Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Adding Value

I have been here before.

One of my careers before becoming a teacher was that of a meteorologist with a specialty in weather forecasting. I worked for a private weather service. Most of the clients we forecast for were electric and gas utilities who needed very specific information regarding temperature, wind, and dew points, and municipalities who needed specific information about the timing of weather events that impacted travel, especially during the winter season.

When I started out in the mid 1980's even though in some ways, our competition was free, (the National Weather Service), numerical models were not that accurate and it was fairly easy for a forecast to be considerably more accurate than the typical NWS forecast. By the early 1990's, the advances in computer power and accuracy of numerical models made it much more difficult for our forecasts to consistently beat the NWS forecasts. This meant, that my company could only charge about 50% of what it charged when I started. So we had to have twice as many clients just to keep steady state. The trend of improved accuracy of computer guidance continued through the 1990's and to keep pace, we had to take on ever more clients and automate more of our tasks, pretty much to stay even. The job became more of a monitor to check when a computer model forecast was going bad rather than that of an actual weather forecaster. The value that we added in terms of customer service and specially designed forecast formats kept us in business but became harder to truly deliver on because of the increased client base. The premiums we could charge to an individual client continued to decrease, a race to the bottom if you will.

I feel that in many ways, what the private weather forecasting industry faced in the late 1980's and 1990's, the public schools are going to be faced with now. We have some advantages over the private forecasting industry - our competition will not be free for one and a teacher has the ability to add significantly more value than a private weather forecaster had.

That is the rub though. We as teachers have the ability to add more value but it is not clear to me if we will take that opportunity. I do know that if we do not become more responsive to our students needs to learn and create through the use of technology that they already use at home, are not increasingly receptive to communicate with parents and students in "off" hours through the use of e-mail and other social media, and instead focus more on the preparation for and what the results of standardized tests are, it will be harder to justify the need for many of us. It is a fools errand to be preoccupied with standardized test results to the exclusion of the development of inquisitive and creative learners. I know this runs counter to the trend of Race To The Top requirements of attaching valued added test scores to teacher evaluations. But with each year of test data that becomes available, the private testing companies that are already chomping at the bit to enter the public school market in a big way, will have better and better data to use to improve their adaptive learning modules. From a standardized test score perspective, this would effectively be able to close the gap between the value a teacher adds and what a computer learning module could "teach" a child. Without the demonstrated impact we as teachers had at fostering creative and inquisitive learners, there would not need to be such a large teaching force. Those that remained would be reduced more to tutoring, data monitors really, rather than teachers

Of course, we as teachers can do much better. But we have to start in earnest and soon so the case can be made for our worth; our addition of significant value. Over the next several years, the financial pressures on municipalities to reduce their outlays are going to increase exponentially, especially with the municipal pension obligations coming due that most communities have no real way of paying for. And those private testing companies are counting on us to come up short.

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