Answer No. 1: Stop scapegoating teachers

September 27, 2010

As part of its "Education Nation" summit, NBC invited New York City teacher Brian Jones to participate in a panel discussion on the future of the teaching profession. Joining him on the panel are Michelle Rhee, the Schools Chancellor of Washington, D.C.; Geoffrey Canada, CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone Project, a network of charter schools; Allan Golston, president of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association; and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

The title of the panel is "Good Apples: How do we keep good teachers, throw out bad ones and put a new shine on the profession?" The discussion will stream live at today at 4:45 p.m. (Eastern time).

First, though, Brian has a few thoughts to share before the bell rings.

I DON'T know how much time I'll actually have to say what I need to say. So what follows is what I would like to say--if I get the chance--this afternoon.

Cue fireworks.

How do we keep the good teachers?

The first thing we need to do is to stop vilifying teachers. Much of what passes for "reform" nowadays is really just a way to attack teachers. Even the blurb I received about the discussion on NBC begins with the following claims:

Research and school-based evidence around the country now confirms that the most important variable affecting the success of the student is the effectiveness of the teacher, and the second most important variable is the effectiveness of the principal. Those two factors far outweigh the socioeconomic status, the impact of parental involvement or class size.

Really? Teacher effectiveness outweighs socioeconomic status? Behind words that sound like they praise teachers and extol our importance lies a line of argument that essentially scapegoats teachers.

Hunger and homelessness are less important than the quality of the teacher? We're living in a moment of mass immiseration. Millions are unemployed. Millions are facing foreclosure. Whole blocks and neighborhoods and communities are being destroyed.

Yet the very people who created this mess--the speculators, the bankers, the hedge fund managers--are the very people who, we're led to believe, are to be the saviors of education! And instead of talking about creating jobs or lifting people out of poverty, they want us to believe that teachers should accomplish those tasks. It's hardly fair. But I digress.

So: How do we keep good teachers?

LET'S START by acknowledging that we should keep teachers. By my count, at least three of our panelists today represent the view that schools are best staffed by a perpetually rotating crop of new teachers.

From a business perspective, this makes perfect sense. After all, newer teachers are cheaper teachers. But this logic spells disaster for education.

As education historian Diane Ravitch put it to me: "Would you want to be treated at a hospital staffed entirely by interns and residents?" Of course not. Rather than make teaching into a job that you do for two or three years on the way to law school--or becoming chancellor--I think our kids are worth the expense that is necessary to retain experienced teachers, especially in schools where the need is greatest.

What you can do

Watch the NBC News panel discussion including Brian Jones when it streams live at the Web site on September 27 at 4:45 p.m. (Eastern time).

To develop and promote great teaching, we should look at models where great teaching is going on. I think that means, by and large, that we should not be looking at charter schools. For one thing, nationwide, charter schools have a 132 percent higher teacher turnover rate than public schools--that's according to a study performed by Columbia University's Teachers College. Charter schools, by and large, are not training master teachers.

The second reason is that the vast majority of charter schools are not outperforming public schools. I know most people would find that shocking to learn, if it would ever get reported. The most comprehensive and rigorous studies--I'm thinking here of several performed by Stanford University--show that only a small percentage of charter schools outperform public schools.

But charter schools have a hype machine that is greatly disproportionate to their actual merits. We've seen that with the new film Waiting for Superman, which portrays all public schools as failures and all charter schools as successful. The idea that's been created in the public mind is that children who couldn't get a decent education in public school are moving to charter schools, where teachers are turning their lives around.

In my experience, however, the reality is exactly the opposite. The students who are the most successful in the public schools are moving to the charter schools, and those who have the hardest time in school--either because of behavior problems or because they are just slower learners--tend to be "counseled out" of charter schools and wind up back at a public school.

My school, PS 30 in New York City, receives such children from charter schools every year. They often arrive in the middle of winter--right before it's time to take the standardized tests by which we all increasingly live and die.

I spoke to one parent who transferred her child to PS 30 after she got the feeling that her child wasn't welcome in a charter school. This lovely child is not a behavior problem, just a slow learner. "I think they were looking for a particular type of kid," she told me. "A gifted and talented type."

This parent explained that she was really excited about the charter school at first, but when there were so many new teachers--and even new administrators--year after year, she became discouraged and eventually stopped counting.

Waiting for Superman follows four students who leave the public school system and enter a lottery for charter schools. But what about the kids who win the lottery and then lose it? What about those who are encouraged to leave charter schools? Are they waiting for Batman?

No, by and large, the people who are working to turn around the lives of the kids who are having the hardest time are teachers in the public schools. Those who are seeing the most success at that work need to be sought out and studied.

We never hear the question asked: What makes great public schools great?

I have a friend who is an excellent teacher. He used to work with me in East Harlem, and now teaches in Scarsdale, which is a wealthy suburb. He really feels like he's growing as an educator, and when I ask him why, he says it's because of the support he receives.

He doesn't face merit pay schemes of any type. In case you missed it, a comprehensive study by Vanderbilt University released this week demonstrated that merit pay has no effect on student test scores.

