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Beginning in Sadness

March 16, 2010

Thank you for taking a moment to read the very first blog post on InterACT, which will eventually become a group blog produced by members of ACT – Accomplished California Teachers.  You can read more about our organization by clicking the link above, but in short, we are a new and growing network of California teacher leaders, committed to bringing more teacher voice to the debates and discussions around education policy.  It’s all well and good for think tanks and politicians and pundits to tell us all what they think they know about education, but there’s usually a credibility gap that they need to be called on.  They don’t understand classroom realities.  They don’t understand teaching and learning the way that we do.  It’s up to us to show why that matters and bring about better results in our field.  We look forward to sharing our vision, and hearing from our readers.

I had no shortage of ideas about what to write for my first post.  ACT is about to publish a report on teacher evaluation reforms, at a time when the federal government and state are looking closely at that topic as part of the “Race to the Top,” and Los Angeles Unified School District is also looking at significant changes in evaluation.  We’ve had major changes to state education policy, raging debates about charter schools and a “parent trigger,” and every time you look it seems like LAUSD has new school reform plans, or the willingness to hand over the reins to someone who does.  At the same time, the Department of Education has proposed its changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, also known in recent years as No Child Left Behind).  You can read their press release, or Diane Ravitch’s critique of the plan, and I’m sure I’ll take up that issue later as well.  It might need to wait because the Common Core Standards drafts were just released, and depending on whom you ask, that’s wonderful or dreadful.  Anyone else getting dizzy yet?

And yet, I find myself unable to focus on any of those topics today, because of these:

My heart goes out to all of the teachers, students, and all of their families as they confront these difficult times.  But, beyond an expression of sympathy, I want to ask a few questions.

How do we even sustain the current quality of a school, let alone improve, when we remove the people most responsible for the fulfilling the mission of the school? It’s not as if the teachers who remain can continue the same quality work they were doing before the layoffs.  When class sizes expand beyond the capacity of the room, and beyond the capacity of the teacher to plan lessons or grade work, then even those who remain are likely to be severely hampered in their efforts to carry on.  When you’ve designed curriculum and projects that are organized around a certain allocation of time and resources, then, at a minimum, you have to retool the work to fit the circumstances, and in most cases, I’d suggest you have to sacrifice certain qualities of the curriculum.  And when the shuffle of teachers puts teachers in a new position, then, as experienced teachers will tell you, the first year in a new position is rarely as effective as the years that follow.  So every teacher forced into a new job will likely have some adjustments to make that will add to the challenges we face.  (There might be some sensible reforms to enact regarding the strict reliance on seniority in these situations, but you can’t expect to craft wise policy reforms in a rush, and in this economic climate).

How do we overcome the ever-growing student-teacher ratio and expect to make a dent in the dropout crisis? The dropout problem is a matter of relationships, support, relevance, and trust.  Preventing students from dropping out is intensive work, often one-on-one work.  It’s good work, important work, work that pays off both in the spirit and in the strength of our state finances.  But, with that many more students to teach, few counsellors, no librarians, we’re guaranteeing that many more drop-outs, that much less higher education and that much less skilled labor, lower productivity, lower revenues, increased crime and all of the costs associated with that.

How do we prepare to meet the growing need for teachers? With a wave of retirements ahead of us and a wave of students going through the system, we need more teachers at a time when we’re paying for fewer, and we’re choking off the supply of future teachers.  How many wonderful new educators have we lost?  How many more are we about to lose?  How many potential teachers are looking at this mess and choosing an alternative career, and how many of those will we reclaim?  Time may allow for the shifts of supply and demand to work out in our favor, but the years that it takes for that to happen are years that our students are spending in school.  We are not dealing with a factory that can can order more or less raw material and adjust the pace of production.  The students are coming.  (Whose children, though?  I can’t help but wonder how many state legislators have their own children enrolled in “revenue limit” public school districts – those hit hardest by the budget cuts).

The students are there.  Our students.  Is it naïve to call on our leaders to show a sense of allegiance to our state, some compassion for fellow Californians?  It shouldn’t be optional to offer a decent education.  It should be unthinkable for our state to treat students and their families with such contempt, to allow education to be so degraded.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. March 16, 2010 3:26 am

    Good to see you blogging, David! You’re a thoughtful writer who will build a great audience.

    As far as layoffs go, these are the only times where I start to wonder whether or not some form of evaluation based on performance might make sense. I don’t know for sure, but I’ll bet that the layoffs were based on seniority, right?

    And if so, that means that good people are being canned while overpriced retreds stay in the classroom. Not only does that hurt kids, it hurts our profession.

