Friday, September 24, 2010

Schools Under the Microscope: Part Two

(IMPROVING  takes time. We ought to remember that when we are talking about institutions!)

Diane Ravitch, Why I changed My Mind about School Reform  in the March issue of the Wall Street Journal, is an excellent article to jump start our discussion. Ms Ravitch is the author of " The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, " published in March by Basic Books.

"On our present course, we are disrupting communities, dumping down our schools, giving students false reports of their progress, and creating a private sector that will undermine public education without improving it."

As of this date, many schools in the United States, from Washington D.C. to California, have been closed, or have become private, teachers have been dismissed, parents have been given permission to take their children somewhere else, and funding and support for public schools are at an all time low. This last year's economic recession has further penalized any effort to stabilize this institution.

We all agree that strong and well qualified teachers form the backbone of a good system. When we enter a classroom, and  observe that  teacher's'interaction with her students we can draw many conclusions  about her effectiveness. But that's just an impression, a snapshot. Teaching is a complicated dance, both choreographed by the teacher and danced together in that room, at home and in the community.
Teachers are the directors, the performers, the writers and the set-design of their show. Like preachers, they need a willing audience, a trusting relationship, great tools, and a support system that allows them to spin magic in their rooms.

It's easy to say, let's hire the best qualified. Does that mean, the one with the highest grades?  I don't know about other countries or other states, but here in the West, college students need no more than average grades to apply for teachers' training. We don't get the best students.  For decades, we have needed more teachers (in the West)  to staff hard to staff classrooms such as those for new language learners, bilingual classrooms, special education classrooms.  Our math and science classes in secondary schools are extremely hard to staff.

In Teachers' Training, nobody is excluded for personality or character flaw. Harsh, soft, radical or liberal, every teacher candidate is welcomed. After two-three years of probationary status, they become permanent and are offered automatic renewal in their contract, or permanency.  Their contract specifies how often they get evaluated, visited, consulted with, and how the process is structured.  If  problems are discovered early in the teacher's career, he/she is given assistance to improve.

Once a teacher is permanent, only two reasons really exist for dismissal: criminal behavior, or total incompetence.  The first is usually a law-enforcement issue, not an educational issue.  Total incompetence is extremely hard to define and even more difficult to prove.

A great deal of the talk about Reform, has to do with getting rid of incompetent teachers.  Everyone agrees our children deserve the very best.  Most people want short cuts to teacher dismissal.  Most people have their own idea of what determines incompetent behavior.  What we have not done is bring the teachers' unions and association into this discussion, into certification and re-certification issues.  When a teacher is under fire, we take sides.

Strong qualified teachers need a host of support to remain strong and qualified.  They need strong leadership in administration and in their board members, and they need opportunities to share and learn from the best throughout their career.  Even strong teachers become weak and maimed if parents don't support their methods, if tools are not available, if the paperwork,interruptions and politics of their district sucks the energy out of their efforts.

Strong qualified teachers also need incentives, such as good salaries, opportunities for advancement and recognition, opportunities to contribute to the running of their institutions.
 Strong, qualified teachers want strong leadership, appreciate rules and procedures that keep their campus safe and pleasant.  They will not stand in the way of reform; they will welcome change that will benefit student success.

Most of our schools are under-staffed, meaning that people are doing way too much, besides teaching a full load. Teachers run clubs, field trips, enrichment programs, as well as testing and committee work.  Their reaction when we mention school reform is yes, let's get rid of those incompetent people.

I'm offering  Two solutions to this big problem: First: Strengthen the selection,the training,  the hiring process and the internship programs.  No young person should go into a profession that will not be a good match for her.  Those first years of teaching are critical.  Let's design these steps more carefully, and give those new teachers plenty of support,building  critical skills and habits right from the start.

SECOND: Let's involve teachers in school reform, by making them the leaders in finding solutions, not the victims of a bloodshed.  Teachers know how best to reach students and how best to improve curriculum.  Giving them time and resources, they will build wonderful learning communities.

How do I know this? I have seen it work!


Ann Best said...

These are provocative suggestions. Excellent! I keep thinking about my third granddaughter who wants to be an elementary school teacher. I want her to get the support she needs to do the best teaching/guiding possible. She's so eager and loves young children. We need to support every such candidate.

Eva Gallant said...

