Sensible Talk is author Robert Niles' blog about... sensible things.
April 17, 2013
Some parents around the country are pulling their kids out of federally-mandated standardized tests this spring. They're hoping that by taking an individual stand against high-stakes testing, they can help change the system.
But opting out of testing is the wrong choice. By taking individual stands against testing, parents are reinforcing the corrosive belief that education is a consumer product. And they're making it easier for opponents to turn more citizens against their local schools.
So how do we get what we want? The same way unions have for a century and more -- we organize. Whether it's joining a national group such as the Network for Public Education or a local organization such as Invest in PUSD Kids, parents will change public education only by working together, and not by acting alone.
If you look closely at the package of "reforms" bring introduced by corporate-backed politicians around the country, you see a common belief -- that education is a consumer product and that schools should be run like businesses.
But great education doesn't yield immediate returns. Education isn't a commodity -- teachers who do wonders for one student might fail another, and vice versa. The simplistic math formulae that allow a management consultant to maximize short-term return on investment in the banking and technology industries can't model the complexity of human learning for millions of students from wildly disparate backgrounds.
By pulling your kids out of state testing, you're acting like a education consumer -- and that's playing straight into the corporate "reformers"' hands. Yes, we need to stand up against the corporate takeover of our public schools. But we won't do that acting individually, as consumers. That's playing on the billionaire's turf. We'll only do this by working together, and becoming a political force -- millions of voters whom the billionaires can't buy.
March 11, 2013
My post last week on the 'myth of the excellent teacher' elicited an intriguing comment from a reader that it should be easier to get rid of the worst of the worst teachers in a school system.
While I agree that abusive or bigoted teachers should find no place in our public education system, I think people who support public education need to think about how we frame our discussion of this issue. If we're willing to frame education reform as a question of "how to lay off bad teachers," then we've already lost. Why? That statement implicitly delivers suggestions that a) teachers are bad and b) schools spend too much and c) cuts are a given. By agreeing to address the "how to get rid of teachers" question, then we've conceded those important points about teacher quality and inevitability of education cuts.
Let's instead reframe the discussion as "how do we increase the number of good teachers available to help our students?" Or, how do we increase the chances that a student will be paired with a teacher who can forge an instructive relationship with that student? As I wrote last week, when we cut the number of teachers available to students in a particular grade at a particular school, we reduce the chances that each student will be matched with a teacher with whom he or she can have that type of productive relationship. Students are individuals, after all, not computer programs or gears in a machine that behave predictably in a given situation. Our students need and deserve human instructors who can adapt to their particular individuals needs, temperaments, and personalities. The more -- and more diverse -- teachers we have, the better the chances that our schools can provide teachers who match with every one of our students.
(Also note how I talk about "our" students. If we're to win back support for public education we must insist upon talking about it as a public good -- a system provided by, accountable to, and of great benefit to all. Public education isn't a consumer product, bought by parents for their individual student. Opponents of public education want to frame education as a consumer product, of concern only to parents and students, so that people without children in the system will be less likely to support the taxes that fund it.)
No, our communities don't have an infinite supply of money to spend on public education. But we do, collectively, have a heck of a lot of available money to spend. The stock market trades at an all-time high. Corporate profits are up, and richest Americans are richer than ever before. There's plenty of money out there to, at the very least, stop laying off teachers and even to start hiring more beyond that. But elected officials never will find the political will to raise taxes on the rich in support of public education if supporters of public schools can't reframe news media discussions about education.
Poverty levels in our schools are rising, thanks to declining purchasing power for working Americans over the past generation. More than half the public students in California today come from families that can't afford to pay for their students' daily lunch. Those students need extra attention, extra guidance and extra instruction from our public schools, to make up for all that they aren't getting at home. And yet, because these students' needs lead them to score lower on standardized tests, our cynically labelled "No Child Left Behind" framework gives their schools less money to meet those needs, enabling additional spending cuts for public education around the country. That leaves communities with less educated workforces, ultimately leading to more poverty and lower student performance. It's a vicious cycle, designed to weaken public education and drive away families who can afford an alternative.
(In California, the system is particularly vicious, as school funding is based upon student attendance days. So if a family chooses to send its child to private schools, that decision costs their local public school district money. Sure that decision reduces the district's cost by having one fewer child to educate, but districts maintain necessary overhead expenses that don't go away when students do -- boards, superintendents, buildings, buses, special education infrastructure, etc. That reduces the per-pupil funding remaining for the students who stay in public schools. Heck, if a public school student is sick for a day and stays home, that leads to school funding cuts. But it's not like a school can send a teacher home for an unpaid day for every 25 students who call in sick. For economists, this is called a highly elastic funding system to pay for highly inelastic expenses. You don't design systems this way unless you intend for them to fail eventually.)
If we want to be able to better match students with teachers, and to improve teachers' abilities to work with an increasingly diverse student body, we need more administrators, not fewer. We need principals, counselors, librarians, and coaches who have the time to get to know students and teachers, to discover strengths and weaknesses and to provide the matching, training and support that both students and teachers need to develop instructive relationships.
But districts can't provide that kind of support to their teachers if they must continue to lay off support personnel in an attempt to minimize the number of teachers they must dismiss to meet reduced budgets. Again, to use a sports analogy, we can't continue to play on this side of the field.
