easier.” One classmate said with a straight face, “If we wanted to work hard, we would have majored in something besides education.” I wrote a letter to the chancellor defending the professor and angering my classmates who insisted that we needed to present a united front. The professor lost his job anyway. The university decided there was no point in keeping a professor if students refused to sign up for his class in the future because of the scuttlebutt. Need I mention that the object lesson was not lost on the rest of the education professors.

At the end of our studies, my cohort held a thesis party where we drank tea, ate cookies and passed around our theses. I was shocked at the low quality of the theses and embarrassed that all these people would get the same degree as me for a lot less work. I worked hard on my research, and the data later became the basis for a widely adopted curriculum design. I had all A's for my course work, but so did the rest of my cohort. Big deal. I felt that their degrees, acquired so easily, devalued my degree. Only later did I discover the universal low status of education degrees.

Some of my classmates have since become education professors themselves. Some critics of the Missouri study think the reason education students get higher grades is because they are taught by experienced trained educators. Not. In 2009, I did a small exploratory study examining curricula vitae of education professors. More than half listed no significant teaching experience on their curriculum vitae.

At this point in my life, I have observed three education departments either as a student or as a professor. It seems to me the grade inflation is a kind of mutual symbiosis. Both the professors and the students have an unwritten understanding: students get As, professors get glowing student evaluations.

Me, I did not get the memo. (Well, maybe I did, but I ignored it.) The first time I taught a curriculum class, I gave the students, predominantly seniors, a list of all the assignments for the class and the due date of each. The next day half the students dropped because there was too much work. They signed up for classes with a lot less work. Come time for the midterm, an open book test, most of them brought no book to class. Based on their experience in other education classes, many had not bothered to purchase it. Of those who had brought the book, it was perfectly obvious they had never opened it, even though there had been assignments that (supposedly) required at least a little bit of information from the book.

I returned their midterms with no grades. I gave a lesson on writing essays, because according to them, no one had ever explained what “compare and contrast” means, or how to defend an opinion. They believed that an opinion piece could never be downgraded because “everyone is entitled to their own opinion” and “opinions cannot be wrong.” The idea that they were being graded on how well they defended their opinion was news to them. I was accused of being unfair for not telling them my grading criteria, as if defense of opinion was not a self-evident criterion. I gave them a second chance to write their midterms, but with the additional requirement that the tests must be typed, proofread, and properly cited. I gave them a week. Most simply typed up the exact same garbage I had returned the week before. At least they corrected the spelling.

Then there was the student who missed the final exam because she went to The Price Is Right. She acted surprised when she failed the class. She went to the chair and complained that I was destroying her dream to be a teacher.

I wondered what some of the other professors were doing, and when I became a university supervisor of student teachers, I found out. My charges uniformly expressed surprise at the superior quality of my feedback after observing their lessons. They often asked why their methods classes (especially math methods) did not teach them any of this stuff. I asked them what they had done in their methods class.

“We just played with manipulatives.”

“What did you think of that?”

“We loved it. It was fun.”

“What do you think now?”

“I think we should have not given our instructor such great evaluations. S(he) didn't teach us what we needed to know.”

One education professor, who had been the state Teacher of the Year (don't start me on what a bogus award that is), thought his science methods students should complete science fair projects and display them at the upcoming science fair. The professor's idea was that teachers should be more in touch with students by completing the same assignments.

Fair enough, however the education students produced no better displays than fourth graders, and in many cases, their work was much worse. Okay fine, but did their grades reflect the quality of the work? In what was probably a tactical error on the professor's part, he had posted grades and notes on the backs of the project boards where I read them. Each and every education student got an A. Each and every student got a nice comment, like, “You will make a wonderful teacher.”

Punitive student evaluations are only one problem. The professor who does not play ball will have other serious problems. In another class of mine, eight students failed. In utter shock, they went to the department chair who took it upon herself to forge my signature on grade change forms for them. When I confronted the chair, she said the students who failed were in a scholarship program to foster higher rates of university attendance among certain populations. If they did not maintain at least C averages, they would lose their scholarships, and the department would lose their tuition money. Naturally, the relationship between the chair and myself was never the same.

