Sunday, September 28, 2008

Better Teachers

I received a newsletter with a most thought-provoking cover story:

What if "improving teacher quality" isn't the answer?

Think of the ramifications for public education if it's not. It's a chilling thought, and one that merits some serious thought.

There is the broader/bolder crowd, that argues that it's unfair to hold schools accountable for raising student achievement because so much that influences achievement is outside of schools' control. There is the growing chorus of voices that wonders whether "closing the achievement gap" should continue to be the primary objective of our education system, mostly because such an objective implies that we are not much interested in maximizing the progress of white, middle-class, and/or high-achieving students.

While I agree that schools alone can't fix the problem of student achievement, that does mean that schools shouldn't do everything in their power to affect what and who they can. Let's not use "we can't control what goes on in the home" as an excuse not to do anything.


Polski3 said...

Hi Darren,

What newsletter was this from? One of the mantra's at our school has been, "We try to control what we can; WE are responsible for what happens in our classrooms." I can agree with this for the most part, but I think schools need a bit more power to be able to do what needs to be done to encourage some students toward better academic success.

For example, we have students in our classes, but we cannot hold them accountable for just sitting and not participating. If they cause disruptions, then yes, we can follow school discipline plans to deal with them. But they are not learning the academic material they need (according to the state standards) when they are in "time out" or "Buddy Room" or sitting in the "in-school suspension" room. Yet, we (teachers and schools) are held accountable for their test scores.

I'd be interested in seeing this newsletter. Thanks !

Darren said...

It came from the September 2008 issue of Education Matters, a publication from the Association of American Educators.

Anonymous said...

There is a lot of blame to spread around.

*Teacher edu-programs are crappy, and what I experienced when I jumped through the hoops was all but worthless. I think it's safe to say that OJT is the norm for many teachers.

*Teachers have effectively been emasculated in terms of their authority, and the societal fabric promotes this. The result is a situation where it is harder for anyone to achieve. Another contributing factor is the tenure/hiring process, which makes mobility costly.

*The "everyone must go to college" mindset has helped to promote a one-size-fits-all approach, which does not serve anyone well-- students and teachers alike-- and effectively creates an environment where the goal seems to be the same shitty education for everyone.

*The unions have helped to create an environment where everyone gets paid more or less the same, regardless of how effective they are. Human nature reacts to this in a very predictable way, for the most part.

I think the market can provide some solutions. Tuition vouchers, for starters. Plus I think teachers should be able to switch employers after 10+ years without penalty. But I'm not holding my breath.

Darren said...

I agree with everything you said!

allen (in Michigan) said...

Improving teacher quality obviously *isn't* the answer. It's an obvious enough goal, and a straightforward enough goal, that if it were pursued it couldn't help but be attained.

In fact, probably everyone who reads education blogs knows of *schools* in which teacher quality was a pivotal consideration. Some smart, dynamic principal made it a non-negotiable consideration and as long as that principal ran that school teacher quality wasn't allowed to erode. As long as that principal ran that school.

Trouble is, schools are part of larger entities - districts - which have their own driving agendas and teacher quality isn't all that important at the district level. Nor, I'm beginning to think, can teacher quality even be made an important consideration at the district level. Certainly I've never heard of a district, at least a large, urban district, in which the sort of forceful prioritization of teacher quality that's doable within a single school, has been accomplished.

That's why I've come to be convinced that an effective, efficient public education system, within the confines of the school district model, can't be done. It's either school districts and what we've currently got or it's no school districts and things'll change.

Darren said...

I'm hopeful that Michelle Rhee can effect some change in DC.

Kelvin Oliver said...

Seems like this topic always start a battle or a long list of everyone saying something about the issue. The blame game.

allen (in Michigan) said...

Why? Is there something about the district model that particularly recommends it other then familiarity?

For the life of me, I can't think of a single thing the district model brings to the table educationally. It's the result of a political deal made a hundred or more years ago and it's primary benefit was to keep rich people from bolting the system en mass.

As for Michelle Rhee, she may be the exception that proves my contention.

If it takes someone of exceptional talent, drive, determination and intelligence to effect constructive change - and it's yet to be determined if Ms. Rhee will succeed - in an urban school district then what's that say about the system?

Also, let's keep in mind that Washington D.C., in common with a number of urban school districts, has well into double-digits pushing towards 50% of its kids in charter schools. Nothing so focuses the mind it's said as the imminent prospect of being hung so Michelle Rhee enjoys the benefit of the scratchy feel of a hemp noose around the collective throats of the Washington D.C. school district.

If that's what it takes to motivate substantive change in the public education system then, once again I ask, what is it about the district model that recommends it?

Darren said...

I don't understand your comment--I don't disagree with anything you said, and I certainly didn't say anything to promote the district model. In theory, I like local control, but only because corruption is then more localized! That's not saying much good, though.

allen (in Michigan) said...

Darren: I'm hopeful that Michelle Rhee can effect some change in DC.

Allen: Why? Is there something about the district model that particularly recommends it other then familiarity?

Okay, I see my conceptual leap without benefit of intervening stops.

Rhee's job in D.C. isn't to save public education but to save the D.C. school district which will save public education in Washington D.C. Or so the supposition goes.

But why go about it indirectly? Why save the public school district to save the public schools to save public education when education occurs in the schools and not in the district or at least not in the district organizational hierarchy?

I know that Rhee's job is to save public education in Washington D.C. by saving the school district but I'd just like to point out that's the indirect, if conventional, way to get the job done. But it's a lousy way to save public education and it may be an impossible way to save public education.

I've asked the question, possibly on this blog, certainly on others, for an example of a successful, large, urban school district. So far I haven't gotten any replies. I don't think that's because people are shy. I think that's because no one knows of a large, urban school district that's considered to be successful.

There are some that are lousy, some that are lousier and some that are truly execrable. It's as if the entire right half of the bell curve of school districts educational quality simply doesn't exist and no one seems even mildly interested at the omission.

So you're hopeful that Rhee can do the job no one else you can think of has managed to do to date. Doesn't that suggest that the job itself is at fault and not the job holders?

Darren said...

That is certainly one reasonable way to interpret the data points, yes.

However, as a great realist once said, "You fight with the army you have, not with the one you'd like to have." =) Since no one is redesigning public education from the ground up, the "Rhee option" is currently the only one I see.

allen (in Michigan) said...

I understand that Rhee has to fight her war with the army she has. I'm just increasingly convinced that no one, no matter how capable or how well supplied, can win that war.

So far no one's mentioned any cases in which the "war" has been won. Do you know of any? I don't.