I am tired of being a bureaucrat. I am not sure exactly when it happened, but these days I find myself spending the majority of my time assisting school leaders to be compliance leaders. Today was particularly difficult, because there were several deadlines to meet. Supposedly, my job is to help principals improve student achievement, in a school district that supposedly values that. But, the city, and the state, and federal government all seem to insist that if principals complete certain forms, check off certain boxes, enter data into certain systems, and comply with absolutely endless regulations, then our kids will do better. This is complete nonsense. I have been at this game for over 26 years, and have never seen one of these things result in better learning. What ensures better learning has nothing to do with compliance. What makes better learning is collaboration among students, parents, educators, and the community. What makes better learning is encouraging kids to follow their passions and continue the intellectual curiosity that comes so naturally when they are young, and gets beaten out of them as they experience “the system.” What makes better learning is the dedication of inspirational educators who are given the freedom to do what they do best.
Although I am excited about the recent media events drawing attention to the plight of children, I am worried. Worried that this new cry from the public will result in even more forms, more boxes, more data systems, and more regulations.
PLEASE....get out of our way. Let us educate children in the way that makes the most sense.
Educators have had great big targets on their backs for years. So it is no wonder that the media frenzy this week has many teachers up in arms. As a society, we want to blame someone for our ills. Many of my friends in the education establishment were offended by Oprah’s shows this week. They know how hard they work and that they are doing the very best they can in sometimes incredibly difficult situations. They see some disastrous charter schools in their own communities and can’t understand how charter schools are seen as “the answer” by many. They care tremendously for their kids and never feel like what they are doing is good enough. Most of all, they have become disheartened by a system that focuses solely on testing to judge the worth of their students and them.
My experience as an educator for the past 26 years is different from most of my friends. I spent 10 years as a special education teacher in traditional schools. Then I worked for a national non-profit operating small, publicly funded schools for delinquent teens. After that, I founded and ran a private school that accepts state vouchers for disabled and low income students. Now I work for the largest public school system in the country as a central office administrator charged with improving achievement. Additionally, I spent some time teaching undergrad education students about curriculum and instruction and wrote a parenting book in an effort to assist parents understand more about student motivation and performance. So, I see this education debate from a variety of perspectives.
What I know to be true is that there are amazing, wonderful teachers throughout all of our public school systems whose contributions will never be understood, because what they do cannot be captured on standardized tests. However, I also know that many teachers do the bare minimum and are not held accountable for the failings of their students. I know first-hand the frustrations of dealing with parents who simply won’t do the most basic things like feeding their children and getting them to school on time. However, I also know countless families who have fought mightily for a quality education for their children, and have been chastised and beaten down by administrators who enjoy exerting power. I have seen schools that function beautifully despite having very little resources, and every day I see schools that waste millions of dollars yet still complain there is not enough money.
Now it seems that we are caught in a cycle of blame. Teachers blame parents. The media blames teachers. Schools blame the laws and regs. We are all just pointing at each other. At the center of all this madness sit the children, who just want to go to school and learn. It is time that we all become educated consumers of education. What is good education? Is it just performance on tests, or is it more than that, or something different all together? How do we know our kids are moving in the right direction toward their learning goals? What strategies really work and what is the best use of our education dollars? What makes a good teacher? How should we prepare, evaluate and reward teachers? How much money is enough to operate a quality school? What things that are currently in our system are actually barriers to learning? These are the questions we should be asking. Stop the blaming of teachers and parents. Cease the endless comparisons of charters versus traditional public. Start really thinking, and then perhaps improvement will be possible.
So earlier week Oprah donated $6 million to charter schools. This week it is being reported that Zuckerberg, the head of Facebook, will donate $100 million to the beleaguered Newark Public School System. I LOVE that the mega-wealthy are getting involved in fixing our schools. BUT, I am very concerned. We know from history that money alone will not solve our problems. We have been throwing money at this problem for decades with little or no results. There are also examples of places that have instituted true reform without large infusions of cash.
What is the answer? To really reform our schools, we need bold leaders, informed community members who will work with them, and teachers who will enthusiastically participate in the change process. I sure hope Newark will be brave enough to use this money wisely and give its youngest citizens what they deserve.blog post. Click here and start typing, or drag in elements from the top bar.
An interesting result of the unionization of our teaching force is the reduction in leadership skills of school managers. A school district’s collective bargaining agreement sets very clear guidelines on the requirements for a teaching position along with a payment schedule based on length of experience and level of education. It also dictates how a school or district must hire or reduce the number of teachers. I happened to be a teacher in the mid 1980’s when New Jersey passed a minimum salary for teachers. Being part of the union at that time made me very proud and happy. After all, the union was very much responsible for bringing about that change. I went from a mom who was eligible for the free government rice, milk, and cheese (I wish I were kidding) to someone who could actually make ends meet - overnight.
But now, as I work to assist principals improve results in their schools, I find that collective bargaining agreements have eroded the leadership skills of the people who run our schools. Educators have difficulty understanding how to treat candidates who are applying for positions, and how to effectively lure the best candidates to their schools. They know how to follow the rules, but don’t understand how to reward an employee for a job well done. When it is clear that a teacher really should not be in the classroom, they struggle to provide feedback and to engage in challenging conversations. Any organization’s greatest asset is its people. There is no place where that is more apparent than in schools. If we really want to reform education, we need to help lead educators become true leaders.
I read this morning that even the people who make the standardized tests are concerned about their use in evaluating teachers (See Florida Policy Matters
). Don't get me wrong, I DO believe that teachers should be accountable for what kids learn in their classes. But how
to measure this is what seems to be the problem. If you have ever worked in a school, you know who the good teachers and bad teachers are. Everyone in a school is acutely aware of the guy who is just a couple of years shy of retirement, and is just marking time until he can play golf every day. There is not anyone who is ignorant of the teacher who yells at her students daily, because she has no real sense of how to manage a class. Kids know as soon as they get their schedules or class assignments what will be expected of them throughout the year. They know who might be tough, but fair, who will let them slide, and who will be erratic in expectations. Just ask them and they will tell you who the good, the bad, and the ugly truly are. So, quantifying this in a way that ensures fair compensation based on performance is the key. By the way, standardized tests don't do that. They do many things that can be helpful in designing differentiated instruction, and understanding very narrowly how well a student has mastered certain skills or content; but they don't tell us who the good and bad teachers are. What we need is transparency. We need a way to see teachers through the eyes of the people who are around them every day. We need a way to really understand how well each teacher can reach the students, as whole human beings, and help them become better thinkers and doers. I don't think this is impossible and know of many schools that are working toward such systems. The first step is to ask the right questions. Who are the very best teachers? Who are the people I want influencing my own children academically and developmentally? These should be the guiding questions when developing fair evaluation systems of teachers.