As another EdWeek article points out, “It is common knowledge that graduates of university-based teacher education programs find their student-teaching experiences more valuable than their other coursework.” Perhaps if the course work were more relevant, practical and rigorous, education students might feel they had gotten their money's worth, and our schools would have true professionals for whom administrators would not feel the need to buy scripted curriculum.

Do Education Schools Give Too Many A's? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

Friday, June 24, 2011

These Wings Don't Fly

“Some people see the glass half full. Others see it half empty. I see a glass that’s twice as big as it needs to be.” ~ George Carlin

The pervasive either-or dichotomy syndrome debilitates constructive debate in nearly every arena of societal concern. Like Dr. Dolittle's push-me-pull-me, framing issues as a choice of only either this or that halts progress and hampers solution making. Education is no exception.
Either-or dichotomies are a convenient rhetorical device. Present one choice in positive language, the other in negative language, and let human emotion take over. Very few issues can be analyzed as simple either-or options, least of all, an issue as complex as education with its more than a score of stakeholders, each with their own competing interests.

The main problem with the either/or dichotomy syndrome is that it prevents people from considering alternatives. It pushes otherwise moderate people into wings: right/left, whole language/phonics, vouchers/traditional funding, and so many more. Often alternatives do not even occur to people standing fully in the wings. “Thinking outside the box” frequently means nothing more than having the ability to reject either/or frames. Once rejected, the mind is free to conceive of alternatives.

As it is, complicated issues in education are dumbed down to a "right" and a "left" side. People end up emotionally offensive or defensive. The false dichotomies serve only as diversions. Each side spends all its time depicting their side as the positive one and the opposing side as negative. Therefore, arguing about dichotomies is counterproductive. The task is not to take sides, but to reject the dichotomies themselves.

The choice is NOT between:
either pro-union or anti-union
either pro-standardized testing or anti-standardized testing
either publics schools or private schools
either pro-charter or anti-charter
either phonics or whole language
either whole class novel/basal reader or individual student choice
either direct instruction or constructivism
either individual answers or choral response
either pro-calculators or anti-calculators
either teacher-directed or student-directed
either competition or cooperation
either lecture or hands-on
either "an autonomous professional entrusted with crafting engaging but occasionally idiosyncratic lessons" or "a standardized, curriculum-centered enterprise,...our practice is in turn videotaped to evaluate our use of the prescribed methods."
either vibrant creativity or stifling rigidity
either rote memorization or googling information
either teachers as professionals or teachers as hired laborers
either complete autonomy or micromanagement
either teacher-facilitated or teacher-delivered
At the risk of being cliché, the sooner we start thinking outside box by rejecting either/or formulations, the better.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Interference, Phonics Wars and ELLs

Interference is the idea that prior learning can interfere with new learning. In linguistics, interference, also known as the negative transfer of habits, is usually implicated in the difficulty people have learning a second language. Nearly every adult student of a second language can tell stories of the intriguing ways their native language influences acquisition of the target language.

Interference may create accents. Few adults, no matter how proficient, can entirely rid their second language speech of traces of their native language. The mother tongue is so powerful. In fact, children who grow up as linguistic minorities may hear their mother tongue from no one except their mother, and yet grow up to be fully bilingual in both the minority and the majority language. Such native speakers of more than one language are everywhere in the world.

Therefore, I am not surprised to find out that Cantonese-speaking children do not rely as much on phonics to read English as children whose mother languages are English or Spanish. The intriguing (but not surprising) part of the findings is that Cantonese-speaking children rely on phonics as much as 50 percent. Clearly phonics helps them read.

During the 1980's, I conducted a study in Japan with Japanese seventh grade English language learners. I found that, without exception, I could readily attribute their English encoding errors to the Japanese phoneme encoding system. Japanese seventh graders did not simply misspell English words. They actually processed English phonemes as if they were Japanese phonemes, and then expressed English words by transcribing Japanese phonemes using English letters. Students often reported they could not hear the difference between certain Japanese and English phonemes.

