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Teachers Deserve to be Supported Not Attacked

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Teachers are under attack around the country with the assaults at a state level on their collective bargaining rights. Understood within the discussion around the anti-union bills is the misguided idea that teachers are overpaid, coddled incompetents who are largely responsible for the fiscal and social problems found around the country.

So there’s a great deal of hand-wringing about the state of education in the United States. Attempts to fix the system through the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) have proven to be ineffective, as Diane Ravitch has continuously and elegantly pointed out in her speeches and writings. Race to the Top claims that it can correct the problems with NCLB, but what is common with both programs is that they are attempts at reforming the educational system through a carrot and stick approach of rewarding high achievers and punishing the rest; close down schools that don’t achieve and fire teachers whose students don’t perform.
And what is performance based on? Standardized test results. Teachers, schools and students are evaluated on how well they perform on standardized tests. The belief that test scores are an indicator of student learning is controversial at best. Test scores do measure, to some degree, how well students can answer a set of isolated questions and problems within a set period of time. For some subjects such as mathematics, science or reading, standardized tests have some validity and usefulness. While I am not a strong proponent of standardized tests, I regularly gave them to my students during my teaching career, and the results were useful when taken in the appropriate context. However, I would not use them as the sole measure to evaluate student learning. Most international schools (I’ve worked in international schools for the past two decades) evaluate students based on a combination of standardized tests and a variety of types of authentic assessment such as completing a project where a student puts into practice the concepts, ideas and skills that they have been introduced to in class.

And while student learning shouldn’t be evaluated on standardized test results, nor should teacher performance be evaluated based on how well students score on these tests. Teachers are more than content deliverers. If all we had to do was fill the heads of our students with some facts and figures, our jobs would be significantly easier and much less rewarding. What do teachers do then, if not just stand up in front of class and drone on and on about multiplication tables, differential equations and the dates of Revolutionary War battles?

They introduce facts, figures, concepts and ideas to their students, and lead them to develop a real understanding of those things and how they are interrelated. They work on curriculum development, they do recess and lunch duty, they engage in professional development activities (often during their vacations or after school), they work collaboratively with colleagues, they keep pace with the latest in instructional technology, they correct papers and write reports, they counsel students who often bring troubles from home into the classroom, they meet with parents, they provide their students with inspiration and sometimes in between all this they have time for a bathroom break.

Are there some bad teachers? Sure, I’ve met a few, although the overwhelming majority of my colleagues were dedicated, caring professionals who spent their own funds to supplement classroom materials and often spent less time with their own children than they did with the children of other people. 46% of all new teachers leave the profession within the first five years. Schools in low income areas lose as many as 20% of their teachers each year. Teachers who can’t make the grade or are discouraged by the lack of support they receive leave, they don’t hang around looking for an easy payday. Teaching clearly is not the utopia for slackers that some politicians would like Americans to believe. It’s time that teachers were given the support and respect that they deserve.

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About drbruce

  • Baronius

    Drbruce, teachers do an important job, no doubt about it. But does that necessarily mean that they’re underpaid? They’re not being attacked or assaulted; their pay is being cut, and they’re potentially losing their collective bargaining rights. That’s unpleasant, but not an attack.

    We all want a solution to the problems in US education. Cutting teachers’ salaries isn’t it – but it is a partial solution to the financial problems that many states and communities are experiencing. Getting rid of that bottom 5% of teachers could be part of the solution to the educational problem, if we measure teachers’ quality correctly. That process won’t even begin under the current system of collective bargaining.

  • drbruce

    Baronius, thanks for the comment. I think that the teachers in states where their collective bargaining rights are being taken away would disagree with you about being under attack. Collective bargaining has been a key part of the rise of teacher salaries over the past 20 years. Most international teachers aren’t covered under any kind of collective bargaining and that leaves them in a situation where they are at the mercy of administrators or school boards in terms of salary, benefits and working conditions.

    Teacher salaries in many states have improved greatly, but there’s still a ways to go especially for new teachers. How do we measure teacher quality? I think that the portfolio approach is one avenue to explore where teachers are evaluated based on a body of work in a number of areas. Using the standardized test scores of students is definitely not the way to go. I don’t see how collective bargaining keeps new forms of teacher evaluation from being discussed and implemented. Any suggestions?

  • Clavos

    I don’t see how collective bargaining keeps new forms of teacher evaluation from being discussed and implemented.

    Next to collective bargaining itself, the ideas of teacher evaluations and merit pay (the institution of which is one of the reasons school boards want evaluations — the other of course, being the ability to identify and dismiss deficient teachers) are the two issues to which the unions are most opposed. The use of evaluations will also open the door to merit promotions, thereby knocking into a cocked hat the old union pillar of promotion and/or layoffs strictly by seniority.