Good post. Our schools definitely need help.

potsoc said...

I don't know about your collective agreements nor about your unions. Up here, the main obstacles to improvement are the collective agreements and the straight jacket our goverments have allowed to be imposed on our system and our managers.
When it comes to hiring the lowest common denominator is used: does the candidate match the minimum requirements and is she or he the one with the most seniotity, not competence, seniority.
No wonder our educational and health and social services are going down the drain despite the huge financial investment.

Brian Miller said...

i think you make some great suggestions....having them have a voice, because they are the ones in the trenches, is so important...

Cynthia Pittmann said...

Only a teacher knows deep in her/his bones what kind of challenges are to be faced everyday. I often imagine the one neighborhood school where every community parent sends their children and has an investment in it's success. It's a school similar to the one found in "Anne of Green Gables". Do you remember that school?

How could it be possible to learn all the subjects from one person to the level expected and needed in our present times? I sent my son to public school in California, and he was placed in a special education classroom for ADD. We moved to Tennessee, and I enrolled him in public school again. Only this time when they reported classroom problems, I decided to volunteer to teach phonics/reading in the resource room. I also suggested some modifications by using a checklist and teacher-parent communication notebook. He made it through that rocky 3rd grade year with success. When we moved to Puerto Rico, I home schooled him for six months but I realized he wouldn't learn Spanish from me. He had to go to Public school. Again, the rocky times were felt. With lots of parent involvement, he finally graduated from high school with honors. A miracle!

I also raised a daughter who attended public school for a time, however, she competed for a scholarship and went to a academically rigorous private prep school, which made enable her to successfully compete for university scholarships.

I don't know what is the answer to our schools present predicament. Teachers definitely need to be involved in the reform, as you say, but also goals have to be defined. My son needed individualized education without the labels. My daughter needed a school that offered a more rigorous academic program.

Every school location is not ideal-especially if it's not safe. Parents want to place their children in private schools because of many reason- but one compelling reason is smaller class sizes, more one on one teacher interaction, and safety. These are the parents who have a choice. But what about the others who are looking for a place where their children can thrive? A place where they won't be exposed to drug usage, aggressive behavior, and strong value differences? Should they be forced to send their children to the school that's in their community? My children made it successfully through they difficult K - 12 years, but I taught them both "on the side". Teachers don't have the time to really engage with the student's individual needs.

I agree that society has to decide to place more emphasis on providing a good education for all children. And I also suggests that more individualized schools that meet specialized goals are the way to go.

As a student, I once interned at a magnet school. I taught the children reader's theater. It was a wonderful experience for me but also for the children. I provided the experience as a workshop to a group of students. And we all learned. I think that's one way to reform schools.

Cynthia Pittmann said...

I agree that society has to decide to place more emphasis on providing a good education for all children. And I also suggest that more individualized schools that meet specialized goals are the way to go. As a student, I once interned at a magnet school. I taught the children reader's theater. It was a wonderful experience for me but also for the children. I provided the experience as a workshop to a small group of students and we all learned. I think mutual benefiting arrangements are one way to reform schools.

#1Nana said...

I have resisted writing on this topic...wanting in retirement to let it all go and forget about all the problems and the stress. Then I spend a day in a classroom and the frustration builds. Today i had a classroom with 40 kids enrolled (about half of them were absent today)and 16 textbooks...

Such a complex issue and i don't see us making progress even after years of reforms.

Arkansas Patti said...

This is an incredibly complex problem with no one solution. I guess I am just glad it is finally getting serious attention.
I personally went to both high ranking scholastic schools and to "minimal expectation, fun schools". Both schools graduated students. There was no comparison in the finished products.

the walking man said...

I personally think the best and first step to school reform is to get every knucklehead politician out of office who pushed to privatize public education. Voting in the mid terms is a good place to start.

I hear people in MI whine and complain about the MEA (UNION) but what I don't understand is why? A tenured teacher with 25 years makes roughly 45K a year and actually knows how to do their job but is hamstrung by layers of management that seems to have forgotten what a teacher does and a school board elected that never spent one damn minute inside a classroom or a principle who's main focus is the bottom line. Profit at taxpayer expense.

Get it all back on track? That's a long haul when we pass kids on to the next grade so they are not stigmatized but can't read. Even the Private/Pubic charter schools do not graduate anywhere near 50% of freshmen.

