Sunday, August 11, 2013

The BATtle for Education

By Jennifer Clarke

Ineffective teachers should be removed from the classroom.  

Let’s play a bit of Mad Libs, shall we?

Ineffective (noun:occupation) ______________ should be removed from the (noun:place)________________.

There are not many nouns that could be placed in that sentence that would make it false. That being said, the question is not whether or not people who are ineffective in their positions should be removed, but rather what is the measure of effectiveness? There are terms being thrown around about what makes an effective teacher and the harms of tenure, etc. But what does all of this really mean?

What does effective teaching look like to the public?

Colton C., Texas High School Senior--“The most influential teacher that I have ever had really opened up my mind to a lot of new ideas. For a long time I had been very closed minded and didn't want to accept new ideas. She showed me that maybe . . .other way[s] could work too. I have grown substantially because of her. I find myself to be a much better person today than I was before and a lot of it is because of her. She's was and still is one of the most influential people I have ever met and I hope to keep learning from her.”

Sheri L., Louisiana Parent--“I am writing this letter to show my appreciation for a 2nd grade teacher from Henning Elementary School in Sulphur, Louisiana. . .I was blessed to have my daughter in the classroom of a teacher that not only was passionate about education but was a sincere person with unbelievable determination to make all those in her classroom excel. My daughter struggled at any early age with Attention Deficit Disorder.  While her case was mild in comparison to others she still faced struggles with her studies.  No matter the encouragement we gave her at home it was not enough to boost her confidence in the classroom.  Her teacher not only gave her the education required but also found a way to make her understand and enjoy learning. . . She graduated in the top percentile of her class and was awarded a small scholarship.  To most people this is average, to me and my daughter it was a blessing.  She received the gift of an educator from her early years in school that would change the course of her future forever. . . As more tests and focus on state testing is required, I find that great educators are no longer able to give this kind of attention to students.  Classrooms are spending more time working to prepare for “The Test” than staying on track with the needs of those that may struggle but still have bright minds waiting and begging to be developed.”

Rachel V., Texas College Student--“Throughout my high school career, I never felt like I fit in with the rest of my age group. I had few friends and many acquaintances, all of which were outcasts. I felt so out of place, I would even dress differently to make myself stand out. While the eyes of my peers were filled with shallow judgment, my teachers saw through my costume. . . Needless to say, I never had a teacher that didn't love me. . .My teachers were the ones who encouraged me and pushed me. Without their guiding hands, I do not believe I would have reached my full potential because I never believed in myself. There was one particular instance I will always remember. I would occasionally hear people say that high school was the best time of their lives. I absolutely despised being in high school and being told the experience would probably be the best time of my life made me feel hopeless. One wonderful English teacher told the class one day, ‘Class, I would like for you all to know that there is much more to life than high school. There are so many great experiences beyond this. Don't believe that this is the greatest time you will ever have in your life. There is so much more.’ And that's exactly what I needed to hear. Teachers are not just there to teach their students how to get high scores on a test. My teachers taught me vision and patience. My teachers brought me a joy through learning. My teachers... I will never forget.”

Brittany L., Texas High School Junior--“The most important thing my English teacher taught me was not the required materials or the district curriculum, but the way she taught it. She educated with such enthusiasm and honest concern for each individual student. Her attitude has stayed with me and inspired me to do tasks and work with a positive demeanor.”

Brandon L., Texas High School Graduate, currently deployed in Afghanistan--“I had two teachers who had very meaningful impacts on my life. My freshman math teacher, from the very first moment she walked into the class, her first time teaching in high school, . . . my classmates and myself knew she was different. She walked in, with a huge smile and the best attitude of any teacher I have seen on our first day of school. Through the year, she made learning fun. Wait actually she made MATH fun, something my classmates and myself thought to be completely impossible. But not only was it math she was teaching us . . .She was always trying to lead us into the right direction as teenagers growing into young adults. She shared life experiences with us, and if you ever needed an adult to talk to, her door was always open to her students. Through my four years of high school, I maintained a very close relationship with this teacher, and even after graduation we still maintain contact. . . I am grateful that I had such a caring person in those early years of me becoming an adult. I also am grateful for my senior English teacher. So by this point I was at that young adult age, getting ready to start pursuing my life outside of school. . .I was very lazy and didn’t feel like applying myself a lot of the time . . . But this teacher saw the potential in me, and always pushed me to strive for my best, even if I found the work to be easy.  And that was something that she did with all her students. There were students in my grade that . . . with her help and her support, they exceeded even their own expectations. Not only was she a motivator, . . . She was also a life lessons teacher. She always wanted what was best for her students and would do what she could to make sure her students were ok.  She is a caring person with a huge heart . . . She truly helped shaped my senior year, and many of her students will say that she has also influenced their life in a big way, and I am one of those students. To this day I can go back to her and talk to her and she will still help me, even if it is just the simplest advice there is. Truly an amazing individual and an amazing teacher.”

