California students are thankfully done with the old Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program, and for better or worse, are moving on to the Common Core aligned Smarter Balanced assessments. The change results from the passage of AB 484 in this past legislative session. Certain education reform advocates have concerns about the lack of accountability that will result from abandoning one testing regimen before the other is fully operational. Those concerns assume the prior notion of “accountability” was working, which I’d suggest is not really the case; the old tests were so weak and the stakes so high that we did students and schools a disservice to spend time focused on those tests. (To be fair, no law dictated to schools or teachers that they should raise scores by teaching to the test and engaging in test prep, but it was a rather predictable outcome; policy makers at many levels have exacerbated those problems for years, even with the evidence available to suggest they should have instead aimed to mitigated the damage). Teachers with experience in high-performing schools can tell you that high scores don’t depend on test preparation. For lower performing schools under more intense pressure to raise scores, the best approach would be to enrich student learning in any number of ways – almost anything other than test preparation. But that’s mostly what I’ve heard about from colleagues around the state, with the worst example being whole high school courses dedicated to test prep.
For all the debate about what to do with test results – rank schools, evaluate teachers, “improve” teaching – I’ve found too little concern about the weak quality of the actual tests. As an English teacher, I’m more skilled at identifying problems with the language arts assessments, and so I won’t discuss the math tests. I’ve seen, and tried taking the Smarter Balanced sample ELA test for 11th graders, and I do think it shows some modest improvements over the California test it will replace. I might review that test in a future post, but what follows here is based on my review of a test prep booklet for California’s now defunct 4th grade ELA test. Anyone in a state still using these kinds of tests should take note of these flaws, as I hardly expect California tests were really unique.
In the booklet I reviewed, one question asks what would be the best item to add to a “school report about Helen Keller.” There’s no information offered about Helen Keller. Some students might be confused: why are they being asked what to put in a report on a person they know nothing about? The apparent intent of the question – apparent to me as an adult and a teacher – is for students to consider the nature of a biographical report (without calling it biography, I guess). Students who might know who Helen Keller was might be tempted into a wrong answer because all the wrong answers are the ones that actually sound interesting and actually have something to do with Helen Keller; instead, they are supposed to infer that the “correct” answer is the one uniquely devoid of specifics, offering merely the idea that reports should focus on events and chronology.
Questions that involve vocabulary are often poorly designed. The main problem is that they encourage the use of context but can’t differentiate the reasons for correct or incorrect answers. One item asks students to pick a synonym for the word “select” as it’s used in cell phone instructions telling us to press a certain button to “select” a particular function. Options include “use” and “choose” – both are logical, if you don’t already know the word “select.”Another “analysis” item in the booklet uses the phrase “feather in her cap.” Three of the four choices would be logical in the sentence, if a student doesn’t know already know the idiom. Supposedly successful analysis of the idiom assumes a certain attitude towards winning a race, which really is more than word analysis: why is pride more appropriate than surprise or thankfulness? Wouldn’t you be surprised to find a feather in your cap? After all, you hardly ever see anyone with a feather in their cap, especially in elementary school. And, if you like feathers a lot, perhaps “thankful” is a tempting interpretation.
Here’s one so bad you have to see it to believe it:
Read this sentence.
She baked a very tasty casserole.
The word casserole is
A. a Spanish word meaning bread.
B. a Chinese word meaning platter.
C. a French word meaning small bowl.
D. an Italian word meaning ice cream.
So, first of all, this English test item is framed as an exercise in understanding a word that’s not even English, which is distracting enough, and ignores the fact that “casserole” is now part of English as well. But never mind that you’re supposed to choose a non-English answer; you can still use context, like your teacher taught you, and if you’re in fourth grade you probably know the rest of the words in the sentence. You know that you can’t bake platters, bowls, or ice cream, so of course, the answer is A, because people do bake bread! But if you speak Spanish, you know the word for “bread” isn’t “casserole.” (Hey, how about that? The cultural bias in a question helps Spanish-speaking students). Or maybe you sometimes have tuna casserole for dinner, in which case you know it’s not bread, and it’s certainly not a small bowl, or ice cream, so the answer must be B, “platter.” Except, you think you’ve heard kids speaking Chinese and they never say words that sound like “casserole.” Or maybe you are Chinese, and know better. The “correct” answer is C, although in both contemporary French and English, that would be a poor definition of the word. Confused much?
