Wherein I Weave Together Some Disparate Ideas, Part I

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As usual, life (by which I really mean “school”) has gotten in the way of blogging. But I’ve finally reached a less stressful point in the semester. I have a few days where I can actually breathe, and I’ve got some things to say. They’re not as timely as they could have been had I gotten around to posting them a few weeks (or months) ago, but better late than never, I suppose.

I also apologize in advance if this post gets a bit long-winded. For a while now, I’ve had a fairly focused post in mind, but the longer I went without writing anything, the more I’ve added to it in my head. Now I have what should probably be at least three or four separate posts, but I’ve decided to combine them into two, because they are—to my mind—very much related.

The first point is a feeling of anger about some of the invective that’s been spewed by those who oppose teachers’ unions. I’m not personally a member of a union, and I often think for all the good they do for their members, they generate some serious negative externalities that deserve to be examined in the light of day. I could probably rant for days about how the MLB Player’s Association has ruined baseball, but I’ll spare you. So, suffice it to say, even though I certainly lean left, I’m not in lockstep with unions, whether teachers’ or otherwise.

Regardless of your political views, though, everyone should be able to recognize that teachers have an incredibly difficult but incredibly important job, and in most cases, they do it for very little pay and only average benefits. “Summers off” seems to get thrown around as a benefit, but I don’t think that counts if you also use that to justify the low pay. Let’s not forget that many teachers have to work summer jobs to make ends meet.

For the sake of simple math, let’s say that a teacher works 40 weeks a year. That gives her eight weeks “off” in the summer, two weeks around Christmas, a week for Spring Break, and a week’s worth of assorted other holidays that other workers might not receive. And let’s say that this teacher’s salary is $40,000, or $1,000 per working week. (For the record, that’s a sum many teachers—especially those early-career teachers most susceptible to burnout and career change—would love to have.) And let’s say that this teacher, when she’s “working,” puts in 50 hours/week—probably a conservative. So before taxes, this teacher makes $20/hour, about as much as a journeyman plumber.

And this brings me to my next point. No one teaches for the money. That should be obvious, but maybe it’s not. Most of the teachers I know chose teaching because they are selfless people. They teach because they feel a desire to give something back to society. Because they want to make a difference. And they are willing to make sacrifices—financial and otherwise—to feel as if they are doing some good. As such, their identities as teachers and their identities as people are often one and the same.

Tell a teacher enough times that he or she is doing a terrible job, and the truly good ones—the ones who really care—will start to look for another career. If you can’t be a good person, if you can’t give back to society as well as you had hoped, why not at least make a little money? By bashing teachers, I fear that we drive away not the “bad” ones, but the good ones.

I can only speak for myself on this one, but I know that too much of my self-worth as a person is wrapped up in the kind of teacher that I am. When I feel that I have failed a student, I feel that I am a failure. Unlike some in the corporate world, I don’t say, “Well, it’s other people’s money. I’ll still get paid at the end of the week.” Because it’s not other people’s money—it’s other people.

It’s not uncommon for me to work from 7:30 am until 4:30 pm, come home, take care of some chores around the house, eat dinner, and then put in a couple more hours of grading before bed. During baseball season, I go strong from 7:30 am to 6:30 pm, skip the chores (leaving them to my overburdened by amazingly understanding wife), and then do an hour or two of work before I crash. And I work (planning, grading, etc.) almost every Sunday, usually somewhere from 4-8 hours, catching up from the previous week and getting ready for the week ahead.

I’ve purposely avoided calculating the exact number of hours I work in a week, because I’m pretty good at basic math. I’m afraid the hourly wage would be intolerable, especially in those weeks where I feel like I wasn’t able to do “enough” for my students. Of course, I chose this line of work, so I’m not asking for pity. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask that we teachers be spared the nonsense that we don’t work hard for what little we make. Are there some freeloaders and hangers-on? Of course, just as there are in all professions. But the overwhelming majority of teachers and dedicated, hardworking, selfless people.