    Evaluations strike at the very heart of union principles and their raison d’etre, the unions will not go gently into that evaluation night.

    The arguments centered on the means of evaluation are a strawman. Evaluation of workplace performance is not rocket surgery, managers in business have been doing it successfully for eons. The implication that somehow teacher evaluation is an arcane, mysterious art is nothing but another obstacle thrown up by the unions to delay the inevitable.

  • drbruce

    Thanks for the comment Clavos. I was evaluated when I was a teacher in California and that was in a school which was unionized. Maybe things have changed since I taught in the U.S., but I’m assuming that teachers are still evaluated regardless of collective bargaining. When I was taking classes for my principal’s certification in Washington state, one of my classes was on evaluation procedures and processes.

    Schools are not businesses and education isn’t a business. I’ve been on both sides of the table – most of my career in education was as a teacher, but I also served as a principal in two international schools. I would argue that teaching is an art and good, meaningful evaluation is also an art. It can certainly be done, but definitely not using a business model.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Clavos –

    Evaluations strike at the very heart of union principles and their raison d’etre, the unions will not go gently into that evaluation night.

    That is not true, Clavos. Just because one is in a union does NOT keep one from being evaluated by one’s employer, nor does it stop the employer – if he has concrete reason to believe that a certain employee simply isn’t working out – from firing that particular employee. The key, mind you, is that if the worker is part of a union, the employer MUST have just cause to fire him – and it can’t be “just ’cause the employer wanted to”.

  • Clavos

    education isn’t a business.

    Oh, but it is when properly managed; in fact, the idea that education is not a business lies at the heart of the problems with the government schools.

    Some charter school systems that prove how well schools do when operated as businesses are the Green Dot Public Schools in Los Angeles, run by Steve Barr, the KIPP charter schools, founded by entrepreneurs David Levin and Michael Feinberg, who have built a network of nearly one hundred high-performing KIPP charter schools over the past sixteen years, and the Harlem Children’s Zone, which is run by Geoffrey Canada, who was featured in the Davis Guggenheim documentary film, Waiting for “Superman”. Canada’s firm provides a variety of social services for disadvantaged children as well as two of New York’s most successful charter schools.

    It’s worth noting that many of the most successful charter schools (in terms of student achievement) are located in inner city poor neighborhoods, which negates the oft-repeated allegation that the principal problem with the government schools is poverty, and that their mandate to serve all areas puts them at a disadvantage when competing with non government schools. This argument is often raised in opposition to the vouchers concept.

  • drbruce

    Thanks for the information, Glenn. Having spent most of my career in private international schools, I’ve seen how the lack of a union can allow an administrator with an agenda get rid of teachers easily based on purely personal reasons. That being said, my Stateside administrator friends have complained to me of the difficulties with firing incompetent teachers. But that’s part of due process.

  • Clavos

    That is not true, Clavos. Just because one is in a union does NOT keep one from being evaluated by one’s employer, nor does it stop the employer – if he has concrete reason to believe that a certain employee simply isn’t working out – from firing that particular employee.

    That is true in industrial union shops, Glenn, but not in government unions. Firing government employees (including teachers) is next to impossible, and rarely carried out.

    I was a union employee (IAM) my first year in the airline industry, so I’m quite familiar with union work rules. I got out of the union as quickly as I could, because i didn’t like the way the work rules, particularly the seniority rules, denied me promotions and pay raises I felt I had earned. I liked it much better working “at will” jobs and later even became part of the management negotiation team that negotiated contracts, grievances, etc. with the union; a job I particularly enjoyed.

  • drbruce

    Clavos, I’d suggest you take a look at some not-so-rosy views of charter schools, including Diane Ravitch’s review of Waiting for Superman.

    Another article that examines teacher turnover in charter schools to look at.

    I haven’t taught in a charter school, and personally I haven’t taken a close look yet at how the schools you mention are run. But, I intend to examine the data that’s available. This item suggests that KIPP has an advantage in funding.

  • Clavos

    I have read Ravitch’s review. I saw the film myself at a special preview to which I was invited by a charity which I support with both money and my time teaching inner city and poor kids to improve their reading skills. I also reviewed the film for Blogcritics.

    Obviously, there is much of Ravitch’s article with which I disagree; she has an agenda (which, more than anything, seems to defend the role of the unions in education), and her POV is colored by it.

    It’s true that a significant number of charter schools do not get the job done acceptably, but that is not reason enough to do away with the charter concept itself (a position advocated by the unions), any more than the presence of some bad teachers in the system is reason to get rid of all of them.