A similar item asks about Southwestern homes made of “adobe” – no context, just a sentence, and four options from other languages. Again, if you speak Spanish, you’re in luck! And if you can picture an adobe structure, you’re in good shape. If you need to do what the test suggests in this section and engage in “Word Analysis” then you’re left to guess if these homes are made of wood or brick. If you’re a child who thinks houses are made of wood, and you lack the background knowledge of the Spanish influence in the Southwest, what is the right answer? ”Italian word meaning wood” is every bit as logical as “Spanish word meaning brick.”
On to other skills! Students should know about bibliographies, but I’d never ask students to memorize bibliography formats – whether they’re in elementary grades, middle school, or high school. In high school, we teach students to use bibliography tools that provide accurate citations, properly organized and formatted automatically, and as a backup, teach them how to use format guidelines, not memorize them. After all, there are different styles that are correct for different contexts and purposes. And of course, in a multiple choice format, a question that appears to require knowing the proper format may often be answered by reasoning, rather than actual knowledge – so it’s a faulty assessment. Then there are questions about a thesaurus entry which, regardless of the standard they aim to assess, can be correctly answered through a variety of reasoning/inferences and vocabulary knowledge that may or may not related to thesaurus familiarity.
Another problem that comes up frequently concerns “Which is the best _______” types of questions, if it concerns something beyond grammar and conventions. First of all, students I’ve talked with about tests say they hate this type of question because it uses the language of opinion in a format that they associate with fact. Sure, we adults can (usually) set aside such reactions, but even then we sometimes have to read the minds of the exam writers a bit more than might be reasonable for all of our students. These types of questions can do double duty; as reading questions, they might have some minimal value, if we could have a discussion with students and learn the reasoning behind their answers. When this style of question purports to be about editing writing, it’s even worse; students don’t write in multiple choice, and they may have multiple ideas of how to improve the writing but not find their idea reflected among the options. I often coach students to avoid a writing problem they can’t solve. I’m sure most writers have had that experience, trying in vain to wrangle an unruly sentence into coherence, only to strike the whole thing and come back at the idea with entirely new sentence structure and diction.
It’s not hard to spot and dissect these lousy test items, but it’s hard to understand why otherwise intelligent people with good motives think such tests should be the backbone of effective policies or instructional improvement.
I had the pleasure of introducing Diane Ravitch at her Stanford University event on Monday night. Below, you can find the text of my introduction, and a few pictures from the event. But first, I love this picture (right), taken backstage just before the event, and I want to write a comment rather than a caption about it. Diane Ravitch (in red) is conducting a mini-seminar in Twitter-usage for Stanford professors Linda Darling-Hammond, Eric Hanushek, and Claude Steele (clockwise from Diane’s right). Diane could keep up with more than a few “digital natives” online.
Overall, the Graduate School of Education put on a successful event that I think brought out some interesting information and a variety of opinions – mostly, but not all familiar. I look forward to writing more about it, sharing more pictures and a couple of video clips, and encourage those who were there to chime in as well. (I believe there will be video on YouTube, but I don’t know when)
Thank you, Dean Steele. Good evening, everyone. First off, just to clear up any confusion: I am not movie star Matt Damon. If you read or heard that Mr. Damon would be introducing Diane Ravitch, that’s true – but in Los Angeles, on Wednesday. And if you heard my name but still weren’t expecting me, I’m sorry I’m not the David Cohen you were thinking of, as I share this name with the distinguished education professor and researcher at the University of Michigan. I’m just a teacher.
If we might consider for a moment why we’re here, why Diane Ravitch’s work is so important to American education policy discussions, I think a significant part of it is tucked into the declaration, “I’m just a teacher.” Teaching has never been a high-status profession, and it’s a particularly difficult time to be a public school teacher in the U.S., for reasons that I expect are well-known to most of you. It’s difficult for our students, families, administrators and communities, too. For teachers, our work is all-consuming, and our individual power and energy limited – and yet, it has never been more important for us to speak out, even fight back. Few teachers have the time, let alone the means, to respond independently and effectively to the onslaught of negative stories and harmful policies. And when we use our collective voice to defend our students’ rights and our profession, we’re castigated for acting out of self-interest.