Rather, my friend is incentivized to develop himself as an educator. He has great financial incentive to take more classes, get more education and seek out more professional development. So the school system is making a long-term investment in him. Furthermore, he has a beautiful campus, and an abundance of resources at his disposal.

I should mention that he also has tenure and is a member of a union.

WHICH BRINGS me to the next point--how to "get rid of the bad apples."

First off, I want to say that in the current context, this question is really a red herring. Despite what Oprah might think, teachers do not have a "job for life." Tenure means we have due process. It means we can't just be fired at a whim.

And despite what you may have heard, the fact is that not everybody gets tenure. That's another myth. Getting rid of so-called "bad teachers" is hardly the problem. Consider the fact that nearly 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within their first five years. The real issue is that we're not doing enough to keep great teachers.

The whole clamor about "bad teachers" is really about attacking teachers' unions and creating a view in the public mind that these unions are themselves the source of the problem. It creates an atmosphere in which teachers feel targeted, not encouraged.

My teacher friend from Scarsdale agrees. "It should be about encouraging and inspiring people," he told me, "not trying to get rid of them. You would never do that with a child." Unless, that is, you're a charter school...

Of course, teachers aren't children. But we are human beings. That means we're greatly influenced by our environment and by the conditions in which we live and work.

And of course, there are some people who really don't belong in a classroom. But that's a very tiny number of people. And it doesn't make sense to blame the union for their presence--that's a question of administration. Who hired this person? Who gave them tenure? It wasn't the union that did either.

I think unions are duty bound to insist that every employee receive due process if there's a question of competence. Frankly, I think everyone should have such due process at every job. No one should be able to be fired at the whim of a supervisor or employer.

It's quite noticeable that we don't have the same tough talk about the people at the top of the school systems. When it was revealed recently that test scores across New York City were actually dramatically lower than originally thought, there was little discussion of even the idea that the school chancellor should be held accountable.

We can have all the high-minded talk about the importance of education all day, but the bottom line here is that people in charge of running the education system are employers. Therefore, as employers, they are going to be more enthusiastic about certain proposals for reform and less enthusiastic about others. If a reform strengthens their position as employers, then it's going to be cheered. If it strengthens the position of the employee, then it's going to be dismissed.

THIS PANEL is framed by the idea that reforms like decreasing class sizes don't matter. But that's nonsense. Of course, class size matters. At my school, we have a teacher who was temporarily assigned to our building after being "excessed" from hers. In the local lingo, she's an "ATR." For lack of another position, she wound up in my classroom.

I have eight years experience teaching, and so does she. But I also have one student who can't read. He spent last year in another country, and we suspect he didn't attend school during that time at all. He knows the alphabet, and that's it. But this excessed teacher sits with him all day, and because of her, he's learning to read. When kids are reading aloud to the class, he wants to join in.

When this teacher gets a permanent assignment and has to leave our class, I'm going to try to continue to help this student, but there's no way I can do for him what she's doing without neglecting my duty to the other students.

From a business perspective, the current setup in my classroom is very expensive. Two teachers in a general education classroom, each with eight years of experience? Unheard of. But it's very effective. It's making a huge difference, and I think we should spend the money to have that kind of setup all over the city. We really could transform kids' lives with a reform like that.

But that would mean more union members, and a stronger union, so that reform can't be considered.

Instead, New York City is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to set up merit pay schemes in just some schools. Again, these schemes are proven to have no effect on student achievement. But that doesn't matter, because merit pay is a reform that greatly strengthens the position of the employer over the employee.

Similarly, the "value-added" model, which claimed to be able to quantify the effect of a teacher on test scores, has basically been debunked as far too unsound to form the basis of any kind of policy. Yet this unproven, unscientific model for rating teachers is touted as the next great thing in education.

There's a racial dimension to these questions that can't be ignored, either. It irks me to no end to hear hedge fund managers refer to the charter school cause as the "civil rights movement of our generation." Education Secretary Arne Duncan says that Waiting for Superman is a "Rosa Parks moment."

Interestingly, Black voters in Washington, D.C. and in Harlem recently--and overwhelmingly--rejected pro-charter school candidates. That's why I think it's more appropriate to call this a Glenn Beck moment. That is, a moment when we should realize that these people are wrapping themselves in the mantle of a movement to which they bear no relation.

Dr. King once said, "The forces that are anti-Negro are by and large anti-labor." Apparently, Black voters are beginning to think that the reverse is also true.

But folks from the business world have an extremely hard time shaking off their faith in free-market principles and their hostility to unions. Evidence and research be damned.

There is more than a slight element of hypocrisy here. To hear the billionaire school reformers tell it, class size doesn't matter, resources don't matter, and experienced teachers are standing in the way of success. But when these same people spend five figures to send their kids to private schools, what do they insist on? Small classes, excellent resources and experienced teachers.

How can we make every public school a great school? Those three things--the things that the wealthy demand for their children--would be a perfect place to start.

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