I suppose many Wall Street executives are dedicated and hardworking people as well (selfless, I’m not so sure), but I know that I, for one, could endure a whole lot more negativity toward the profession if I had more money. We’ve seen a whole lot of negativity directed at the fat cats on Wall Street over the past year or two, but many of those same people received multi-million dollar bonuses even as their companies tanked. If I got a multi-million dollar bonus, perhaps I could buy a pair of those really nice noise-cancelling headphones from Bose. Then you could gripe all day long about how easy teachers have it and it might not bother me a bit.

Actually, it would probably still get me fired up, because as I said before, my identity as a person is wrapped up in my identity as a teacher. At my core, I am a teacher, and I am not the only one who feels this way. So, don’t attack us and then act surprised when we get indignant and start storming the statehouse. And more to the point, don’t attack teachers and then expect the problems we face in education to clear themselves up. If teachers are the number one factor in student achievement, as many politicians and “reformers” claim, they need to be rewarded and encouraged, not browbeaten.

I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but ultimately, to devalue the profession in any way is counterproductive. It’s already hard enough to find qualified teachers, is it not? So whose bright idea was it to challenge their economic security and make disparaging remarks about them at the same time? I’m sure that will bring aspiring teachers out of the woodwork.

This brings me to my final point. I finally had the opportunity to watch Waiting for Superman over the weekend. I’m still processing it, but I do think it’s very much related to what I’ve written above: debates over how to improve education get to the very core of what we value as a society, and what we value as a society is very much in a state of flux. Ultimately, though, Waiting for Superman proposes incremental changes at best. Even if we could snap our fingers and make the changes that the filmmakers seem to support, our education system would still be fundamentally flawed. In that sense, the film is little more than a red herring, diverting our attention from a more fundamental (and, likely, more controversial and intractable) problem. I’ll address this in my next post.

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A Blog About School

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A couple of months ago, I came across A Blog About School, written by parent and law professor, Chris Liebig. It has quickly become one of my favorite education blogs. For me, personally, Chris serves as a powerful antidote to the some of the irrational parents I have had to deal with this year–a refreshing reminder that the great majority of parents not only care about their kids, they also care about what is right and good for kids in general. At the end of the day, it’s not just  about grades and test scores–and, as Chris points out, our current emphasis on “accountability” and “performance” has serious implications for participatory democracy. In short, he gets it.

Although he sometimes blogs about local issues, he also writes about the sheer madness that sometimes passes for “school reform.” Occasionally, the two intersect. One of his recent posts along these lines caught my attention. In it, he wrote that “Iowa City has a reputation as an artsy, intellectual, socially liberal college town; the Advocate even named it America’s third most gay-friendly city. So why do so many features of our public schools seem like they could have been designed by the most authoritarian, anti-intellectual, corporate-captive elements of America’s political spectrum?”

The policies that have drawn his ire of late are severely shortened recesses and the requirement that children eat lunch while bundled up for Iowa’s winter weather–to maximize playtime during the too-short recess, of course. And all of this to free up more time for drill-and-kill test prep.

In the same post, Chris pointed out that he was not “sure exactly what ‘progressive’ means, especially in the context of education,” to which I responded that progressivism has always contained a strand of technocracy–a abiding faith in the ability of science to improve our world. More to the point, though, given the recent thrust of his posts, I also asked him what he thought about Sudbury schools, which have really captured my interest of late.

I honestly don’t know as much about them as I should, but I appreciate Chris’ thoughtful response. His understanding and mine seem to match, and like most of his posts, it’s worth reading. It’s a careful and nuanced view of a school environment that would seem the antithesis of the “authoritarian” policies he so despises, but one that comes with its own set of challenges. I look forward to his forthcoming second post of Sudbury schools.

Teacher Tenure (in Independent Schools?)

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All of the recent talk about the need to eliminate teacher tenure has gotten me thinking. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t fully understand the ins and outs of teacher tenure in public education. Working in independent schools, it isn’t something I’ve ever dealt with on a personal level. Perhaps I shouldn’t wade too far into this debate, seeing as how I don’t really know what I’m talking about, but that has never stopped me before, so here goes.