Diane Ravitch has answered the call to defend public education, and teachers around the country are cheering her on. I don’t mean to suggest that we’ve been passively waiting for our Superman, or Superwoman – but we are encouraged to have an ally coming to aid the besieged. Her work is resonating widely, and the reason is that millions of teachers, and parents, and students, have been living through the hoaxes described in her new book, Reign of Error - and we share her sense of urgency about defending and improving all public schools.
In the book, and in her public appearances, Diane Ravitch brings a comprehensive body of knowledge, and offers incisive analysis of how the pieces fit together in the contemporary politics of American education. I hope you’ll agree with much of what she says, but if you disagree, I hope at least that you’re taking notes. You will be tested on this material, and the test will come when you need to engage with educators, to understand why so many are thoroughly fatigued and frustrated after years of blame, distrust, and disempowerment. This engagement is required work, by the way – not extra credit. I may be just a teacher, but I see the tide turning. Teachers are claiming greater roles and responsibilities in education leadership, and there will be no successful education reform without teacher leadership at every phase.
If tonight’s event is anything like this book, I think even those who disagree with Diane will need to face some significant and undeniable facts, some inconvenient truths – and consequences. In one possible sign that Diane’s work is making people uncomfortable, her critics seem interested diverting policy debate into commentary on Diane’s style, her motives, or even her character. Case in point: Congressman Jared Polis of Colorado, who recently called Diane an evil woman, and tried labeling her positions as anti-public school.
Such remarks hardly warrant a response, so please take these final comments simply as a tribute. At a time in life when she could easily and justifiably retire, withdraw from the fray, Diane is going strong, writing books, thousands of blog posts, talking to the media, traveling widely, and supporting the Network for Public Education, which she co-founded. This week, Diane has five events in six nights, in three separate regions of the state. Only 90 minutes ago, Diane was at Palo Alto High School, talking with teachers, administrators, and students. Now it is our turn, to have the privilege of hearing from a scholar and author of great renown, to welcome to Stanford a generous and tireless advocate for students, parents, teachers, public schools, and our very democracy, Dr. Diane Ravitch.
From time to time I like to pick up useful advice intended for people in business, and apply it to education. One of my favorite sources is the New York Times feature “The Corner Office.” Adam Bryant interviews business leaders who share their insights and advice about management, and on September 26, the interviewee was Robin D. Richards, chief of the CareerArc Group. The title caught my eye: “Dissent Isn’t Just an Option. It’s Everyone’s Obligation.” What follows are some key quotes that are applicable both to teaching and to school system leadership.
What you learn as you develop as a manager is that balance of respect, approachability, empathy and friendship, so that you can say, “We’ve got a job to do and you have to do it, and it has to be done fast and properly.” I learned to be comfortable with those boundaries.
I think there’s useful advice here for the classroom and the administration – though I might want to tease out the meanings of “friendship” with students. Certainly we can be friendly, and work with each other in a spirit of friendship, but that doesn’t make us buddies or peers. Much has been written in recent years about the importance of empathy, and it seems to be in short supply among the leaders of some of the most distressed school systems in the country. Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, and Rahm Emanuel come to mind. Or the President and Arne Duncan when they agreed with the firing of the entire teaching staff of a struggling school; Duncan also endorsed the printing of teachers’ “value-added” scores in the L.A. Times (before he changed his mind about that).
There are some simple rules to management that, if you apply them, will always work in any industry. The first one is respect. People have to know that they’re not there to serve you, and that they’re part of a team to accomplish a goal, and that you care as much about their career as you care about your own. You can’t just say it. You’ve got to do it.
You’ve got to constantly be asking them how they’re doing. You’ve got to let them have autonomy. You’ve got to let them run and do as much as they possibly can without fear. Then you’ve got to hold them accountable for that autonomy, and leave your office open so that anybody can feel free to come in and not be afraid.
If you listen to the education reformers who are most likely to bash teachers, you’ll hear that the problem with unions is that they advocate for teachers and not for students. Richards’ advice seems to suggest that enlightened management involves supporting the autonomy and the career aspirations of your reports. If so, are teachers out of line to advocate for better working conditions? I’m not suggesting a blanket endorsement of anything that any union might seek – but if we had more superintendents and school boards showing they care about teachers’ career satisfaction (“you can’t just say it”), then we might have less acrimony in negotiations.
