Freedom

It’s that time of year again, where kids are out of school and we all forget about the responsibilities and management associated with education. School’s out for the summer!

Here in Washington State our legislators have come up with a budget (after two special sessions, for which, may I remind you dear voter, our congresspersons get paid). It got signed in, but doesn’t include the funding for the recent education bill that got passed, which totals slightly over $2 billion. Out of $38 billion, that means we’re missing about 5% or so of our budget. As much as I want to look at that and still give us an “A”, I’m a pretty harsh grader.

This little rounding error is for reduced class sizes, voted in by the constituency. The reason why there’s no funding for it is the measure didn’t include a funding resource, which is like saying “Do you want to have free groceries?” as a voting item. Of course you want free groceries, or reduced class sizes. When we don’t address how it’s going to get paid for, however, we end up with extended sessions and bickering and our very own elected officials trying to delay a measure we elected to have.  A funding measure wasn’t included, though, because as soon as you mention the possibility of raising taxes — of any sort: real estate, business, sales, or (eek!) instantiating an income tax — people lose their collective shit.

Here’s the thing: we can get mobilized around *some* social progress. We have gay marriage and subsidized healthcare and it only took Donald Trump one speech to ignite and unify the Latino vote (hi, I’m one of ’em, Donald) and get NBC, Macy’s, etc. to drop him like a hot potato. We are a country moving towards better social freedoms, recognition of our needs as a society, and intolerance of intolerance.

“We” (and by “we” I mean our dear, elected officials) do this because of one very simple reason: those movements represent votes. They get the Latino vote. Or the gay vote. Or the elderly vote. Or the African-American vote. Or the women’s vote. They love those voters! Those voters will help them *win*. It will be great.

As long as those voters aren’t educated.

We live in a country that is 14th in the world for education — and a state that is 20th in the US. Those figures are dropping with each year.  You don’t have to be smart to vote, and when you have your Legislative Branch playing games with numbers to “pass a budget” that doesn’t include all of the things that it is required to pay for, it’s better if the voters aren’t smart.

I live in a good school district. Our kids get issued laptops.  One of the more common rejoinders to this is: if the school district can furnish laptops, why can’t it pay its teachers (or reduce class sizes)? Great question.

Local school districts augment federal and state money (because it’s not enough) by levies and bonds. Here in our county it’s not uncommon to see an education bond measure every two years — for this district or the one down the road — to cover a given thing. Technology levies are separate from operating levies are separate from capital bonds (the latter used for building new schools). So if the tech levy passes but the operating levy doesn’t, you get computers but no one to administrate them.

Let’s take a look, then, at the operational cost of a teacher — that’s really what it comes down to, right? The teacher is who your child interacts with on a daily basis, they’re the ones that “take all summer off” and “Only work like 6 hours a day and get multiple in-service days and spring break and such”. Let’s look at a “Schedule C” teacher, who has either a BA and 90 credits or a Master’s Degree. We will take one who is 5 years in. That teacher makes $43,607/year. (Note to those who go look up those hourly rates — those are based on in-class hours. They are not based on hours worked).

Let’s further say the teacher doesn’t work at all during the 10 weeks of summer (they actually go in a week early, but it makes the math easy), or spring break (1 week), winter break (2 weeks), and holidays (Veteran’s day, Day after Thanksgiving, Presidents Day, Mid-winter break adds up to a week). I exclude Thanksgiving and Memorial day because they are typically off for everyone.

OK so 52 weeks/year, minus 10 for summer, 3 for regular breaks, and another for miscellaneous days == 52-14=38 weeks. That translates to $1147/week, before taxes, or an hourly rate of $28.67. Woo hoo! Riches behold!

Well, wait. Do they really work 40 hours?

My son’s school starts at 7:4oam and gets out at 2:10pm. Teachers are expected on-campus by 7:10am. So let’s assume they hightail it out of there with the kids and do not stay late to cover detentions (they do), test retakes (ditto), clubs (which they do and it’s usually on their own time, but it’s a choice so we will ignore that). That’s 7 hours. Oh, they get lunch, for 40 minutes. That means 1 hour, 40 minutes short of an 8 hour workday.

Except there is no room in there for lesson planning, grading, etc. Six classes at 30 kids/class is 180 kids worth of papers to grade, tests to grade, and lesson plans. Fine. Let’s be super-generous and say that is used up with that 1 hour and 40 minutes. (Note: my kid averaged 3 hours of homework per night in 6th grade. Each class had one graded item per night, roughly, not including major projects and papers. Translation: go through roughly 180 pieces of math homework and check the answers and they showed their work correctly. At one minute per paper you have used up all of your 100 minutes and then some).