    It’s a complicated, multifaceted issue, and it’s disturbing that the unions and prominent educators like Ravitch seem to be engaged in circling the wagons, rather than acknowledging the very real deficiencies in what was once a decent educational system and then working to correct the flaws.

  • Clavos

    By the way, drbruce, I note with interest that for much of your career you worked at private international schools. My own grade school education (through eighth grade) was at one such: the American School Foundation in Mexico City. It was vastly superior to the contemporary public schools Stateside at the time, though it deliberately was modeled on the US public schools and taught the same curricula as they. It was accredited by, I believe, the Southern Association of Secondary Schools and Colleges. It is still in business.

  • handyguy

    It would be great if all public schools could perform as well as the best KIPP charters. But is that in any way practical and affordable? It takes a big supply of gifted teachers; small classes and individualized instruction; and, hardest yet most important, very motivated parents and students. All these things are in limited supply and difficult to attain.

    Thus the heartbreaking lottery scenes in Waiting for Superman.

  • drbruce

    Clavos, first I applaud your spirit of volunteerism in working with school kids. Schools need to be part of the community and students need to know that. When students know that the community is taking some responsibility for what happens in schools, it encourages them to develop a better attitude towards school and learning in general.

    I read your excellent review of Waiting for Superman and see that you recognized some of the problems with the how charter schools were dealt with. You comment that Ravitch has an agenda in defending unions, but your comment in the review about correctly attributing the problems in education to unionism seems to indicate an agenda of your own as I saw no mention of evidence to support your claim.

    Indeed, this is a complicated issue and one that, I’m afraid, is going to becoming more complicated as it becomes a political football with the left and right squaring off on the collective bargaining issue for one.

    As handguy notes (thanks for the comment), where will the money for gifted teachers, small classes and individualized instruction come from?

    I have heard of ASF; I’ve spent my time overseas in Indonesia and Pakistan so I haven’t had any experience with international schools in the Western Hemisphere. But, you’re right. International education is, by and large, better than a lot of the education back home. But, why is that? A lot of it has to do with parents, funding and a community feel to the school. Obviously there’s more, but it’s time for me to get some sleep. Have to take the kids to school tomorrow. Kids start school before 7:30 in Indonesia.

  • Cannonshop

    A lot of this is perspective. I don’t know many actual conservatives (any, really) who blame TEACHERS for the problem-it’s administration (Administratium, maybe) that comes up with the brain-dead policies and top-down bullshit structures that keeps teachers from being able to…y’know, TEACH and stuff.

    But they do share some of the responsibility-especially since, as union members, they don’t seem to have much of a handle on their union leadership, which in turn results in Collective bargaining agreements that deny them merit pay and trap them in a seniority system that doesn’t reward anything but endurance.

    Based on conversations with a former educator who left because not only wasn’t she being treated with dignity, but she had to deal with some genuinely idiotic directives from above while in the craft, I come to the realization that maybe our Education Unions need to go back to basics themselves-a Union is supposed to represent the interests of the MEMBERSHIP. Not the political ideologies of whatever Party happens to be gathering contributions from it, and that a Union should probably NOT be double-dipping with its hands in Management.

    When your steward is your manager, you’re not going to get a fair deal. Nor is your employer when their front-line management happen to be members of the Union.

    For a Union-Management system to work, the roles need to be clearly defined and the relationship can not be one of collaboration against the stockholders, shareholders, or customers.

  • Baronius

    Drbruce – Just as a point of clarification, in the US following the shooting in Tucson, there’s been an effort to remove violent language from political dialogue. That’s why I objected to the terms “attack” and “assault”.

  • handyguy

    An effort ignored just about hourly here on Blogcritics, Mr. B.

  • Dan

    Speaking of violent languge in political dialogue, one Madison Wisconsin school teacher, Katherine Windels, has a novel solution for solving school budget shortfalls:
    Bullets in the heads of Republican lawmakers

  • drbruce

    I agree with keeping roles clearly defined. I could never understand how union members or officials could take on management roles. Thanks for the comment.

    Baronius, I get your point, but I haven’t seen much civility introduced into political discourse since then.

    Dan, obviously, if the story pans out, the woman has some serious mental health issues.

  • Cannonshop

    #18 Mind that I also gotta wonder why Teachers Unions seem more interested in getting blue-collar style work-rules, than in addressing things like the cost of maintenance on their members’ skills, adequate materiel support for doing their jobs, etc. etc.