Richards’ company also has a mantra that includes the “obligation to dissent” -
Don’t have a meeting with your boss where you agree with him on everything he says. If you have an obligation to dissent, then we get the best minds and we get the best outcomes. People like living in that environment. They feel valuable. People become fearless. For the most part, when you empower people, they really punch above their weight.
For teachers handed pacing guides and scripted curriculum, this concept could not be further from reality, both in terms of their relationships with each other and their leadership, and in their own classrooms. Such practices reduce teachers to the lowest level functionaries, and change classrooms from learning laboratories to industrial production lines.
We try to hire nice people, kind people. Kind people matter. One, it’s a nicer place to work, and two, I think people who are kind tend to play on teams much better. …I’m trying to find people who build close connections, because relationships are the reason businesses win.
I think Richards would probably do a good job of hiring teachers, too. But would school boards and politicians make it possible for him to cultivate those relationships? What are we doing to make it easier for teachers use kindness and teamwork to make a difference in schools? What are we doing to cultivate relationships in schools and communities when school staffing is slashed, schools are unnecessarily closed, and yet Teach for America reaps a windfall for bringing in outsiders with minimal training and low odds of sticking around?
So remember, those of you in education, when people tell you schools should be run more like a business, ask them if they mean run with a balance on teamwork and autonomy, staffed by kind people who are respected and supported by leaders who encourage dissent.
Prior posts relating to business and education:
- Make Schools More Like Business? (Part One)
- Make Schools More Like Business? (Part Two)
- Make Schools More Like Business? (Part Three)
- A Silicon Valley Lesson for Secretary Duncan
- Real World Business Advice Applied to Education
- More Real World Business Advice
- Can Educators Learn from “The Corner Office”?
- The Corner Office for Schools: Teamwork, Fun, and Getting Stuff Done
Video clip from Diane Ravitch’s talk in Sacramento, 1/20/12.
For readers in California, there are several upcoming opportunities to hear Diane Ravitch at public events.
Friday, 9/27 – Sacramento
Saturday, 9/28 – Berkeley
Monday, 9/30 – Stanford
Tuesday, 10/1 – Los Angeles
Wednesday, 10/2 – Northridge
Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error, continues to garner attention. Jonathan Kozol’s NY Times review concludes, “Those… who have grown increasingly alarmed at seeing public education bartered off piece by piece, and seeing schools and teachers thrown into a state of siege, will be grateful for this cri de coeur — a fearless book, a manifesto and a call to battle.” Ravitch was interviewed on NPR this morning as well. I posted my review a couple weeks ago.
I’ll be introducing Diane Ravitch at the Stanford event, and look forward to hearing her speak again. I’ll post some thoughts here afterwards and encourage others to share their impressions, agree or disagree.
[EDIT 9/18/13: corrected a typo and a minor wording error]
Just in time for its official release tomorrow, I’ve finished reading an advance copy of Diane Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. For people who have been following education policy debates long enough and already know that they tend to agree with Diane Ravitch on most of the issues, there will not be any surprise revelations in the book; such readers might appreciate, as I did, Ravitch’s ability to pull together a combination of historical information, more recent studies, international comparisons, and various other sources that argue against the current direction of (supposed) education reform. For example, I didn’t know that the job protections commonly known as “tenure” actually pre-date teacher unionism (126). I was also interested to find some nuance in Ravitch’s argument against strict use of seniority, to the exclusion of other considerations based on students’ needs, in staffing decisions (130).
For those who tend to disagree with Ravitch on the issues, I would encourage them to take a look anyways, for two main reasons. The first is that, unlike recent books by purveyors of supposedly #RealEdTalk, Michelle Rhee and Steve Perry, Ravitch’s book minimizes personal narrative and substitutes copious footnotes and an index; in other words, she backs it up. You can disagree with her recommendations, but she makes it hard to deny the problems. Let’s take the chapter on charter schools for example. Ravitch points out the internal contradiction in charters claiming to be public schools when its time to collect money and win over politicians and voters, but claiming that they are exempt from many laws and regulations that apply to public schools. Cases that have gone to federal labor relations boards have held that the charters are essentially not public schools. You can argue otherwise if you want, but you should know those cases and what they say if you intend to engage on that topic. Ravitch’s book also details numerous examples of failed charters that rip off the taxpayers, shortchange students, hide the facts, and demonstrate all sorts of nepotism, conflicts of interest, and profiteering. These problems are almost inevitable under current laws; just like nature abhors a vacuum, individuals and companies tend to exploit available openings that help their bottom line. Ravitch’s conclusion is not, as you might expect, to ban charter schools, but rather to return to a system closer to the original vision of charter schools, putting in place a number of limits and controls that will remove the profit-making incentive, bring greater transparency, and provide genuine accountability to local entities. Charter school advocates may have a legitimate response in arguing that such limitations would undercut the idea of charters, but this book puts the ball in the charters’ court to honestly address some solutions to the rampant abuses in their midst.