Nope this starts as a political fight and I for one say get rid of the pro business anti middle class republicans who do nothing but bow to their masters and I do not mean their master degrees.

Grandmother said...

I can see the solution since my grandchildren attend a small school (in Trinidad which uses the British system) with small classes, lots of teacher attention and involvement, a young principal eager to make things better and an active PTA. I agree with your solutions- sound and sensible- and throw in another that we know as self evident, namely, small classes.

Angela said...

Hi Rosaria, somehow I stumbled over your blog again, how could I not, with THAT subject! In Germany, we have been discussing our school system ever since the seventies, when the here so-called 68`s (anti-war, greens, flower power people, with all sorts of anti-authoritative ideas)took over. They did Germany GOOD, in many ways, but they overdid it in many others. Learning should become "juster", friendlier, not so demanding, was their credo. Well, we tried it, and the results showed that though it SOUNDED nice, not even the children really enjoyed it. Their learning results deteriorated. A certain amount of discipline and demanding is simply necessary!
And yes, as you say, the teachers` education must be efficient. It is, here, by the requirement of passing a University degree on both your subjects AND didactics, and afterwards a two-year practical time (internship).
We are discussing all sorts of model schools, like language, music, science, bilingual extra efforts, and many do show good results. But in those city areas where we have many non-German kids, things are tough. How can teachers cope with non-helping parents? We are in the middle of a loud discussion here!
I get carried away, but what I mean is, education should be one of the Number-one topics of every nation!!! And a much greater amount of the nation`s income should be invested. Education sure pays dividends, how can a government not see that?

RNSANE said...

All three of my sons, attended school, from start to finish, in San Mateo County, CA, in the public sector. Thankfully, I think they were in good schools, with teachers who seemed very dedicated to the children and were committed to teaching, in spite of the poor salaries and frequent obstacles they faced in providing a good education to their students.

Of course, now my oldest is 40 and my youngest is 25. I cannot believe the changes in the schools in the last fifteen years. It takes a truly dedicated person, these days, more than ever before, to even consider going into the profession. Cutbacks are rampant and teachers do not receive the necessary support to provide even the basics in the classroom. Schools are woefully overcrowded and electives such as the arts and sports programs no longer exist.
Every junior high school and high school in our area must have a
law enforcement officer assigned to deal with the violence that is
constantly erupting from within the
schools which I find really frightening. How are children learning in that kind of atmosphere?

I can see why teachers become burnt out and move on to other professions. Parents need to become more involved in their childen's schools and to take an active role in their student's classrooms, offering support and aid to their teachers.

Marguerite said...

For all of these reasons, I worked two jobs and sent my children to private schools, from pre-K through 12th grade and I have never regretted it. Even in the 80's and 90's, the public schools were on a downward slope. And I agree that any school is only as good as the teachers and parental involvement and support. Great post!

lakeviewer said...

Ann--YOur grandchild will be a great teacher if she is fully supported when she starts. No amount of enthusiasm will carry through the challenges faced by first-time teachers. The profession has become a challenge.

Eva--You know how it was when you taught high school. There were so many teachers who did the minimum, left campus right at three. We want to insure all teachers are involved in both curriculum issues and management issues. Being involved in solving problems together will open up a great deal of communication among all stake holders.

Paul--Collective bargaining is one small problem that might prevent some fundamental changes. Most problems can be summarized as allocation of dwindling resources. Unions have blinders on; they will not give up their built-in salary increases even when times are tough.

Brian--It is a difficult process, though, necessitating time and committment from all concerned.

Cynthia--your experiences are typical of most parents. Is Puerto Rico having similar problems?

lakeviewer said...

Nana--I joined the school board here in Oregon, seeing yet another side of the educational puzzle. From this perspective, I see the bigger issues as I never saw before. If the local community is poor and undereducated, they will not tax themselves enough to adequately provide what their students neeed. A place like Eugene has additional bonds to improve and build new structures as well as provide special programs. So, again, a disparity for a certain group.

Patti--Yes, schools can graduate according to the curriculum adopted by the local school board that reflect the community's priorities.

Walking Man--Yes! Right now is the time to ask these questions of our politicians.

Grandmother--Yes, yes! Small classes would be a great improvement!