Still worried about getting rid of really bad teachers? OK, let's go there for a moment. There's not a district in America where you can't fire a teacher for cause. If a teacher is abusing a student, or discriminating against protected classes of students, a school board can fire that teacher once they build a case of evidence to support those accusations. But again, a district needs administrators to document those cases. Lay off your "extra" administrators, and there's no one left with the time to document a termination case. What about tenure, you might ask? What about it? For public school teachers, "tenure" simply means that a teacher no longer can be fired at the whim of school officials -- they have to have a reason, such as a documented case for cause, or overall layoffs. I suspect most American don't know that, and believe that tenure means lifetime employment for teachers, no matter what.
Again, that shows why we need to reframe the discussion about public education. If we're talking about the acceptable ways to lay off teachers, we've lost. We need to stop laying off teachers, and start hiring more. That is what we need to be talking about. That is what we need to be fighting for.
March 7, 2013
Sure, I've had several teachers over my life whom I considered excellent. But just because a specific teacher was excellent for me doesn't guarantee that same teacher was excellent for every other student he or she taught.
I remember one high school teacher who drove me and a handful of other students to improve our writing, and her lessons remain inspiring and instructive to me, even today. But many other students couldn't stand her abrasive style, refused to work and failed to develop in her classes. Was she an excellent teacher?
My daughter has a great year with one of her elementary school teachers, exploring music, writing and science at a deeper level than she'd done before. But my son endured a very different experience with the same teacher three years later. For my son, this previously patient, wonderful teacher was almost bullying, and my son hated the class. Was that teacher excellent?
That different people have different experiences with the same teacher shouldn't surprise anyone. Education is a deeply personal experience. A teacher can put forth all the lessons he or she can deliver, but education doesn't happen until a student learns. And when that happens depends as much on what ability, motivation and context the student brings to the class as what a teacher offers there.
This is why poverty has such a devastating effect upon student performance. If a student is fortunate enough to enjoy a wonderful relationship with a specific teacher, learning flows. But when that doesn't happen, a student with well-educated and resourceful parents can count on them to fill the gap. Those parents can step up to help explain lessons, assist with homework or hire tutors to help their child learn. (As I wrote above, two children with the same background, even from the same family, can have vastly different experiences with the same teacher. "Excellence," even when it does happen, is not a constant.) A child with poor, or absent, parents doesn't enjoy those resources. For them, the education happens in the classroom or it doesn't happen at all. If those students get lucky with a teacher who has the ability to connect with them as individuals, great. Otherwise, learning just doesn't happen in that class. Over time, a middle-class or wealthy student will continue to progress, regardless of their relationship with various teachers, while a poor student eventually will fall behind unless they hit the jackpot of being able to develop wonderful relationships with every teacher they get.
Which is really hard to do when states are cutting school budgets, increasing class sizes and leaving teachers with more and more poor students to try and develop instructive relationships with each year.
How, then, can anyone truthfully measure teaching "excellence"? More crucially, how can me measure teaching failure? Is it fair to label a teacher a "failure" when he or she is given a class of 30+ students with no home support and whose lack of access to proper nutrition, health care and even decent rest at night threatens their ability to learn? Even if a teacher in that situation managed to pull off the miracle of getting all those students to progress, it's folly to expect that they'll be able to progress at the same rate as a class filled with well-off kids with parents paying for good meals, quiet bedrooms, regular checkups and after-school enrichment programs.
And yet, we've got people like Michelle Rhee, writing books and showing up all over the TV, promoting the idea that if we can just turn education over to the "excellent" teachers and fire all those failing ones, America's schoolkids will live happily ever after.
If we really want to improve the quality of education for all American children, we're going to need a lot more teachers, not fewer. Only with more teachers can we increase the odds of students in a particular grade at a particular school system having available the teacher who's a good match for their needs, their temperament and their experience. Only by hiring more counselors and more administrators will we be able to do a better job of matching teachers with students and their communities, to improve the odds that education happens in the classroom, without relying on rich parents to pick up the slack.
We're not going to improve education by cutting support to all but a few arbitrarily designated "excellent" teachers. We're going to improve education in America only by spending enough to build and develop more instructive relationships between teachers and students, no matter their backgrounds and abilities. The more we focus on that, the more "excellent" teachers we will develop.
My wife often says that the key to education (she's a music teacher) is for an instructor to begin where the student is. You're not going to get far trying to work with an ideal of what you want a student to be, in lieu of working with the student you actually have.
It's the same for Americans and our education system. We might long for an ideal of cheap, easy schools where a few superteachers can ride in and save the day by teaching everyone the same way. But education doesn't work like that. Students aren't software programs or gears in a machine. They're people -- individuals with unique needs, dreams and abilities. They deserve the attention, care and instruction of a personal education experience. More than half of children attending California schools can't afford to buy or bring their own lunch. We've got to work with what we have, not what we wish to imagine our communities to be.
If we want to have and reward excellent teaching, we need to put students in position to have excellent relationships with them. Following the advice of those who wish to cut the number of teachers, increase class sizes, reduce support staff and leave teachers with less of a say in their work won't ever help that happen.
Update: If you care about public education, too, please take a moment and look at The Network for Public Education.
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