Another eye-opener is Chapter 17, “Trouble in E-land” – showing how quickly we can move from a good idea to a tangled mess of lobbying and kickbacks. It’s apparent that the direction of education change inclines towards technological integration, and there’s great appeal in expanding connectivity to allow all students similar opportunities to communicate, create, and access anything that will enhance their education. However, the content and technology providers, along with ALEC, are lining the pockets of lawmakers now, and writing favorable laws to be introduced by trusted legislators. The rapid expansion of virtual schools means a windfall for businesses and shareholders, but Ravitch cites numerous investigations that show much “education” spending is going towards overhead, lobbying, advertising, and the non-instruction of missing pupils. The results aren’t very good either, judged by standardized tests, and Ravitch notes the irony of virtual schools citing their students’ disproportionate poverty as the reason.
If you’re looking for a book that offers both sides of the argument in equal proportion, this isn’t it – nor is it meant to be. Reign of Error is a call to arms, advancing with clear intent a two-pronged argument, to pull us away from ineffective reforms and to present a better set of ideas. Perhaps it might win over more undecided readers, or soothe the feelings of those with opposing viewpoints, if Ravitch equivocated a little more often, credited more good intentions or cited the occasional successes of those lumped under the terms “reformers” or “privatizers” or “corporatists.” Maybe those individuals and groups aren’t conspiring to the degree Ravitch suggests – maybe not at all (but I doubt it). But when it comes to laying out the rampant problems in the dominant education reform agenda, Reign of Error is not a speculative work.
Ravitch states early on that much of her initial motivation to write the book was to answer a friend who wanted to hear some suggestions for improving education, rather than a litany of criticisms of education reform. These solutions constitute the second reason I’d recommend the book even to potential detractors. Though Ravitch spends more than half of the book exposing “the hoax,” the latter chapters arrives at concrete suggestions that would not only improve schools, but also others that would support children’s overall health and wellbeing in ways that would foster greater learning. Anyone who wants to knock Ravitch for not advocating solutions can’t really do that anymore.
What should we do to ensure strong public schools and a better education for American children? Here’s a partial list of Ravitch’s most concrete suggestions: ensure prenatal care for all pregnant women; provide high-quality early childhood education for all children; ensure a well-rounded curriculum, including the arts, civics, languages, and physical education; reduce class sizes; restrict charter schools to non-profit and non-chain status, promoting local collaboration and oversight; offer “wraparound” medical and social services; rely on higher quality assessment of students, and eliminate high-stakes standardized testing; elevate the teaching profession, and ensure that education leaders are professional educators; demand democratic control of public schools (as opposed to mayoral control, for example, or federal rules that impose a menu of punitive consequences as happened in Race to the Top).
Critics may argue that Ravitch’s proposals are too expensive or politically impossible, but in that case, where does the problem lie? How many studies and international comparisons does it take to convince education “reformers” that a concerted effort to confront poverty would be more productive than testing and performance pay? The negative effects of poverty on education are abundantly clear (see Ch. 10), while every favored “reform” strategy seems grounded in false assumptions and trailed by a string of failures (like failed performance pay schemes going back to the 19th century – see p. 117). Our national disregard for the overall wellbeing of other people’s children is a flimsy excuse for setting up a series of divisive debates on education policies that leave unmitigated so many fundamental inequities of greater import.
Why not join together to fight the good fight, with a clear consensus? At one point Ravitch quotes Linda Darling-Hammond to make that point: Darling Hammond writes, “It’s not as though we don’t know what works. We could implement the policies that have reduced the achievement gap and transformed learning outcomes for students in high achieving nations where government policies largely prevent childhood poverty by guaranteeing housing, healthcare, and basic income security” (225). The same excerpt goes on to cite a number of effective economic and education reforms that peaked in the 1970s and early ’80s, having reduced the achievement gap significantly, and dramatically increasing college graduation rates; in 1975 there was parity in college attendance for whites, blacks, and Latinos, “for the first and only time before or since” (226).
