Drinking from the Fire Hose

Consider what follows as a possible approach to managing submissions when you have an outrageous number of high-school students in your writing classes.

The bane of every teacher is having to be their editor on issues they should already have mastered. When you have 30+ students in a class, having to re-teach high school students on how to use a comma is simply an unacceptable waste of time.

For what it is worth, my suggestion is to push as much of the pick-and-shovel work of writing onto the students. There are tools out there that provide feedback, but one, in particular, has promise and a low price tag (e.g., free) — that tool is PaperRater.

This tool can provide quantitative and qualitative feedback on a paper. It will not assess content (that is, the cognitive logic of the paper) but it will help greatly with clarity and syntax.  Both of these must be mastered before a paper can be evaluated for content.

So, how does this help you with a circus tent filled with students? First, have students use PaperRater during their draft revision process. This will deal with the need for immediate feedback and insulate the teacher from some of the pedantic aspects of early draft writing. Secondly, emphasize that if students are not getting at least a “B” on the paper (as assessed by PaperRater), they should not consider turning it in. That is not a hard and fast requirement but highly recommended to avoid having to read papers that should have never been turned in. (Teachers know what I’m talking about; the infamous zero/first draft paper that is the equivalent to brain vomit)

Once students have cleaned up and refined their work using PaperRater, teachers can further leverage the tool to provide assessments on the work the instant students turn it in. To do that, teachers should use PaperRater’s electronic submissions capability to their advantage. The capability is documented at:
http://paperrater.com/page/electronic-submissions

That capability will put the onus of generating assessments of student writing on the students the instant they turn it in. I understand that students get a “receipt” when they submit the work, but it is not clear if they get a copy of the assessment or not. In either case, they still have access to PaperRater.

Teachers will still have to evaluate the papers for content; there is no better tool for that than the human brain. But, if what you are reading is syntactically and grammatically correct, evaluating the content should be less of a chore.

Still drinking from the fire-hose, but at least you can use a ladle.

A caveat for this approach is that the free version of PaperRater is limited to 6 pages. Here’s the info from PaperRater:
We allow 6 pages at roughly 300 words/page for our free service. We have a premium service at http://premium.PaperRater.com that allows up to 15 pages. If we go higher than that, Grendel can’t fully digest your submission (he gets indigestion). Of course, if your paper exceeds the limit, you are welcome to split it up into multiple submissions.

Teacher Pay is a Symptom of the Problem

The analysis in this article was written as a letter to the editor of the Free-Lance Star, in response to an ongoing discussion (or lack thereof) about teacher pay. The gist of several previous letters has been that (1) teacher pay is not a priority because the schools can’t afford it, so teachers are being selfish by demanding more pay, (2) teacher’s are already well paid and should just shut-up and accept whatever they are given, even if it means taking home less that they did the year before.

The crux of point #1 is that the school system (in this case Stafford County) can’t afford to pay their teachers more, and since they are already over-committed; they simply can’t find the rationale to pay more for instructional salaries.  While everyone seems to be ready and willing to swallow this argument, the question that doesn’t get asked, let alone answered, is why this is the case.  The following analysis of the funding profile for Stafford County provides the answer : the county is deliberately under-funding the school system, when compared to other regional school systems.

Using the non-partisan, unbiased IPEDs national educational data base as a source of information, a cross comparison of data for the 2011-2012 school year for Stafford County’s School System Superintendent Dr. Benson’s designated schools systems (Albermarle, Stafford, Chesterfield, Chesapeake, Prince William, Henrico, Hanover, Spotsy, Loudon), reveals Stafford’s local contribution is well below average.

Stafford County’s local revenue cannot afford the system they are trying to fund, and are relying on federal and state funds to make up the difference. In terms of teacher pay, what Kerry McClure said in her July 30th letter titled “Teacher pay in line with other area localities”, might appear true, but only in the percentages. Nearly all the localities spend at least sixty percent on instructional costs (including teacher’s salaries), eleven percent on student supports, nine percent on administration, and twenty percent on operational expenses.

In terms of per student funding, Federal money averages eight percent in most of the localities, but accounts for twelve percent in Stafford and Chesapeake. State money accounts for thirty-seven percent on average, but rises to forty-five to forty-six percent in Stafford, Chesapeake, and Chesterfield. In terms of local funding, Stafford and Chesapeake rank last at forty-three percent (the average is fifty-five). While the percentages hint at the problem, a comparison of dollars shows the real problem – local funding in Stafford is $1,400 less per student than in Spotsylvania, Stafford’s nearest equivalent school system.

In short, Stafford’s funding profile is too dependent on external sources of funding or revenue to afford the school system. Consider this, the previously mentioned difference in local funding between Stafford and Spotsylvania (more than $1,400). In the typical classroom of thirty students, this would mean that Spotsylvania spends $42,000 more than Stafford (a larger and more affluent community). That $42,000 could pay for another teacher per thirty students.

It’s not about teacher’s salaries. We’ve all pointed out that scales, levels, and transference do not equate with reality. The reality is that Stafford has no flexibility if their funding profile degrades. For example, if Stafford loses any federal funding, the locality will need to increase local spending by almost ten percent to maintain its last place position within the comparative localities.

The solution to Stafford County’s funding dilemma is to increase local revenue collections by at least twenty percent which would at least:

  • put local funding of the school system on par with Hanover,
  • get the county out of the bottom tier of local revenue support for local school systems,
  • bring the county in line with Spotsylvania in terms of per student expenditures, and
  • provide a buffer against state and federal reductions in support, save some money, as well as afford whatever the boards deem necessary for future progress.

The problem is not solely teacher salaries; that is only a symptom of the callous disregard and economic malfeasance perpetuated by people who want to blame teachers for why Stafford can’t afford their school system. It has been said that all politics are local, and as we can see, so is most of the revenue supporting the school system. If a county that can well afford a quality school system consistently under-funds it, then one could argue that someone is bringing politics into the equation, but I’d venture a guess that it is not the teacher’s doing it, rather it must be people committed to never raising taxes for any reason, even if it means undermining the children in Stafford county. Throwing students under the bus for the sake of ideological purity is the domain of people like the Koch brothers and Grover Norquist, not public educators.

Table 1 – Funding profiles for local school systems (From the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES))

School
System
Total Spending
Per student
Fed
Contribution
Local
Contribution
State
Contribution
Albermarle 13931 893 9926 3113
Stafford 9664 1200 4000 4200
Chesapeake 11000 1268 4758 4978
Chesterfield 9508 744 4428 4336
Prince William 11368 915 5929 4524
Spotsy 10880 871 5455 4555
Loudon 14529 589 10662 3278
Hanover 9775 776 4995 4003
Henrico 11377 912 6399 4067
Fauquier 11509 852 7392 3265
Averages 11354 902 6394 4032