    At the very least, they should be pushing to have the state pay for state-mandated classes required to keep the teaching certificates, instead of making their members pay for those courses themselves. It really doesn’t make sense for a State Employee whom is already employed BY the state, to pay for courses required by the State, or lose the certification that state requires to work for the state.

    In manufacturing, a private company doing the same act would rapidly run out of employees.

  • Dan

    “Dan, obviously, if the story pans out, the woman has some serious mental health issues.”—drbruce

    Indeed. It is typical of the type of story that gets downplayed in a slanted media but it has panned out and Ms. Windels is being attended to.

    Of course she’s an outlier in the larger spectrum of teacher protesters, but judging from the view on my television; it’s not hard to imagine a similar mindset among spittle flinging teacher/protesters who stormed the Wisconsin capital building. A disgraceful display of incivility.

    No, I think it is the fiscally conservative politicians who are being most unfairly demonized. They were elected to do what they are doing. What they are doing is honorable.

    Even though your article is representative of a recent trend in such preemptive “defensive” pro-teacher propaganda, I found it to be well written, and likely to connect with a segment of people who haven’t heard it yet.

  • Boeke

    I’d have more confidence in businesses running schools if I thought businessmen were doing a good job running business, and I don’t. We’re just struggling to recover from a time when business (with the wholehearted support of a compliant presidency and congress willing to hand out every kind of favor) has run American business into the ground while sheltering their own personal interests and forfeiting the interests of their clients and shareholders.

    And you want those bozos running the schools?

  • Tommy Mack

    “…fiscally conservative politicians who are being . . . demonized…”

    You bet they are. It is the company that they keep that attracts the tar.

    When I had joined the Musicians Uniion [AFofL] because it had the CBO at Disney, it meant I couldn’t work for wages below scale. But I wanted to play music at Disney and Orlando didn’t care. Union conflicts.


  • Clavos

    I say we round up all the conservatives and gas ’em.

  • drbruce

    I have no general problem with fiscal conservatives, Dan, as long as they’re willing to cut the tax breaks and benefits to the wealthiest section of society while they’re demanding that the rest of us cut back. And thanks, I guess. I wasn’t aware that I was writing propaganda.

    And yes, I have to agree with you Boeke.

    Not sure I’d go that far Clavos. Maybe just give them some extra homework for the weekend.

  • zingzing

    “I say we round up all the conservatives and gas ’em.”

    “rehabilitate.” that’s the word you were looking for. they aren’t lost causes, they’re just lost. bigotry and hate aren’t positive things. we just need to turn them on to positivity. pot. that’s the answer. they’ll get it if they just get a bit high.

  • Cannonshop

    What’s funny, is that for the most part, actual on-the-ground conservatives oppose those same tax-breaks and corporate welfare schemes, drbruce.

    Which is one of the main reasons that they’re kept largely shut out of the halls of power, often the only bipartisan effort you see, is the establishment Dems and Republicans (*the, for want of a better term, “Republicrats”) joining together to demonize and attack (with extensive corporate monies) any movement that might threaten the incestuous relationship between Big Government and Big Business (a relationship that, ironically, includes Big Labor as a major tool.)

    Hence the lack of any REAL differences between the economic policies-in-practice of the OBama and Bush administrations-both featured large bailouts of corrupt business-the only difference being that Bush actually spent LESS doing it than Barack did, and both highlight new and extensive expansions of Government (PATRIOT ACT for Bush, Obamacare for Barack), expansions with many provisions of questionable constitutionality, that service…

    Big Business and Big Government at the expense of the Citizen, the Citizen’s Rights, and the Taxpayer for dubious gain and at ignorance of the long and short term costs generated.

    Notably, both sides are funding these expansions with foreign wars that are rooted in murky (at best) pronouncements of ideals, rather than cold strategy and metrics for determination of success-a strategy best shown with LBJ’s “Guns and Butter Economics” of the 1960s (used to fund “The Great Society”.)

    Alas, it’s not some ‘great conspiracy’, no Bilderbergers, Masons, Zurich-Lawn-Gnomes or other secret societies can claim ownership of this-it’s a natural outgrowth of the fact that, with a largely ignorant (by choice) population, it is easy to centralize more and more power, and with that power, comes both corruption, and the drawing to it of the individually corrupt.

    We have the National Leadership our parents worked so hard to give us.

  • zingzing

    cannonshop, if you could translate that into sane, you might have a point. the thing goes from maybe probable to MEGAFUCKINGCRAZY real quick.

    put your thoughts down without going nuts.

  • Christopher Rose

    zing, apart from the paragraph about how the funding is being generated through foreign wars, which I don’t understand, I thought most of Cannonshop’s comment was pretty accurate, albeit nothing new or even controversial…