At that time their English teachers did not utilize phonics in their English instruction. Even as the phonics wars were raging in America, the Japanese teachers of English had never even heard of phonics. They did teach the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to their students on the premise that it would help them learn English, but I observed that IPA was just one more set of symbols to learn. I did not see IPA helping students at all.

I further discovered that phonics instruction materials published in English-speaking countries confused students more often than they helped. Japanese text uses a mix of three writing systems, hiragana, katakana and kanji.

Hiragana expresses the sounds of Japanese using letters. Each letter stands for a syllable, not separate consonants and vowels. Katakana is also a syllabary containing a counterpart to each hiragana symbol and pronounced exactly the same as the corresponding hiragana symbol. Katakana is generally used for non-Japanese words like “makudonarudo”* (McDonalds). Kanji are Chinese characters. Japanese mixes all three writing systems together. For example, I ate a hamburger would be written watashi(in kanji) wa(in hiragana) hambaga(in katakana) wo(in hiragana) tabe(in kanji)mashita(in hiragana).

I ended up creating a phonics program designed for Japanese students, and subsequently training Japanese teachers to use the materials. Many teachers and students found the idea that you could actually sound out English words amazing. They had long thought that learning to read English must be as tedious an undertaking as learning to read the ubiquitous Chinese characters. They were thrilled to find that while they must memorize some English words, most words, probably 85 percent, follow a particular and predictable pattern. Students who learned the patterns could decode many more words than they could relying on discrete memorization alone.

At least Japanese students have the concept of sounding out words because they sound out hiragana and katakana words all the time. Mandarin Chinese has a few phonetic characters, such as the three characters that “spell” out chocolate (chao-ke-li)*, but Chinese is all about memorizing many characters. Chinese has 405 discrete syllables, but over 10,000 characters because each syllable can take on one of four tones and many, many syllables have multiple meanings, each expressed with a different character.

I believe that if Yuuko Uchikoshi, the assistant professor of education at the University of California, Davis, who conducted the study with Cantonese-speaking children, were to replicate her study with Japanese-speaking children, she may find that Japanese children rely more on decoding than the Cantonese-speaking children because they already sound out hiragana and katakana. She may also want to consider that all Chinese, whatever their native language, receive their education in Mandarin, not their native language.

The use of decoding depends on the linguistic community of the child, and appears to fall on a continuum from the phonetic systems of English and Spanish speakers, to the mixed system of the Japanese, to the almost entirely ideographic system of the Chinese.

Some people believe the lesser dependence on decoding manifested by the Cantonese-speaking children should be construed as ammunition in the phonics wars. Sadly, even though a truce was called long ago, some people still fight and see studies such as this one as recommending less phonics and more sight reading. More likely, the study supports the continued use of phonics as a reading tool without diminishing the value of sight reading as another tool.

*I have transcribed Japanese and Chinese syllables and words using English letters as an aid to non-speakers. The Japanese transcription is called "Romaji" and the Chinese transcription is called "Pinyin."

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

About Homework (with bonus lesson on area of a circle)

In the midst of extreme busyness, I left a short, hurried post nearly four weeks ago about how I recently became the temporary legal guardian of a sixth grader. Now it is spring break and I am even busier, but I have managed to carve out half an hour to write. I do not remember being so busy with the demands of a child when I was raising my own kids.

Attitudes of School Officials

Although I have teaching experience in elementary and even preschool, I spent most of my thirty-five-year career in secondary school settings. Suddenly, I have been spending a lot of time interacting with an elementary school. The classroom teacher and the school secretary do not know I am a teacher. The way they choose to interact with me is quite interesting, if somewhat condescending. I can only surmise that school people, intentionally or not, treat parents as if parents are basically ignorant. I apologize if this observation offends some. I completely understand that some parents are difficult, but it was disconcerting to have the teacher or secretary dispute with me almost from the get-go as if I knew nothing about the child.


Homework? What homework? In spite of the (shall we say) whining that kids these days are overly burdened with homework, I am just not seeing it. My ward brings very little homework home. Alfie Kohn, an educator with whom I am generally on the same page, has been crusading against homework for years. Just a few weeks ago, he sounded similar alarms, making it sound as if any and all homework is bad, bad, bad.