So many of the narrow debates that derail us in American education reform efforts are really the byproduct of a refusal to address the greater problems requiring greater solutions. Since we’re unwilling to fight for transformative social supports that would fundamentally alter the life trajectories of millions of kids and families in poverty, we quarrel about the smaller and more superficial elements. And the saddest part is that if “reformers” have their way, they still won’t get what they say they want. Schools won’t improve if we eliminate “tenure” and seniority, or if we put value-added measures into evaluations. Look around: those strategies haven’t worked yet, and no leading nations or school systems achieved greatness by those means. As Linda Darling-Hammond often says, “We can’t fire our way to Finland.”
In exposing the hoaxes and offering solutions, Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error is on solid ground, cogent and well-supported, exposing widely divergent views of how to secure a viable future for kids and schools. For the past decade or more, we’ve tried blaming schools for their own neglect, and injecting all sorts of policy and governance disruption into the education ecosystem. Most of that hasn’t worked, and maybe Ravitch’s book will help bring some people around to embracing a truly radical idea: start taking better care of children, families, communities, schools and teachers.
See my review of David Kirp’s Improbable Scholars to learn about another good book on American education reform.
The headlines concerning teachers unions and policymakers usually concern some kind of conflict, ranging from divergent positions on bills and ballot measures, to lawsuits and strikes. These stories mostly emerge at the state level, or from the larger cities and districts, which naturally have the larger media outlets to dramatize the stories. Garnering less attention are the positive stories about education reform efforts led by national and state unions. And then, in relative obscurity, there are smaller districts where district and union leaders are engaged in productive labor-management collaboration.
The California Teacher Union Reform Network, or CalTURN, is helping lead the way for such districts. (Disclosure: I’m a recent addition to the CalTURN steering committee). By convening semi-annual working conferences, CalTURN provides time and space for labor-management teams to learn and together. Unlike a large conference featuring one-way delivery and delayed work, these smaller conferences include not only great speakers and presentations, but also ample opportunities to learn from colleagues around the state, and put all the learning to use in actual teamwork sessions.
Don’t get me wrong – the member districts and unions are not living in a dream world. There are disagreements over how to use limited resources, and challenging negotiations over any number of contract items. However, with a commitment to ongoing collaborative work and practices like interest-based bargaining, we do have some excellent models of how unions and district leaders can build strong relationships that allow both sides to better serve students. I’ve written about two of these districts – Poway Unified and San Juan Unified – multiple times in the past; both districts have been recognized many times over the years for their joint-committees that handle new teacher evaluation, and peer assistance and review (PAR). Not only have they created a venue for labor-management collaboration that improves the overall climate in the district, but they’ve also created systems with a well-documented capacity to provide robust teacher evaluations in a time when so many districts seem to struggle in that area.
The current focus of CalTURN is to build the capacity of teachers in member districts to design and lead ongoing professional development efforts. At this time, that means collaboration around Common Core (CCSS) implementation. The CCSS transition has been challenging and controversial from the start, and like many other teachers, I’ve expressed some serious concerns about many aspects of the enterprise. (CCSS-related posts are the most read and commented at this blog – click here to see a listing of those posts). Taking the long view, putting teacher leaders into a wider variety of responsibilities is a smart managment move for several reasons (whether or not the short-term transition to CCSS is popular). The more teacher input and expertise goes into administrative decisions and activities – especially related directly to instruction – the more success they’re likely to have. That success will result not only from increased odds of making the best decision, but also the increased efficacy that comes with widespread buy-in from teachers. Sounds logical, right? It’s a principle demonstrated not only in the practices of successful districts, but also in a comprehensive study that examined the positive effects of distributed leadership. Additionaly, the more responsibilities and opportunities teacher leaders can find at school, the more likely they are to stay, reducing turnover and keeping teacher expertise in (or nearer to) the classroom.
The time is right for California to strengthen the teaching profession, and strong labor-management collaboration will be essential in that effort. Accomplished California Teachers has published policy recommendations to encourage some specific steps towards achieving that goal, and we’re glad to have had some of our members on the Bay Area New Millennium Initiative that produced a report with similar conclusions. California’s Educator Excellence Task Force, which included four ACT members, took a broader look at the profession from a full range of stakeholder perspectives, and in the report Greatness by Design, further supported the idea of expanding formal roles for teacher leaders.
