My job as an in-class math tutor at a Title I middle school in Austin has come to an end. Some thoughts a week after I finished, some of which I have written about before:

  • There needs to be a new incentive system. Merit pay or bonuses based on performance have their flaws. But something definitely needs to change. Positive incentives for rewarding hard-working teachers need to be present just as much as sanctions for lazy teachers. How to fully evaluate it? I don’t know. But something needs to be done. The lack of accountability for everyone in the entire system seems outrageous.
  • The “schools” can’t be confused with the “education system.” Policy can be changed regarding teacher incentives, administration decisions, and funding. But the fact is that performance in schools reflects society as a whole, for better or for worse. In the case of my school, low-performance comes from things as broad as low English language proficiency, broken down homes, lack of finances, and overarching discipline problems that start way before the kids get to school. The welfare state solution known as the American public school system is not equipped, and frankly shouldn’t be equipped, to solve all of these problems. As such, I now know that comparing American test scores or performance to other developed countries without our cultural and lingual homogeneity or relatively small welfare state is not fair at all. Korean or Danish results cannot be expected to be replicated.
  • Apathy: it consume everyone, even the most well-intentioned. The state of American schools is so dire that even the most highly motivated person can’t help but be defeated. One amazing teacher can change many kids’ lives forever. But even then it takes 16-hour days and often times the satisfaction won’t be seen for years to come. There are so many problems with the kids that come to low-performing schools, especially in terms of behavior, that one cannot help but feel helpless against all the problems. Suddenly, it’s easy to get in the mindset of “there’s only so much I can do” that one gives up on turning the children into well-functioning members of society. Helplessness blues sets in and it’s easier to pass the kids onto the next grade than give the extra mile for the 1% chance that you make a demonstrable difference. This is tough.
  • While I still think the incentive scheme for teachers, administrators, and staff are pretty shoddy, this experience has made me blame the aforementioned personnel a lot less. From a statistical perspective, America spends so much on education and gets so little out of it. It’s easy to blame this on the monopoly of the public school system and teachers unions. There’s still a lot to be said for the detrimental effect of low school competition and the monopsony of teachers unions, but I now realize that comparing America’s performance to other countries is very much an apples and oranges comparison. The schools’ low performance is a reflection of society as a whole and not just the “system.”