Funny thing I actually agree with most of his points. I absolutely detest homework as busy work. I remember when my own third-grade child came home with an assignment to write out the sevens ten times. His teacher knew that he could recite the times tables on demand, so the assignment was a complete waste of his time. In an effort to salvage some usefulness, he decided to type it in order to he could use the assignment as an excuse to practice the ten-key pad on the right side of his keyboard. His teacher gave him an “F” and scolded him for shortcutting the assignment. “You could have written it once,” she said, “and then simply copied and pasted.”

Nevertheless, homework does have a useful place, especially when used to generate fodder for idea generation during class discussion, as when the student measures the circumference, diameter and radius of ten round things. Or perhaps the student writes up a report of an experiment done in class in order to prepare to discuss the findings with the rest of the class the next day. The homework my ward brought home was generally useless, but certainly not time consuming. The teacher says she is only allowed to give 20 minutes of language arts and twenty minutes of math per day. The teacher does not even expect sixth graders to write their last name on their papers.

Homework as Practice

Normally, if a student has acquired the concept, it does not take a lot of practice to reinforce it. In my experience, homework as practice often means the student has not acquired the concept. The younger the student, the more control the teacher has over acquisition (but it must always be remembered that the teacher does not have total control). Anyway, homework as practice at the elementary level is worse than useless if the student has not acquired the underlying concept. Such students spend the twenty minutes reinforcing the wrong learning. It would also be helpful if elementary math teachers actually had what Liping Ma calls the “profound understanding of fundamental mathematics.”

Area of a Circle

My ward brought home a worksheet to practice finding the area of a circle. From her point of view, it was nothing but plug and chug. She asked me what “pi” meant. We spent a little time developing the concept of pi. Then we cut up a paper plate into pie slivers and arranged them, point up point down, into a sort of parallelogram with scalloped edges. I asked her what shape it reminded her of. Not surprisingly, she answered, “Rectangle.”

I asked her how to find the area of a rectangle. “Length times width” she replied.

“Right. So what part of the circle is the width of this rectangle?”

“The radius.”

“Right. What part of the circle is the length?”

She thought a bit and offered, “Half the circumference?”

“Exactly so. Then instead of length times width, what can we write?”

I began writing “A = r,” whereupon she shouted, “times 1/2C.”

We continued along these lines until we had written A = r X ½ X ∏ X 2 X r. Then r times r equals r squared. ½ times 2 equals 1. When she was done substituting, she had A = ∏r^2.

“Okay,” I said, “Look at your worksheet.”

To her amazement, the formula for the area of a circle was exactly what she had written. She had figured it out herself. That is the sort of success that builds genuine self-esteem. My disappointment came when I described this experience to her math teacher. He had no idea what I was talking about.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Back In Elementary School

I recently became the temporary legal guardian of an elementary child. Consequently, although I am a secondary teacher, I have been spending a lot of time interacting with an elementary school from the perspective of a parent. I plan to write about it in the near future. I want to look at the ease with which schools impose false "mandatory requirements" on parents, how students sabotage good instructional ideas like individual white boards in math class, the challenge for an upper elementary teacher who wants students to profoundly understand math but have inherited kids all over the map, just to name a few topics.

In the near future, I will be writing less on policy and offering more in the way of specific resources, such as curriculum, reviews and tips.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Real US Teacher Supply Problem

The main problem with the teacher supply is that 50% of education majors are great. They are smart, academically able, motivated for all the right reasons—just wonderful. Sure they are green, but everyone has to start at the beginning. This essay is not about them. Then there are the other 50%. Some of them may be plenty smart, but they are the antithesis of the great 50% and what is worse, motivated by all the wrong reasons.

I taught three teacher education courses: Math for Elementary Teachers, First Language Acquisition, and Early Childhood Curriculum. I taught these courses after decades of classroom teaching experience. I am not even going to discuss how hard it is for a teacher who offers nothing but experience to even land a university teaching gig, except to point out how silly it is for colleges of education to turn away experience in favor of a PhD, and how ironic that a teacher who chose to stay in the classroom is at an extreme disadvantage when it comes time to pass on their wisdom.

