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!