Angela--I couldn't agree with you more: Education should be the number One function of a great society. I didn't realize that other countries are having their own difficulties on this same topic. Thanks for sharing.

Carmen--Schools in urban areas have become more and more dangerous, so much so that they continually lose teachers and administrators . Without safety, nothing happens.

Marguerite--I don't blame you; you had to make choices, and your children's education was important. We moved to be close to good schools, adding hours to our commute to work. These sacrifices are hard on families.

Rob-bear said...

You have certainly opened up an important discussion Rosaria. I particularly like the bits about teacher selection and training processes and about involving teachers in planning solutions. (Indeed, we are seeing some of the first at our university.)

As to unions, there are many conflicting pressures, which they do not necessarily handle well.

Nonetheless, our two grandchildren are being home schooled by their father. He doesn't particularly trust the system, with good reason in some cases. And as their grandparents, we get involved in the process, in a variety of supportive roles.

lakeviewer said...

For Rob and others: I will have to take up Home Schooling in a special post, especially since during this upcoming political campaigning, the challenger for the local senate seat is a supporter of home schooling. Look for my new post in the next couple of days.

Right now, the sun is shining and I'm on my way to a glorious beach walk.

Thanks, everyone. You know that if we all put our heads together, share perspectives, we can come up with fitting solutions. We are not all experts, but we are all consumers of these services.

Rob-bear said...

I'm looking forward to Part Three,
Rosaria. The situation in Canada may be different from what you're facing in the U.S., so I'll be interested in the differences.

Among other things, the work of home-schooled children is very closely monitored by the local Boards of Education. And home schooling parents often get their kids together for activities.

Cloudia said...

Thanks for sharing your considerable experience to this crucial matter!

Aloha from Waikiki

Comfort Spiral

ds said...

AMEN!! As the daughter of a teacher and as one who attempted (and failed) to do some of her own, I know that it is a difficult, demanding and frequently thankless profession. Sometimes--in wealthier districts, especially--parents are able to organize financial and moral support. But with this economy, even that has become difficult. And true mentorship nearly impossible to find.

High School Business and Spanish Teacher said...

As I respect your notes, I must say that from my experience (and I am a recent BBA graduate) educators in all grade levels are very incompetent. Always looking for raises, complaining they don't get paid enough, yada yada yada. Has anyone noticed they make (in kentucky anyways) nearly 65000 dollars for a mere 181 days of work a year with full benefits, retirement, and large government loan debts removed just for becoming a teacher? If you think they need to be paid more I say nay. Teachers nowadays also seem to do less than when i was a child. why is this? Nowadays for every ten children, there must be one adult in a classroom. this means that for a classroom of thirty children, there must be a certified teacher and two teacher aids. who do you think spend personal time teaching these kids? thats right, the aids who barely make minimum wage and never went to college. the teachers sit at their comfy desks in their comfy chairs complaining about how noisy the class is being and sending each other emails about how hard their lives are and how difficult their jobs are. I quickly learned that i teach myself better than anybody so i have been taking online classes since sophomore year in high school when my mother chose to put me in home schooling due to dropping scores in my local school system. If citizens only saw the waste of money that is being used in the school system. they schools need budget cuts, they have too much money! i see them waste it everyday because they have to spend it or lose it and they decide to buy everything under the sun, even if they don't need it. it seems like everytime i turn around at the school i work for, iphones are being given for work phones, ipads are being given as business computers, and then some. who ever heard of buying a three thousand dollar smart board to show to first graders instead of actually writing on a board? this is utterly rediculous. I see children everyday in the public school system un-learning everything their parents taught them before schooling. at home children are taught to respect adults, wash their hands, wipe their feet on the doormats, don't scream inside, and always flush. In the schools they learn to pee in the floors, never flush, forget to wash their hands, run around and scream through the hallways and backtalk teachers. why? because teachers would rather not fool with them because their 65000 dollar salary isn't enough to work as hard as they could. we should do away with public schools and only have private schools with annual reviews of teachers by a us government entity as the irs audits our personal taxes. if you can't afford schooling, you must not go to school. why lower standards when you can raise them. if a student doesn't want to be in school then kick them out and make them wish they would have done better, the same with college. education should be a privelege, not a right, and without this attitude it will only get worse. also, when did youtube become an approved learning tool in the classrooms? i remember when we actually used textbooks and not digital nonsense.