"The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves." -- John Adams

"No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution." -- Indiana Constitution Article 1, Section 6.

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was and never will be...nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe." – Thomas Jefferson

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Unintended Consequences and the Death of the Teaching Profession

I have always felt comfortable speaking my mind to administrators -- my local principals (I've taught under 9 different principals) as well as system-wide administrators -- whenever I've disagreed with them on an issue affecting teachers or students.
  • I frequently told one of my principals, who had been a middle school and high school principal, that being a principal of an elementary school was different than being the principal of a secondary school. He never did, in my opinion, learn that difference and as a consequence had difficulty with his job (which he thankfully no longer has).
  • I had a meeting with Superintendent G. She decided that she wanted to use teacher collaboration time for professional development. At that time the teachers contract clearly stated that teachers would use at least half of all monthly collaboration times to collaborate with colleagues. I told the superintendent in no uncertain terms that we would not allow her to break the contract...the correct way to change it was through negotiations.
  • I was on the "Discussion Team" whose purpose was to meet regularly with administrators and discuss issues which were affecting the school community. It was our job to discuss those items before they became problems. During one heated session, an assistant superintendent made a statement about new teachers. I felt no qualms about informing him that I thought his statement was unprofessional.
  • After an IEP meeting, the Director of Special Education told me that I had said something which could have gotten the school system in trouble about the placement of a student. I told her that the current placement of the student was based on convenience, not the needs of the student. I said that I was an advocate for my students, not the school system.
  • One year in September, Superintendent B came to our building to explain why a first grade teacher was being transferred to another building...and her students divided up into several other classrooms. I told him that it would be disruptive to those early learners to essentially restart their' school year after they had created a bond with their teacher.
I had no problems speaking out when I felt passionate about something, and well enough informed to speak with authority and from a factual basis. Not all teachers, however, are willing to do that...and not all administrators can take that sort of criticism without trying to retaliate. Unions can't always protect teachers from angry administrators.

Walt Gardner, in Unintended Consequences of Teacher Evaluation suggests that new teacher evaluation systems based on student test scores will have the unintended consequence of allowing principals to find ways to arbitrarily dismiss veteran (meaning high paid) or other, unwanted (meaning people like me who required explanations of difficult situations) teachers.
New performance evaluation systems being adopted in school districts across the country are heralded as long overdue. But there's one aspect that is downplayed by reformers: they give principals a rare opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Their prey are veteran teachers who are at the top of the salary scale and who are likely to speak out on issues affecting their school because they have tenure. By rating them as ineffective, principals can get rid of them, in the process improving the district's balance sheet and silencing opposition.
Excuse my cynicism, but from what I've seen, the consequences of such evaluation systems are often not unintended at all. It's just one more tool to de-professionalize educators and make teaching a "job" instead of a profession. It's another of the union busting techniques which include laying off experienced, fully trained teachers and then hiring TFA students with 5 weeks of training, firing entire staffs because they can't solve all the problems of poverty, and legislative removal of collective bargaining laws in various states.

Using test scores to evaluate teachers is invalid and part of the misuse of testing which also includes high stakes consequences for students, schools, and school districts.

The war on public schools and public school teachers which consists of the above along with the proliferation of corporate charter* "turn-around" schools and voucher programs, is well organized. The goals of the movement are not the improvement of student learning, but the privatization of public education. Teachers and teachers unions are the biggest obstacle to that so-called "reform."

One important focus for "reformers" is teacher contracts and teachers unions. The claim is that teachers unions are standing in the way of "reform." No answer has ever been given as to how high achieving states (and nations) which are heavily unionized can succeed while low achieving states which have few or less powerful unions have failed. My answer, of course, is that teachers unions are not the most important variable in the equation...especially since two sides are necessary to come to a contract agreement. There must be other variables in play as well, but the "reformers" don't want to acknowledge them.

One aspect of the drive to do away with teachers unions is the push to eliminate seniority. Seniority the "reformers" claim, allows good young teachers to be laid off while incompetent older teachers remain. I agree that happens sometimes, however I would place blame not on the seniority system, but on weak administrators who don't take the time or make the effort to help teachers improve or document reasons why they should be fired. Furthermore, most teachers who are not capable of making it in the classroom are gone within their first 5 years either because it's too hard for them, or because they are counseled out of the profession by administrators or colleagues. The United States does not have a crisis in teacher quality.

In a recent blog post, Anthony Cody asked Is Seniority for Teachers Bad for Students? He said,
In the school where I taught for 18 years, there used to be teachers who had been there for twenty or thirty years. They had a different set of gifts from those of the youthful novices, but they were of great value nonetheless. They carried the school's culture, the history of the place. We had a sense of family, and they were our elders. They served as mentors, and helped us through some tough times. They brought a sense of stability, and taught generations of children from the families of our community. As research has shown, stability is very important for our students, and instability undermines student performance.
All schools need a balance of experienced and new teachers. Like a sports team, experienced players help bring a continuity to the goals of the organization and leadership to the team. Youth complements experience and brings innovation and energy. Constant turnover and lack of experienced leadership among the players is a recipe for disaster.
There is a reason that states (and nations like Finland) with strong teacher unions tend to have better education systems. When we invest in schools, and give teachers a sense that their experience and expertise is honored, that they will have academic freedom and autonomy in the classroom, they are happier with their work. They stick with it, and are driven, not by a fear that their students' scores will be low resulting in the loss of pay or job security. They are driven by their passion to inspire their students with new challenges, to create outstanding work, to investigate the world around them in new ways. This sort of teaching is not the product of some perfectly aligned testing and evaluation system. It is the product of the passion for teaching and learning that drew so many of us to work with children in the first place.
We cannot build -- or in our case, rebuild -- a great public education system without a solid foundation of excellent teachers. The current tendency to blame teachers and their unions for all the problems facing American schools will turn out to have the consequence -- unintended or not -- of lowering the number and quality of teachers. The "best and the brightest" will make other career choices...and the children most in need of help from high quality educators won't get it.

*References to charters generally imply corporate, for-profit charter schools. Quotes from other writers reflect their opinions only. See It's Important to Look in a Mirror Now and Then.

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Stop the Testing Insanity!


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1 comment:

Peggy said...

We could save the teaching profession and public schools if all parents would opt their children out of the state test. Sign the resolution...but take it a step further and opt out! Great post Stu! Peggy Robertson www.unitedoptout.com