Nicole J., Texas Student--“In the 7th grade I was greatly influenced by my science teacher, not because of the lessons she taught me in school, but because of the lessons she taught me in life! She was young and full of love and kindness! One day I had overslept and missed my bus, which left me with no way to school, as this wonderful lady passes by and see's me walking she quickly turns around insisting she give me a ride to school! That day I was so grateful of her! And that day she taught me how much it can mean to someone else to take just a second out of your day to do a kind act for another. Later on during the next year we lost our house to a fire, and when my family and I were left with nothing, she contributed along with the rest of my school to raise money for my family and give me a christmas. This wonderful woman never stops giving! Because of her, I will always take time out of my day to help someone who may need me.”

Why is tenure under attack?

Michelle Rhee told The New York Times: “Tenure is the holy grail of teacher unions but has no educational value for kids; it only benefits adults. If we can put veteran teachers who have tenure in a position where they don’t have it, that would help us to radically increase our teacher quality. And maybe other districts would try it, too.”

Simply put, there is a misconception that tenure means a teacher who is ineffective or harmful cannot be removed from the classroom. Tenure does not mean a teacher’s contract cannot be terminated. Tenure simply guarantees teachers due process in pursuing claims or causes of action related to potential termination of a contract. That is really all it does. If a teacher is in danger of losing his or her job, then he or she is entitled to administrative processes to review the issues before any final decisions are made. Any other degreed, contracted professional is afforded the same right is some form.

Why are unions under attack?

“What she [Michelle Rhee] calls "Plan B" involves a more aggressive use of powers she already has and that are not subject to contract negotiations with the union. These could include strengthening the existing system of annual personnel evaluations that spell out procedures for terminating teachers.”

Unions have been systematically dismantled for decades, and worker’s rights have diminished. We could argue cause and effect, and it is likely a topic worth of discussion, but I mention it because the attacks on teacher unions that have suffered the same loss of power as other professional unions has resulted in essentially silencing teachers in the battles for job security, livable wages, professional protections, and true education reform. The result is that corporate reformers and politicians have bulldozed public education at the expense of educators and the peril of students. Unions function largely as mediators, and so the result is often continued silence of educators.

Why are students under attack?

The corporate and political reformers have decided that students should all conform to a set curriculum and pass a test that is standardized to the goal of the curriculum. The problem with this formula is that it is manufactured like a product and marketed as education. Despite what education is actually doing, the corporate and political reformers would have everyone believe that it is a gross failure. "It's no secret the U.S. education system is failing," Gates said. "We're doing all kinds of experiments that are different. The Race To The Top is going to do many different ones. There's no group-think." 

How will experiments that have no proven results, are formulated by people with little to no educational background, knowledge, or training, and based on a premise of conjecture yield anything reliable? Why are our children being used for this experiment? Are the classrooms really being used as a thinly veiled focus group for the product of corporate reform? This product does not appeal to and would not be effective for everyone. Students come from different backgrounds, have different language barriers, have obstacles to learning, and require varied educational practices and approaches. One product will not fit all. There are countless studies that have shown the largest barrier to student success is poverty. There is absolutely nothing about this product that addresses, adapts, or even acknowledges one of the major inhibitors to student success. It is presumptuous to label children as failures when they are being forced to participate in a system that is not designed for them to succeed.

Why are parents under attack?

Michelle Rhee: “I think if there is one thing I have learned over the last 15 months, it’s that cooperation, collaboration and consensus-building are way overrated.”
September 2008 Aspen Institute’s education summit at the Mayflower Hotel (Washington Post)

Parents have been questioning the state of education for a long time, but have been given conflicting information in an endless tome of advice, documentation, internet articles, research, and countless confusing politically charged speeches on education reform. Parents have been told that teachers are ineffective. Parents have been told that teachers are failing. But parents are beginning to ask questions, research their rights, and pay attention to the legislation and statutes that govern education. Parents are beginning movements to opt-out of testing. Some states have passed parent-backed legislation that supports parent take overs of schools, but this is unlikely to be successful without significant cooperation between teachers and parents. The point is, parents have been under attack for not preparing kids to be educated. They are attacked for not participating in overseeing homework. They are attacked for not disciplining their children. Parents are attacked for not managing their children in the approximately three waking hours families have together on a weekday basis. While parent involvement is vital to student success, poverty and other economic failures plague families. Parents are working more hours to survive. Between feeding, bathing, and bedtime, little time is left for checking homework folders, assignment sheets, discussing grades, reading notes, signing forms, and still taking care of all other domestic family duties. Corporate reformers and politicians lack perspective. American families are struggling to survive. Kids are struggling to meet some arbitrary standard that has no basis in respected peer-reviewed pedagogy or benefit to the children. Until parents can afford to survive, “little Timmy’s” homework folder just doesn’t feel as important. It can’t be.

Why are public schools under attack?

President Obama: “And that’s what my key reform’s been all about, “Race To the Top.” What we’ve said to school districts is, ‘You’ve gotta emphasize high accountability, high standards. Make sure that teachers know that we’re going to be paying attention to the actual outcomes for kids. But we’re also going to give more resources to schools who are doing the right thing: Training teachers providing them the professional development and support that they need.’ Some of the things that we’ve done haven’t been popular with teachers unions. You know, I’m a big proponent of charter schools, for example. I think that pay-for-performance makes sense in some situations.”