Aspiring teachers have lots of hoops to jump through. Significantly, none of the hoops poses much of a challenge. The hoops are proforma, doing little more than keeping the line moving forward in an orderly fashion. Everyone eventually gets on the Ferris wheel.

College Entrance Hoop

I have asked countless students why they want to be teachers. The answers they give range from heart-warming to pathetic. One said it was either teaching or the Army. Several have said it was because they flunked out of Hotel Management or Business. Many consider teaching their last viable option for employment. Furthermore, regardless of your opinion of the SAT, it is well-documented that education students tend to have lower scores than students in most other majors. Colleges of education need to become more selective. The last time I said so at a faculty meeting, the chair said that it was a great idea but the school could not afford the hit on tuition.

Education students are notoriously weak in mathematics. At one university, 95% percent of all elementary education students were unable to score 70% or better on a straightforward computation pretest of first through sixth grade math. Meanwhile, Math for Elementary Teachers students complain about how unfair of the university to make them jump through the worthless hoop of studying elementary math. “We learned all that in elementary school,” they say, “The university is wasting our time and our tuition money.” They say this even after they see their scores on the pretest.

Math for Elementary Teachers Hoop

The colleges of education are well aware of the fact that education students do not possess what Liping Ma calls “profound understanding of fundamental mathematics.” Most colleges of education require education students to take a series of elementary math courses. 50% of each section will likely fail the class. They will repeat until they pass. One student asked me to congratulate her when she passed on her third attempt. Then she confessed sheepishly, “But I passed because that professor skipped fractions and decimals.” I was aghast. “You failed fractions and decimals in my class,” I said. “What grade do you want to teach?” “Fifth grade,” she said. I was aghast again. “Fifth grade is all about fractions and decimals. What are you going to do?” “I guess I'll figure it out when the time comes,” she replied. Sadly, she is all too typical of THAT 50%.

College Graduation Hoop

Perhaps you are certain a student like her will never graduate. You would be wrong. That 50% will graduate with near 4.0 GPA in their education courses. They will have struggled to maintain a 2.0 in all their other university coursework. I know this because the university sent the local newspaper a massive spreadsheet containing a year's worth of grades, with copies to every professor.

Student Teaching Hoop

Maybe you think the 50% will wash out during their student teaching placements. They won't. The university supervisors responsible for observing and evaluating student teachers are generally non-tenured adjunct professors. They are under tremendous pressure to push the 50% on through. University supervisors who actually have halfway rigorous evaluation standards may very likely lose their jobs due to off-the-record complaints because “it just wouldn't be right to wash out students who have invested so much time and money into becoming a teacher.” Students, with rare exceptions, cannot fail. Students failure would put the school of education cash cow at risk.

Teacher Certification Hoop

Surely, the 50% will be stopped at the state certification gateway. Not at all. Many state departments of education have agreements with the state colleges of education. Anyone who graduates from a state college automatically gets a teaching credential. Ironically, the proven veteran of long experience who moves to a new state may be able to get a new state credential but will not be able to keep it. When the new credential expires for lack of employment, the experienced teacher will be falsely considered unqualified.

Job Interview Hoop

Of course no principal will hire those poorly qualified and unmotivated teachers from the 50%. Wrong again. Principals (and the general public) consider mere possession of a teaching credential to be prima facie evidence of quality. In fact, principals will hire one of the 50% over an experienced, proven applicant because the novice is cheaper. Thus the 50% occupy an awful lot of our nation's classrooms. “Teachers with 10 or fewer years’ experience now constitute over 52 percent of our teaching force.”

No wonder school administrators do not defer to the knowledge, judgment, experience, and professionalism of their faculty, since 50% do not belong there in the first place. No wonder publishers have made big business out of scripted curriculum. Teachers, a strange hybrid of employee and professional, want the esteem due a professional. To the extent that selection and training is weak, the profession is demeaned.