The CalTURN fall conference begins today, hosted by the Poway Federation of Teachers. If you turn to the major news outlets for the latest scoop on teachers unions today, you probably won’t find CalTURN making headlines; however, if you’ve read this far, you know better than most people that California unions and districts are coming together in quiet but remarkable ways to improve public education around the state. Now that you know, I invite you to share the news, and encourage similar work in whatever venues are open to you.
Today’s InterACT guest blog post comes from Alex Kajitani, California Teacher of the Year (2009) and ACT member. Alex is known to many as The Rappin’ Mathematician, and he has also written books for teachers. His first book was the The Teacher of the Year Handbook – which has some good tips not only for Teachers of the Year, but also for any teachers who would find themselves in similar situations of public engagement and advocacy. Alex’s new book is Owning It, which expands the audience of his prior book and asserts that teachers must take charge of the profession through excellence in classrooms, schools, and the public sphere.
* * *
There’s this myth in teaching. This myth that says you will struggle in your first few years but that, by your fourth or fifth year, you’ll be experienced, things will be easy and you’ll have your act together.
The truth is that while some years are better than others, teaching is hard every year. And every year, as teachers, we are asked to do more and more.
We live in a time of what some theorists call “accelerating change” — with technological, cultural, social and environmental change occurring exponentially faster than in any other period in history. And we’re feeling this firsthand in our schools, and in our profession.
Each year, the group of students that enters our classrooms is vastly different from the group a year before. They are deeply influenced by the latest technology, the year’s hit television (or Internet) show, and new ways of thinking and operating in society.
And yet, as teachers, it is still our responsibility to ensure that they learn the academic content that someone else has deemed they learn, along with non-curricular life skills.
As teachers, it is also our responsibility to work with one another to help these kids learn — which means we have to master grown-up communication and collaboration skills.
And, as teachers, it’s our responsibility to represent our profession — and our schools and districts, and even our nation’s educational system — to the wider community, the “public,” via all of the ever-changing modes of communication.
Being a teacher today is a multi-skill, multi-faceted, multi-purpose role — a role that doesn’t end when the bell rings.
After ten years in the trenches of public education, in some of California’s poorest neighborhoods, I wrote Owning It as both an exploration of our many roles as teachers today, and a quick-reference handbook of strategies that can be pulled out to address the range of situations we find ourselves in daily in our classrooms, schools and communities.
The Three Roles Teachers Play
Role One: Teachers as Classroom Leaders
Each year in the classroom, I have students in my class, who, despite living in dire poverty, perform at the top of the chart on state tests. Sitting next to them are students who cannot read, tell time, or speak English. Yet I am expected to teach them all, at a level that is challenging to each of them. The first role we play is as classroom leaders who are responsible for every kind of learning (and raising test scores) for every child who crosses our doorway, and who are accountable to students and parents.
Role Two: Teachers as Colleagues
The days of the one-room schoolhouse are long gone, and today, the number one factor in the success or failure of a school is the relationships of the adults in the building. Just as we teach a group of students with a wide range of abilities and experiences, the teachers and administrators we work with are vastly different in their experiences, knowledge and philosophies.
We’re not all teachers for the same reason, yet we’re all expected to do the same job. And with 50% of our colleagues leaving this job within the first five years, the time has come for all of us to own the fact that as educators, we are truly interdependent.
Role Three: Teachers as Public Professionals
Of course, teaching is not just what we do. Teaching is what we are. It doesn’t end when the last bell rings, or when vacation starts.
As a profession, we’re constantly under attack from lawmakers, parent groups and the general public who have bought into the idea that our education system is failing, and that the solution is to simply “fire all the bad teachers.”
Thus, the third role we play is as public professionals, representing our schools, our students and the whole convoluted concept of education today. Let’s positively represent our schools and our profession in the public eye, utilize mass communication and social media to be effective advocates, and to step up as teacher leaders to create the world as it can be.
Let’s own these three roles, especially as they expand and become more complex. And, let’s start owning it together, and show the world that the future of education is brighter than some may think, with teachers like us taking the lead in our classrooms, our schools and our communities, in one of the most rapidly-changing times in history.