Reformers are pushing for vouchers, charters, and private schools. Interestingly, many of these options allow for non-participation in the imposed public school curriculum, alternate rating systems, or exemption from testing requirements. Additionally, many of the supporters of reform send their own children to the alternatives to public school. On the very face of the issue, my question is, if this curriculum and standardized testing will solve all ills in public education, then why would your very own children not be benefitting from this reform? More deeply, I question the intent behind this movement. Public education is the only guaranty for equity in access to education. When parents run to alternatives to escape testing for their children, public schools will be robbed of funding and programs needed for survival. Where will children who cannot participate fully in vouchers, attend private school, are travel to an available charter, go to school? If these schools are not required to participate in testing and curriculum mandates, when the public schools begin to dissolve, where will funding for the testing corporation continue to come from? At some point, this “house of cards” (thank you BATs) will fall.

Why are teachers under attack?

Michelle Rhee: “We will no longer describe failure as the result of vast impersonal forces like poverty or a broken bureaucracy." 
(July 2007 confirmation hearing (Washington Post)

Despite the realities of the problems in education, teachers have become the scapegoat. Teachers want real, effective evaluation based on valuable curriculum standards, educational practices, lesson engagement, and student impact, and they want to be evaluated by people and processes knowledgeable about education. Current evaluative practices include classroom monitoring, student intervention, parent contact, lesson evaluation, self-assessment, administrator evaluation, and teacher mentoring programs, but Gates, apparently misinformed, suggests that: “until recently, over 98% of teachers just got one word of feedback: satisfactory.”

Interestingly, Bill Gates said: “Teachers need the feedback and professional growth opportunities they want to help their students succeed instead of generic, one-size-fits all solutions that don’t help them grow as professionals.”  And yet, it is exactly, this “one-size-fits all solution” that he is backing financially.

There are many factors that impact student success and educators are a part of the equation. But the teachers are only a part. Educator effectiveness cannot be calculated by student success if the student is being judged on a one size fits all criteria. Teachers will teach curriculum and students will learn—this has happened for centuries. Test scores or no test scores, students learn at school. Teachers also educate students on the value of thought, creativity, problem solving, self-reliance, achievement, and work ethic. These are valuable skills that are not quantifiable on a test, but they are necessary for any student to ultimately be successful. Teachers fill roles in students’ lives that are necessary and important for student development.  Teachers act as mentors, counselors, role models, and sometimes family to students in need of guidance. Teachers have placed students as their priority, and in so doing, as the unions dissolved, and administrations became overrun with business professionals, teachers have become silenced in the bureaucratic processes. This has made them an easy target. Additionally, politicians have made it clear that targeting poverty, joblessness, and other social issues is too big a burden to bear. Placing the blame on teachers through quantifiable (though irrelevant) data and statistics, is a much easier “solution” and comes with handy charts and graphs to show constituents. The truth is, teachers aren’t the problem. And when people are ready to allow them speak again without fear of retribution, they will gladly offer helpful ideas and solutions for student success.

Why it is time to defend?

Excerpt from a poem by Kisha Allgood, New Jersey College Student

Tell a story we know too well
A story of love and sacrifice 
A story of joy and pain 
Voices in harmony speak the same 
To all of the soldiers 
Mothers, Fathers, and friends
The battle has just begun , the question is where does it end?

Bill Gates said “U.S. teachers don't get enough feedback or have the opportunities to advance to different levels based on merit that are available in other countries.” Clearly, Gates is not familiar with education. What is teacher advancement? If you become an administrator you are no longer a teacher, but would that be advancement? It is a different job entirely and requires differentiated education. Teachers teach, Gates. Let them do it.

The major players in the corporate and political reform movement have made it clear that teachers, public schools, students, and parents are the problem with public education. Their solution is to build a curriculum and test wherein everyone conforms to the standard or is labeled a failure. As Michelle Rhee stated: “The bottom line is that if you can’t come to agreement then you have to push your agenda in a different way, and we’re absolutely going to do that." (September 2008 Aspen Institute’s education summit at the Mayflower Hotel (Washington Post). She is pretty clear about where her loyalties lie, and students aren’t first.

Arne Duncan has joined forces with corporate reformers hailing this union as paving the way for a brighter educational future, but researching Duncan shows his support of public education is lackluster at best. His sound bites are ludicrous, full of double talk, and really say nothing, so here is my question: You will remove highly qualified, skilled, trained educators with TFA recruits that have 5 weeks of training and plan to only stay for two years, and in your Race to the Top world, this is expected to yield better results? Political and corporate reform is not only bad for education, the reformers have no idea what effective education actually looks like.

President Obama said: “When I meet teachers all across the country, they are so devoted, so dedicated to their kids. And what we’ve tried to do is actually break through this left/right, conservative/liberal gridlock. . .Well, the key is to work with teachers”

Remove the gridlock, Mr. President. We are here, sleeves rolled up, and we are ready to work with you.

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