Great! We’re done.

No, we’re not. These days, your dear teachers are expected to answer email from students and parents. This averages 30-50 per day (I am not exaggerating, I asked a bunch of different teachers — and I know I contributed to that count more than a few times). Call it 30 per day at 1 minute to read and 1 minute to respond– that’s another hour. Then add in IEP meetings (teachers with a student in their class in an IEP attend one or two of these a year — and there’s about 2 per class, so 12 per teacher) and those add up to another 15 minutes a week. Then add in staff meetings, call it another 15 minutes per week.

With me? Your 40-hour per week teacher is now at roughly 48 hours/week. Let’s go back and do that math again: $24/hour. Looks great! Except remember we removed all those weeks off the teacher gets — we assumed s/he didn’t get paid for that period.

Now lets look at how much “life” costs.

  • Take off 20% for taxes.
  • The cheapest 2 bedroom apartment I could find within a 20 minute drive (because there is a gas/transportation trade off here) is $1200 ($14,400/year).
  • $300/mo for food
  • $100/mo for transportation — bus and/or gas money/insurance
  •  $150/mo electric/gas
  • 10% for retirement

That’s $2294-(20%*2294)-1200-300-100-150-(10%*2294)=2294-458-1200-300-100-150-229=and guess what we’re in negative numbers. Because after I take out electricity/gas we have only $86, and that’s what the teacher can put to retirement.

As long as they don’t have kids. Or pets. Or hobbies. Or unforeseen medical expenses. Or mandatory union dues. Or chipping in for the kid who can’t afford school supplies. Or student loans, because our higher education system is horrifically messed up, too.

Today we celebrate our independence from a government that wanted to give us taxation without representation. We need to look at our government today and understand our responsibilities, and theirs. We pay the taxes. We may need to pay more. In turn, we need our legislators to represent: not just because they “let” us have the freedoms we were already granted (my 12 year old was shocked to find out gay people couldn’t get married already) in our constitution, but because we put the legislators where they are today.

If they don’t represent what we need, then we need to put others in there who do. That is the ultimate freedom we have as Americans, and we need to remember it, and use it.

Great Expectations

‘Tis the season here at My Big Software Company, where we rate ourselves and rate our peers and rate our managers in a method that doesn’t actually impart A Number, you see, but is still used to determine those numbers which are most important to working folks: how much you get paid, either in one shot (bonus), in the future (stock), or over time (raise). In other words, it is review season, and it sucks.

I don’t care how careful HR is and how well prepared they are. I don’t care what the template and tools are you are given to follow. The fact of the matter is that at least once a year and, ostensibly, four to six times a year, you are sat down and are told to quantify, in a variety of ways, the working worth of the people around you. And they are told to do the same about you. It sucks.

It’s horrifying and necessary. This process is meant to weed out the freeloaders, the bad seeds, Those Who Do Not Fit for a better word. As a manager I dreaded reviews (because as much as everyone says they want to lead a team of rock stars, guess what happens when you actually do? Now you have to rate rock stars. Which means only a few rock stars can be the rock stars of rock stars. Talk about splitting hairs.) As an employee I dread reviews (because as hot shit as I can think I am — and sometimes I really am — like any teenager staring in the mirror there are a load more times where I wasn’t even a lukewarm fart).

That more companies are moving to a system where this is not technically quantified in numbers — e.g., as a manager I would not say “Jane” is a “3” on a scale of 1-5 (for, you see, historically Janes and Jons were appalled at being reduced to a number)–means that this gets harder, not easier. How do I tell you that you are doing “pretty good” but not “really good” and so you only get a mediocre raise? How do I tell you I had to compare you to the guy who came in under-leveled — in some cases by 3 levels — because of someone ELSE’s hiring error, that has nothing to do with you? I don’t. I just tell you where you fell on the curve.

One of my favorite memes is the one that is attributed to Kurt Vonnegut but wasn’t — and was later imparted by Baz Luhrman on “Wear Sunscreen” — tells you that the race is long, and in the end, it’s only against yourself. If there were some way to measure one’s improvement against oneself, and then weight that within reasonableness (because frankly, I can have a deliberately shit year and then bust my ass for an easy “improvement” rank), that would be better.

Interesting point of fact though: we hold our kids to numbers.

