I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Meet the New Boss...

Same as the old boss:
But the transformative changes needed to truly prepare our kids for the 21st-century global economy simply will not happen unless we first shed some of the entrenched practices that have held back our education system, practices that have long favored adults, not children. These practices are wrong, and they have to end now.
It's time for all of the adults -- superintendents, educators, elected officials, labor unions and parents alike -- to start acting like we are responsible for the future of our children. Because right now, across the country, kids are stuck in failing schools, just waiting for us to do something.
Wow, all these superintendents, getting together to really change things this time!

Snore. I mean, how often do we have to go through this? "It's time for real change!" - followed by more nibbling around the edges:
So, where do we start? With the basics. As President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents' income -- it is the quality of their teacher.
Is there anyone over the age of 12 who really thinks this is true? That your teacher - who you will have most likely for one school year of your life - is the biggest factor in determining your success?

Of course, the notion is ridiculous:
But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998; Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).
The weasel words used to make this claim are usually "the teacher has the biggest within school influence on students' achievement." Uh, exactly how many other within school variables are there? The size of the classroom's cubbies?

I want to explore the silliness of this claim in another post, but back to the manifesto:
Yet, for too long, we have let teacher hiring and retention be determined by archaic rules involving seniority and academic credentials. The widespread policy of "last in, first out" (the teacher with the least seniority is the first to go when cuts have to be made) makes it harder to hold on to new, enthusiastic educators and ignores the one thing that should matter most: performance.
First of all, I love how we're always supposed to be telling the kids how important their education is, yet when we, as teachers, further our own educations by getting graduate degrees... well, that doesn't really count.

Second: if you want to make the case for getting rid of teachers for incompetence even if they have significant seniority, that's fine; we all agree that needs to happen. But that's not what we're talking about here: this is about who gets the shaft during layoffs.

But aren't the layoffs the real problem? Why are we setting up a layoff scenario as the norm? Why do these cuts "have to be made"? Why not challenge that whole premise to being with?

Finally: why do we always assume that "new, enthusiastic" teachers are somehow better? That they "relate" to the kids in a way senior teachers can't?

I'll admit there is burnout among older teachers, but there is often also calm and competence. Maybe an older teacher doesn't need to be Mr. Kotter (another outdated cultural reference, Jazzman...) or Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, cracking the class up with his antics. Maybe teachers learn - I certainly have - that the classroom shouldn't always be about them.

In any case: I'm still waiting for the big, peer-reviewed study that says burned-out teachers are our nation's largest educational challenge. Because if it's out there, I haven't seen it.
A 7-year-old girl won't make it to college someday because her teacher has two decades of experience or a master's degree -- she will make it to college if her teacher is effective and engaging and compels her to reach for success. By contrast, a poorly performing teacher can hold back hundreds, maybe thousands, of students over the course of a career. Each day that we ignore this reality is precious time lost for children preparing for the challenges of adulthood.
Let's suppose this 7-year-old has a loving, stable family that makes sure she does her work. She goes to a school that has teachers who are mostly competent and well-supervised. But she gets unlucky one year and has a "bad" teacher.

Are you telling me this one year of a "bad" teacher will determine her success for the rest of her life? That it is so critical to remove this teacher that we need to give up tenure and politicize our schools, instill merit pay which hasn't worked yet, and throw out seniority which guarantees at least some level of long-term career stability to save her from ONE year of bad teaching?

Don't get me wrong - I am all for removing that "bad" teacher. But gutting the entire system with unproven tactics using this alarmist rhetoric is just plain stupid.

Speaking of stupid:
Even the best teachers -- those who possess such skills -- face stiff challenges in meeting the diverse needs of their students. A single elementary- or middle-school classroom can contain, for instance, students who read on two or three different grade levels, and that range grows even wider as students move into high school. Is it reasonable to expect a teacher to address all the needs of 25 or 30 students when some are reading on a fourth-grade level and others are ready for Tolstoy? We must equip educators with the best technology available to make instruction more effective and efficient. By better using technology to collect data on student learning and shape individualized instruction, we can help transform our classrooms and lessen the burden on teachers' time.
Dear lord, if I read one more "expert" tell me that what we really need in the classroom are better computers, I'm going to beat myself over the head with a smartboard.

We don't need more computer programs sold by vendors who show up at central offices distributing pens with logos and promises of miracle cures. We need more teachers coming into the field, committed to the career as a long-term proposition. And you will get this by paying us more, monitoring us carefully, and letting us do our damn jobs. Do this, and you will automatically raise the profile of the profession. Superintendents, are you prepared to make that case?

One more time: yes, get rid of the "bad" teachers. Tell the politicians you need more money to hire enough lawyers to quickly clear the backlog of hearings for dismissal. Implement peer-review plans to identify poor teachers; negotiate with unions to allow more observations and implement more tools - tools that actually work, not VAM - for teacher evaluations (make the tradeoff higher salaries and they will jump at the chance).

But you don't need to get rid of tenure to do this and turn teaching positions into patronage jobs. You don't need to keep senior teachers in constant fear for their careers. And you don't need to put merit pay plans that don't work in place.

One final thing:
We also must make charter schools a truly viable option. If all of our neighborhood schools were great, we wouldn't be facing this crisis. But our children need great schools now -- whether district-run public schools or public charter schools serving all students -- and we shouldn't limit the numbers of one form at the expense of the other. Excellence must be our only criteria for evaluating our schools. 
For the wealthiest among us, the crisis in public education may still seem like someone else's problem, because those families can afford to choose something better for their kids. But it's a problem for all of us -- until we fix our schools, we will never fix the nation's broader economic problems. Until we fix our schools, the gap between the haves and the have-nots will only grow wider and the United States will fall further behind the rest of the industrialized world in education, rendering the American dream a distant, elusive memory.
Charter schools equal economic tracking, something you are decrying (by the way, that "choice" for the wealthy is usually a public school - just out in the 'burbs. Why we are trying to "reform" these schools, which are doing a great job, is absolutely beyond me). And, again, half of charter schools are below average (duh).

If we're really going to track kids, why not track on ability, like many of these countries that are "beating" us. Are we prepared to go down that road?


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