I realize it’s been a long time since I posted but here we go…I’ve been dropping in and out of NBC’s Education Nation coverage this week, mostly because when I listen for too long, I find myself frustrated and lecturing my non-educator husband on how they are simplifying an incredibly complex issue and also dancing around the real issues. So, take this for what it is: a rant.
If one more NBC personality says how proud they are that they are sponsoring this earth changing event, I am going to cancel my cable. Are you kidding? Somehow, with your sound bites and your condescension, you are going to do what educators have been struggling with for decades? Get over yourself. The “debates” you are holding are so rhetorically empty with little or no practical guidance for the real educators, the ones who day after day face classrooms of kids with varying levels of preparation, family support, and personal motivation. The ones who must often beg to get resources for their kids by signing up for charity sites or shopping at yard sales and thrift shops. The ones who would love to have the luxury of lots of time for reflective practice but without any real planning time built into the schedule. The ones who supposedly enjoy the summer off and yet often teach summer school or hold down other jobs to supplement their salaries and who often cannot afford to live in the districts in which they teach.
Are teachers under attack? That was the question at the teacher town hall. Yes, they are, and by the very people who should be supporting them. Why do we have failing teachers? Could it possibly be because no one in authority provided them with the kind of mentoring and support that would have made them better? So, what’s the answer? Fire them. Great…because from what I hear, there’s a long line of people waiting to go into the teaching profession. (Sarcasm intended.) What about the superintendents who allowed their school district to become failing? What about the school board members who came on board to push their own agendas, which often focus on cutting costs and running schools more like businesses? (Just to be clear, which business is that: Lehman Brothers or GM?) What about the principals who spend time fine tuning the budget don’t know much about instruction or are themselves so overburdened with paperwork and meetings that they simply can’t do more than a quick observation or hallway conversation? What about the parents who never come to PTA meetings or Back to School Night but show up the minute little Johnny is disciplined for an infraction, ready to sue everyone in sight? This is a SYSTEM with systemic problems and just holding teachers more accountable is not going to fix anything but probably end up driving good people away. Oh, wait, from what I hear, that’s already happening with a frighteningly high teacher attrition rate. Each semester, I get a new crop of fresh-faced eager students at William and Mary and I wonder how many of them will stick with it in the face of all the negatives.
And those negatives…so far I haven’t seen anyone question standardized testing as either a quality measure of student achievement or teacher performance. So far, I haven’t seen anyone suggest that if we could decrease the poverty and unemployment rates in cities like DC and Detroit, the schools might also improve. So far, I haven’t heard that the horribly unequal funding of schools through taxes might be an issue. Every time I turn it on the problem seems focused almost solely on teachers and what needs to be done to make them better or get rid of them.
As for charter schools, I’m here to tell you that the jury is still out. In fact, I just heard a superintendent speak about his school district last week and after instituting some very specific reforms, he showed us the achievement picture. Of the ten or so schools in his district, nine had moved into the highest level of achievement defined by the state. The tenth? Oh, it was doing OK but it wasn’t exemplary like the others, and he offhandedly mentioned that it was the charter school.
And, finally, a word of caution to the perky girl who decided that unions and tenure were the problem. She wanted to hold Saturday study sessions with her kids but the union wouldn’t let her. The pundits suggested that this new crop of teachers just didn’t get the unions or tenure because they perceived that they were standing in the way of good education. I’ve dabbled with the unions over my tenure in education, participating in a strike in Pennsylvania and then heading the teacher association in Virginia. (I won’t call it a union since there’s no collective bargaining.) It’s all well and good to criticize the unions because there are times when they seem to be in support of bad teachers and bad policies. But now, they seem to be on the side of those who are attacking the teachers…it’s all about better evaluation, according to Randi Weingartner. But if you get rid of the unions, then to whom will teachers turn when the option of holding Saturday sessions becomes a mandate with no additional compensation and you would prefer to spend the day with your own kids? When, as happened in a division in which I worked, the school administration lengthens the school day by 45 minutes, not to provide time for more instruction but to accommodate a new bus schedule and you have to be there even though it doesn’t give you any more time with kids? When, in order to meet the crippling budget cuts, the school must take away the already pathetically short planning time so you can cover lunch duty? But, since this is television, no one ever had the chance to ask those questions. Tenure can be your friend in a profession in which you are being painted as the bad guy and in which false accusations can ruin your career in a heart beat.
Finally, no one seems to want to challenge the 800-pound gorilla in the room: standardized testing. I have yet to hear details about what a humane teacher evaluation system would look like. But I think the Salt Lake Tribune is at least recognizing the problems with evaluating teachers based on test scores and suggesting the “student achievement” and “teacher accountability” may be terms that need teased out a bit more:
We have supported merit pay for Utah teachers as a way to reward teaching excellence and to boost student achievement. But we agree with teachers’ union leaders who say relying on test scores to determine how well students are learning is unfair and shallow. Test scores are influenced by many factors that are largely outside a teacher’s control, such as a child’s home environment, his attendance, learning disabilities and ability to communicate in English.
Aah, someone who is at least hinting at the complexities of this system. Yes, folks, there are bad teachers out there, just like there are bad lawyers and accountants and bankers and doctors. Do some need to be fired? Sure. But do more of them simply need support in terms of resources, ongoing education, and time for planning and learning? Absolutely.
I could, clearly, go on and on here…like about China, whose teachers have about half the number of classes and students during the day as their American counterparts, freeing them to do in depth planning, preparation and professional development.
Blessedly, if you’ve been reading this far, I have to get started on my real work. But if anyone from NBC is out there listening, how about some real talk about real issues? How about putting Michelle Rhee and some of her teachers in the same room? How about finding some Chicago folks who don’t think Arne Duncan represents a true progressive view of education? Here’s just one more article that illustrates the complexities of the system, something for you to chew over as you go about your day.