My kid is in 6th grade — almost 7th  (2! weeks! to go!) — and is held to the standard 1(D), 2 (C), 3(B), 4(A) scale that I grew up with. Every assignment is reduced to numbers and faithfully reported and published (to the point where I often know his score before he does). This number — and numbers in standardized testing, either within the school or external to the school (Washington state is on its 4th or 5th “standardized’ test in the last 10 years — none of which equate to one another, so it’s a constantly shifting field)– will determine what classes he can take, which math path he is on, if he can participate in extracurricular activities, etc.  And he’s 12. Whereas his mother is 30 years his senior and doesn’t have the “advantage” of a number.

As a society we constantly worry about preparing our kids for the future, to be competitive within the global sphere. They are learning things 2 years earlier than they did at my age — both by math formulae and science concepts. They are expected to perform and they are connected in a way we never were — the kids are handed laptops as a required tool for school. The internet was this totally shady side thing when I was in school and generally not talked about. Now it’s a project to tell him about how plagiarism works and that Wikipedia is informative but cannot be your data source. We grade them and numericize them and then let them take and retake tests as needed to make sure the number fits. In short we are preparing our kids very, very well in one way, and very, very poorly in another.

In the working world, you are held to a numeric standard but it is never actually communicated to you. In the working world there are damned few test retakes and there is little extra credit. It’s this world full of meetings and 1-on-1’s and phraseology without hard-core definition. In the student world it’s the opposite: little individual time and little talk, all strict grading and numeric application. In college this gets less personal and more regimented. We train our kids to know things, but not apply them.

This mad scramble that results, inevitably, in a new testing method every two years or so means that we are trying to hit a moving target with a bow and arrow while on the back of a truck in the middle of an earthquake. Instead of sticking with one test– however suboptimal– we change the test in hopes of finding some “perfect test” that will make everything sane. Instead of gearing curriculae towards the Real World, we chase some phantom metric that is meant to make us feel better about being twenty-somethingth — or is it thirty-somethingth, now?– in the world on education. When we were, at one time, first.

We are two weeks out from the final grades that will numerically identify how “well” my kid did in school this year. We are two months from the longer, more complicated, not-numerically-driven conversation with my boss about how “well” I did at work this year.

In neither case can we state with confidence that the analysis was foolproof, regardless of the outcome.

Solving for X

It’s been some 20 years since I last messed with PreCalculus and I was apprehensive as the quarter started. I mean, do you remember how to factor a quadratic equation?

Most of the last six days I’ve spent pouring over my online textbook, doing the requisite problems and watching the requisite videos, trying to get back into the hang of things, mathematically.  Part of the problem is that the first time I took this in school it was to satisfy a separate need: as a Marine Biologist, how often was I really going to need to use trigonometry? Or create mathematical formulae to describe something? You never saw Jacques Cousteau whip out a Texas Instruments graphing calculator, so I spent four or five quarters of advanced math thinking, “yeah, yeah, but this doesn’t really apply to me”. I studied long enough to get the grade and not one moment longer.

Here we are 20 years later, I’m in the same class (in the same school – although not with the same teacher) doing the same work, and have discovered two things:

  1. It’s a lot easier to do the work if you understand the theory and are studying to that rather than the formula itself – if you get the “concept” you can back into the “formula”, it doesn’t work so well the other way around, and
  2. The newer textbooks have pretty much accepted you’re going to rote-memorize some things and probably don’t care about the formula.

Yep, you read that right. For example, one of the things I find now in my text are handy “tables” that tell you the “standard answers” for common mathematical functions. Twenty years ago, we had to demonstrate mathematically WHY, for example, the sin(pi/6 aka 30o)=1/2.  You got out your quadrille paper, you graphed a unit circle, you labeled stuff, drew your arc, and did the math. Now, you have a table. This helps, right?

Not really. Sure, you have a handy table, and you go and apply that to all of the problems in the homework. Or you leverage your graphing calculator to tell you that sin(30)=0.5, no problem. But when it comes time to use what you have learned so far to apply it to a new concept, or to solve a problem where there is more than one missing value, you’re hosed until you get another table or some set of instructions on what to plug into your TI83.

As I’m actually going to USE this math in Economics – first quarter Microeconomics shows you enough graphs and charts that you immediately understand the significance of Understanding What The Graph Is Actually Telling You and How To Derive a Formula For It – I wish the textbooks actually worked to have you get the theory as much as they do the application. This is like when you’re at work and your boss asks you to provide a presentation and then hands you the template and tells you exactly what to write – that’s great, but I’d really like to participate, please.