First, my instincts tell me that no teacher should be totally insulated from dismissal, so perhaps eliminating teacher tenure makes sense. If we’re being honest, there are a lot of unengaged teachers in the public schools. I had a few of them myself–but I also found a way to be successful without their help (and I don’t think this point can be emphasized enough: at the end of the day, responsibility for success must rest first and foremost with the students themselves).

Firing every single one of those bad teachers tomorrow–as some seem to demand–is not a practical solution, and more importantly, it would not solve the problems that our educational system faces, even if it were possible. On top of this, the little bit that I’ve read suggests that teachers can be terminated for such reasons as “incompetence” or “inadequate performance,” so would we really need to eliminate teacher tenure to get rid of the bad apples? Perhaps so. It’s certainly easier for politicians to sell (and voters to buy) “firing bad teachers” than defining incompetence or inadequate performance in the classroom. If NCLB has shown us anything, it’s that the very attempt of defining competence or adequacy in the classroom is fraught with challenges.

That said, a shake-up of the system couldn’t hurt. This is by no means a simple fix–I don’t think people can be scared into doing their jobs well–but it may be a starting point. Combine a more challenging path to tenure with better support for early career teachers, substantial professional development, and the promise of an eventual increase in pay, and maybe we start to get somewhere. Make tenure more difficult to achieve, and I suspect that people would begin to strive for it. Make it the next brass ring in the never ending quest for brass rings. (There are many reasons, after all, why so many Ivy League seniors apply to Teach for America; it’s not simply idealism or altruism.)

I guess what I’m getting at is that maybe teacher tenure should be granted only to those teachers who can demonstrate competence. Notice that I did not say that we should fire all teachers who are not granted tenure. Simple math dictates that we need at least some of those mediocre teachers to stick around for at least a little while longer. Nor do I advocate determining competence based on standardized test scores. This doesn’t work. What we need is a more sophisticated model.

Although tenure in higher education faces significant challenges as well, perhaps we can take a page from the university’s book. Not only must a junior professor demonstrate patience, serving in his or her junior role for five or so years, he or she must also demonstrate competence. In history, at least, this means a proven track record of peer-reviewed publications, respectable colleague and student evaluations, and service to the department and the institution, among other things. Scholars spend a significant amount of their preparing this file for the committee.

Obviously, the actual rubric would look quite different for K-12 teachers–most notable would be the absence of publications–but I see value in requiring teachers to compile a portfolio to “sell themselves” to a tenure review committee made up of multiple constituencies–fellow teachers, administrators, board members, and perhaps even parents.

This is naive, I know. But what I see is a lot of entrenched interests arguing past each other, and I think we need some “outside the box” solutions.

Shifting gears a bit, I can say that as an independent school teacher, I long for some sort of tenure system not unlike the one I describe above. (On this note, is anyone out there aware of an independent school that does grant tenure? I’d love to hear about it.) I suppose I’m looking at a series of one-year contracts from now until I retire, and this isn’t exactly reassuring. Given all that teachers are asked to do, and given the price at which they’re asked to do it, the promise of job security goes along way toward a teacher’s peace of mind. (Summers “off” are nice, sure–but they’re not enough in and of themselves, especially if you’re worried about having the next year “off” entirely.)

The fluctuating independent school enrollments of the current economy make any such promise difficult at the moment, but if lifetime tenure is too much to ask (and realistically speaking, it probably is), I would also be very much in favor of a system of contracts that gradually increase in length. It might look something like this:

  • One-year contract
  • One-year contract (Year 2)
  • One-year contract (Year 3)
  • Two-year contract (Years 4-5)
  • Two-year contract (Years 6-7)
  • Three-year contract (Years 8-10)

From there, teachers could either be granted longer contracts (five years? ten years?) at the discretion of the administration, or they could continue on the “three-year plan.” This would still allow schools some leeway in their staffing, but also provide faculty with a measure of job security. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I think this would inspire loyalty among faculty as well as ensure the institutional memory and program stability that independent schools seem to covet.