    I’m about as anti-evaluation based on performance as possible simply because “performance” means so many things to so many different people, but duds are easy to spot and if principals and district leaders could can them first, I think we’d all be better off as a result.

    Bill

  2. March 16, 2010 3:37 am

    Welcome to the blogosphere, David!

    I’m particularly worried about the question of what will happen to people’s desire to teach in the most troubled schools. As struggling schools go through successive waves of reconstitution–with high-profile removal of staff–it may be that people looking for a long-term career in a school will avoid those schools. I do admire a lot of TFA grads, but I’m not sure they can take up the challenge alone, or that lots of teacher turnover is a good recipe for stability in a struggling school. We’ve seen too many school turnaround stories turn 360 degrees, because the reforms were not deep enough.

  3. Bill permalink
    March 16, 2010 6:42 am

    I was just saying the other day that if I were graduating from college now, I would not become a teacher but rather would get a job in another profession and wait and see if the climate for teachers improves. Alongside the inexplicable calls for reform which have no basis in research, I seriously worry about the effect on education that scaring away potential teachers is bound to have.

  4. David B. Cohen permalink*
    March 16, 2010 7:27 am

    Bill – having encouraged some new teachers to enter the field, I now feel a little bit responsible, and wonder what to say about those decisions you describe.

    Claus – it sounds like maybe you read Alice’s blog too? Because TFA is already being mentioned as an option in her district in Sacramento. And regarding the 360-degree turnaround, it’s sad to note that some of California’s so called “persistent lowest-performing” schools are the small schools less than 10 years old, built out of the remains of a prior lower-performing larger school, all clustered together in the same neighborhood of Oakland. (Thanks to Anthony Cody for pointing that out).

    Bill F. – thanks for the comment. This climate is going to further cut into the capacities of administrators, too. Yes, fewer teachers to evaluate, but more problems overall, and a more significant problem evaluating teachers fairly after putting them and students through the wringer this way. A new evaluation system that would help in situations like this, and more importantly help improve the quality of teaching and learning, must be locally negotiated even if its based on a larger state or national model. Without that local input and control, no buy-in, and poorer outcomes.

  5. March 16, 2010 9:01 am

    I’m so glad you are creating a space where more teacher voices can be heard.

    What you wrote about preventing dropouts is so important, and it holds true for any situation where the student needs strong support – whether it be academic, personal, or social. When the student to teacher ratio is overwhelming, teachers spend way too much of our time managing the paperwork and record keeping. For me, it’s the difference between tutoring a child or scrambling to grade.

    It is unacceptable that at the same time schools are being told to close the equity gap they’re being told to do it with fewer teachers. It is precisely the children who are at a disadvantage academically who need more of their teacher’s attention.

    I’m looking forward to reading your posts!

  6. Jane Fung permalink
    March 16, 2010 10:44 am

    Okay, so my wonderful student teacher from USC is teaching full day right now. As I listen to her work with my students from the next room, I can’t help be feel angry about our future in Los Angeles. Here is a dedicated, passionate, reflective, and patient (I have a lot of challenging students this year with special needs) young woman who wants to become a teacher. I have no doubt that she would be an asset to this profession, yet where will she go? How long will she wait before she has to choose another career path to go. My two fabulous student teachers last year did not find a job. One is working outside of the profession. One managed to find an intervention job at another school district where she at least can get her foot in the door. I am also thinking about all the BTSA mentees I supported for two years to clear their credentials last year who were “fired”. Talented young ladies that were impacting not only student learning, but were promising teacher leaders as well. One moved to Korea to teach this year, one is not teaching, and one is subbing. Over the weekend, all the new teachers for 6 years ago who helped start this urban, hard to staff, title one, program improvement school got their pink slips. The capacity we have built over the years will be be badly damaged. Just as David mentioned, when you replace teachers that have cared and nurtured a school for years with brand new personnel, it will take some time to rebuild what has been lost. I am feeling a deep sadness thinking of what might be. Maybe not all the teachers will be fired, but 13 are on the chopping block.

    Mind you, I teach at the school that lost the MOST teachers in last years lay offs. I teach in the local district where MOST of the teachers were laid off. In a huge district such as LAUSD, what schools will lose the most and what schools will lose very little if anything. Yes, Bill, it was strictly seniority. I do agree with you that we lose a lot of promising teacher leaders. I disagree that the veterans left behind are all duds.I am one of them, being on the top of the seniority list now; but something has to be done. WE DO need to find ways to let people go that should not be in the classroom, but there should be a way to support those that would become more effective it they are provided with the support and resources to help them get there.

