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How ‘Bout A Little Respect?

I realize the only work-related issue in K-12 education that anyone wants to talk about today is the rumored jobs bill making its way through Congress — a bill that could, depending on whom you ask, either save thousands of essential teacher jobs or simply delay the need to trim excess positions out of a bloated bunch of state budgets — but I can’t stop thinking about a conversation I had last night with my brother-in-law, a recent graduate of the NYC Teaching Fellows program and a prospective Special Education teacher in a city that sorely needs them.

Now, without bragging, I can objectively say that my brother-in-law is an ideal candidate for someone so new to the profession — he’s smart, dedicated, talented, well-schooled, astute, and also well-aware of the reality of the situation he’s entering. He’d make a great hire, and it sounds like plenty of NYC principals agree — except they can’t hire him yet, and they may not be able to until the last week of this month, just a few days before the start of the school year. That’s because a huge slew of jobs won’t technically become available until then, resulting in a now-annual mad dash at the end of the summer, and a rather disorienting (and stressful) point of entry into an already-challenging gig.

I remember that feeling of disorientation well. Over a decade ago, I began one school year as an 11th grade English teacher in Manhattan. Then, over a month into the school year, I was given my walking papers when another teacher with more experience who had been let go from somewhere else in the city was “assigned” to my school — leaving my department chair with no choice but to tearfully let me go, moments after the final bell on a Friday afternoon.

I was stunned. I had just started to establish meaningful connections with my kids. Now I would never even have an opportunity to tell them what had happened. I would simply disappear.

I spent the weekend frantically calling around to see if other opportunities existed at such a late date. Amazingly (and disconcertingly), they did, and by Sunday evening I was on the verge of accepting a new position. Then my department chair called to say there was an opening in the History department. I could stay at my old school as long as I switched the students, grade and subject I taught. And so, over the course of two days, I swapped out a complete set of kids and lesson plans for another classroom and subject — five full weeks into the school year.

My point in all this?

As I’ve written before, we will not have meaningful change in this country until we invest deeply and over the long-term in the establishment of a true long-term teaching profession, and not a short-term teaching force. There are a number of key policy levers that need to be pulled for this to happen — and a few ideas we must avoid at all costs. But how about we get started right away by ensuring that teachers don’t have to wait until a week before the school year to find out where they’ll be working?

Teaching is the most difficult and rewarding job a person can do. Under the sorts of conditions I just described, it becomes almost impossible. Deep and sustained investments in teacher preparation will take a generation to truly develop. But letting teachers know ahead of time where they’ll work is an easy, and important, self-correction that needs to be made ASAP.


Teacher Money Will Have To Wait, Senate Democrats Say

Yesterday, Congressional Quarterly reported that Senate Democrats have abandoned efforts to add $23 billion for saving teachers’ jobs to their chamber’s supplemental war spending bill, acknowledging they don’t have the 60 votes to block an expected Republican filibuster.

Republicans have criticized the White-House backed proposal as a “bailout” that shouldn’t be attached to an emergency war spending bill. Supporters of the education jobs measure say that it would stave off the loss of tens of thousands of education positions at a time when state budgets are stretched thin and funds from the 2009 economic stimulus law are running dry.

I’m sorry — I realize that teachers have become the face of our dysfunctional education system these days (which is another story), but could there be anything more essential to our national interests than ensuring that our schools remain well-staffed in the midst of numerous state budget crises?


The Teachers’ Unions’ Last Stand?

In case you missed it, Steven Brill wrote a relatively balanced piece in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine about the national education reform landscape — and how teachers unions are truly facing a sink-or-swim moment of reinvention.

As someone who feels neither allegiance nor antipathy toward either of the increasingly polarized camps (I actually like and respect both Linda Darling-Hammond and Jon Schnur), I see the partial truths in each side’s argument. On one hand, for example, it’s clear that K-12 teachers should not be granted lifetime tenure so easily — tenure, after all, was originally designed to protect the free-expression rights of college professors, and since the First Amendment barely even applies to public employees anymore, that point is moot. So I say bring on this reform.

It’s also clear that teacher evaluation systems need to be dramatically retooled. When educators can only be scored ‘satisfactory’ or ‘unsatisfactory,’ that’s a huge problem. So again I say yes to any reform that results in a new system that creates a reciprocal flow of feedback and helps educators improve the quality of their professional practice.

However, I see one massive problem — and it’s a problem that no one, Brill included, seems interested in addressing:  Everyone wants to tie these new teacher evaluations to student performance data, but no one wants to talk publicly about the fact that we lack sufficient metrics for truly evaluating the full extent of whether or not young people are learning and achieving at high levels.

As I’ve written many times before, basic-skills tests in reading and math provide a single, useful proof point that is, in the current climate, dramatically overvalued. To help students learn to use their minds well, schools — and teachers — need to focus on not just basic- but also higher-order skills; they need to engage children in not just reading and math but also the arts and sciences; and they need to focus less on just data per se, and more on how well we’re equipping our teachers to respond to data in ways that improve the overall learning conditions (and outcomes) for kids.

A system, therefore, that incentivizes compensation and job security by using a single measure to count for as much as 50% of an evaluation will incentivize — you guessed it! — a relentless focus on basic-skills reading and math scores. But that’s not enough if we want the achievement gap to mean more than test scores. And more people need to start calling it out.

The good news is that although we may not yet have these more sophisticated metrics in place, at least we know what we should be looking for. This month, I’m finalizing the manuscript of a book that brings together 50 powerful stories about teaching and learning — selected from the many hundred that have been submitted by people across the country as part of a national campaign. The stories recount a wide range of experiences — from third grade classrooms to Outward Bound courses to church missions to prison sentences — but what they combine to make visible are the core conditions of a powerful learning environment. (See for yourself at rethinklearningnow.com.) And although they do not reveal a simple, single answer to the deeply complex question of how to improve our schools, they do clarify the question we should be asking ourselves at every turn — How do we create more challenging, engaging, supportive, relevant and experiential learning opportunities for children?

Imagine if more people started asking that question. Imagine what a new statewide teacher evaluation system would need to look like in response. And ask yourself — would you want that sort of environment for your child?


Good Review of American Schools

The prolific Ken Bernstein, aka “Teacher Ken,” just reviewed my book for Teacher Magazine. See what he has to say here.

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