    I have now started to encourage my student teachers to move towards Charter Schools. I will also be a public school teacher, but my concern, is that we find a way to keep teachers teaching first, and if it is at a private or independent school, so be it. The students will benefit and the teachers will grow professionally and maybe some day, they will be able to come back into a system that needs them, but can’t find the funds to keep them.

    Thanks for listening.

  7. Wendy Raksin permalink
    March 16, 2010 12:37 pm

    David,
    I am very pleased to read your blog. The more we teachers speak up, the clearer our position will become. We need the politicians to hear us. Just as important, if not more so, is getting the public to understand these issues. Since popular sound bites and jingoish slogans have formed the public’s collective impressions of teachers, we have become the scapegoats of all the ills of today’s youth. Unfortunately, most teachers have sat quietly on the sidelines, complaining to colleagues, but afraid to do anything but acquiesce to the damaging “reforms” mandated by those in charge. We see the problems. We see the results these so-called reforms have on our students. We can see what the future holds for these students and our society. What I don’t understand is why teachers haven’t risen up, en masse, and shouted, ”Were mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.”

  8. David B. Cohen permalink*
    March 16, 2010 3:30 pm

    Kristin – thanks for dropping by, and for the words of encouragement. In case other readers didn’t notice, you can link on Kristin’s name to visit Stories From School (which is also on our InterACT Blog Roll). Stories from School is our model for an excellent group blog by skilled teachers, explaining just what non-teachers need to know about what we do in the classroom.

    Jane – thanks for sharing the inside scoop from L.A. If you can write such a detailed and insightful blog comment, I hope to have you on as a guest blogger soon!

    Wendy – I feel your frustration. As teachers, we’re in a bind, aren’t we? If we shout too much, we’re perceived as part of the problem. If you dare to say the emperor has no clothes (NCLB, RTTT, ESEA, CCS, etc.), there are plenty of people ready to say you have to present a solution, not just present the problem. To some extent, I agree, and that’s why I’m involved in ACT – trying to present alternatives. Anthony Cody’s work with Teachers’ Letters to Obama is another good example – a Facebook group now over 1,000 teachers strong, offering critiques and alternatives.

    Now, if parents stood up en masse, and shouted, “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore!” then politicians would hear that differently. I find it tricky to operate politically as a parent, since my children are students in the district where I teach, and it’s a small district. I don’t think anyone in this community is going to see or hear me as a parent first.

    Lest anyone take my comment about parents and suggest that I ought to then support the parent trigger, I recommend reading Larry Ferlazzo’s blog on that topic:

    http://engagingparentsinschool.edublogs.org/2009/12/07/california-race-to-the-top-legislation-gets-curiouser-and-curiouser/

    http://engagingparentsinschool.edublogs.org/2009/10/29/parents-schools-in-los-angeles/

  9. March 17, 2010 12:23 pm

    Congratulations, David and ACT. Your sad first post is an indication of how important it is for accomplished teachers to make their voices heard in, as Alice says, “the worst of times.” I hope we see teacher leaders beginning similar groups in the other 49 states.

    Blog on! As your ACT colleague Heather Wolpert-Gawron has written: “If society is to respect our profession, as it deserves, we need to write our own stories.”

  10. March 17, 2010 5:52 pm

    David,

    All important points…but what you say about dropouts is near and dear to me:

    “The dropout problem is a matter of relationships, support, relevance, and trust. Preventing students from dropping out is intensive work, often one-on-one work.”

    When will policymakers realize that kids don’t usually drop out of school because they didn’t like math or English or history (even if that’s what they might say)? They drop out because they were lost in the shuffle, with no adult who seemed to have the time to connect with them…no matter how badly we adults do want to connect. The would out there, policymakers not excluded, often think of a school as just curriculum and delivery of curriculum–so if a kid doesn’t make it either the curriculum or the delivery mechanism (our teaching ability) is the problem. For some students, just a curriculum and a delivery mechanism is enough. For the children who would be Left Behind, it is not just a curriculum and content issue.

    I look forward to reading more of your thoughts!

  11. March 17, 2010 11:00 pm

    So glad to see this blog from some of the best teaching minds in CA (and the country)! You picked a great opening topic. The discord between the needs of students in districts such LAUSD, Oakland, Detroit, Kansas City, etc. and the irrationality of teacher/librarian layoffs is deafening in its hypocrisy. We take the most away from the students most in need. We give the newest, least trained entrants to the profession the most challenging teaching assignments with little or no support. Keep teacher voices out there on these important issues.

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