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What Comes First? Teachers or Ed-Reform?

July 2, 2010

Yesterday, the House passed a bill by Congressman David R. Obey that would save 100,000 to 300,000 teaching jobs by cutting Race to the Top funds in the tune of $300 million.  There have been lots of rumbles of both dissension and relief by those who keep up with the education reform debate.

One thing is clear, at least to teachers in the field:  no reform will take place without actual teachers in place to implement it.

It might seem like common sense to state this, but there are those out there who feel saving teachers’ jobs is a ploy of the teachers union who only care about employment and tenure.  I would disagree with this portrayal.  Teaching, by definition, is about change and reform.  Each day, each class even, presents an opportunity to reflect on the success of a lesson, and to ponder ways in which the lesson can be improved.  I know teachers who teach 7 sections of the same class and have a different lesson plan for each of them.  You can’t even use the same lessons year to year (although there is a percentage of teachers who do) because the student population is dynamic; forever changing.

Before the term “ed reform” came into being, teachers were reforming on a regular basis.  That is what belonging to a professional organization is about.  Teachers attend conferences where they learn the latest techniques, strategies, and creative approaches to their subject, usually from other practitioners or from college professors or education companies.  Unfortunately with the nationwide funding cuts it has become harder and harder to facilitate these types of opportunities for teachers.  With pay cuts and furloughs, it is even more difficult for the regular classroom teacher to pay out of pocket for a plane ticket, hotel, registration, etc. to attend these events.  Many teachers have formed critical friends groups or book clubs to bounce ideas off of each other.  Teachers at my school meet once a month on Saturdays at Panera Cafe to discuss “reforms;”  thanks to these caffeine-fueled Saturdays we have created many programs and initiatives that have served our students and school community.  We do not think it is a coincidence that our middle school is the school of choice in the neighborhood; parents can sense when a school is on its way up.

But the last several years of No Child Left Behind have also resulted in the unintended consequence of rigidity and uniformity in K-12 schools.  Because schools and districts get predominantly judged on English and Math scores, many districts have imposed uniform, cookie-cutter curriculum programs that forbid teachers from deviating from the step-by-step lessons in an effort to ensure the maximum focus on tested standards, thus remaining in compliance with NCLB.  Now, teachers are often in intellectual and creative conflict with administrators and district personnel whose job is to enforce compliance.  A sub-culture of ninja-teachers has emerged, where teachers secretly read novels with students or accelerate through pacing plans in an effort to meet the needs of that particular set of students.  It is regretful that it has come to that.

Unions, contrary to what some may say, have also been involved in education reform.  Lobbying for small class-size, local school control, and “pilot schools” that operate free of District restrictions are just a few initiatives of the last 10 years in Los Angeles.  But union members are also skeptics, and perhaps this is so because reforms from outside of the teaching ranks tend to come from legislators, philanthropists, businessmen, etc. who have no background in education and sometimes propose reforms that have not been thought through, or are plainly wrong.  The small schools initiative was a favorite of Bill Gates.  In theory, it makes sense to build small schools where you can get to know more of your students better.  But building such schools increases construction expenses, support service personnel, and balloons the bureaucracy.  All of these end up taking money away from the classroom budgets and students.  To his credit, Bill Gates has taken responsibility for the lack of expected success with this initiative.  Unions react indignantly to the lack of consultation by the decision-makers, and lack of consensus becomes the norm.

There is no guarantee that the Obey plan will be passed by the Senate.  But it’s good to know someone is listening to the experts, the teachers, when we say that overcrowded, underfunded classrooms taught by substitutes will guarantee that no education reform will come to fruition ever, in any school, should this bill be vetoed.  We hope the Department of Education is listening.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 3, 2010 5:39 pm

    Agreed. Surely it’s not all black and white though, right? Unions do, in many cases, prevent meaningful changes.

    • July 3, 2010 7:06 pm

      Honestly, I cannot think of a “meaningful” change that has been proposed, that has merit, that a union has opposed. Many proposed reforms, such as merit pay and a change to seniority based-layoffs seem meaningful but have not track record to prove they actually work. What meaningful reforms are you referring to?

  2. July 8, 2010 2:28 pm

    No, I agree merit pay is a worthless idea. However, unions are obstensibly democratic entities and their objectives (although they may align with what’s good for kids) will necessarily be in the interests of their members even when those interests may not align with doing what’s right for kids.

    Although I am as sick as any teacher about people complaining about bad teachers and how it needs to be easier to fire them, the argument has merit. The meaningful change I’m thinking of is selecting and deselecting capable and committed staff.

    I’ll also say that I think there are a few things we should do before we focus on increasing accoutability for teachers (e.g. improve ed schools, improve administrative quality, provide better supports in the classroom). But I don’t think an issue like teachers unions could possibly be black and white. They certainly have their place, but I think they necessarily make change more difficult.

    Thoughts?

    • July 11, 2010 11:28 pm

      In an ideal world, the issue of selecting and deselecting staff would ostensibly be done by capable, fair evaluators, ideally administrators with extensive knowledge about classroom instruction, pedagogy, different approaches with different populations, etc. This does not seem to be the case in my 20 year career at LAUSD, and from what colleagues from around the country have expressed. While my current principal is outstanding and I would comfortably give up my contract rights such as due process, seniority, etc. in return for say greater leeway in the type of curriculum I implement, she is the only one of the many principals I have worked under that I believe would be fair in any evaluation of me or my peers.

      If we had an army of principals like mine, this is something more teachers would surely consider. But I have seen quality teachers written up for speaking up against unjust policies, financial mismanagement, sexual harassment, and outright discrimination. I feel that were it not for the union, yeah, sure you could fire the stereotypical rubber room teacher, but also fired would be those in pursuit of equity and fairness for both students, teachers, and parents. I think that is even more dangerous.

      I think poor teachers are the result of poor management. It is so easy to fire a teacher before they gain greater due process rights. And the signs are there; but you’d have to leave your office and be in the classroom on a regular basis to observe this. Not all administrators want to do this, hence why they are administrators.

      My goal for my union is to bring greater intellect into their arguments and discourses. We are, after all, educators. I am not a fan of obstreperous demonstrations, but sometimes the bully pulpit is all you have when calling attention to the unjust policies that hurt students and teachers alike. And when I hear people like Paul Vallas, NOLA Superintendent say he wants to get rid of career teachers because they are too expensive and instead just churn through TFA teachers, it gives me pause and concern. Having mentored many new teachers, I can tell you that they feel the least empowered to stand up for the things I mentioned above. By the way, do you know this happened because the NOLA teachers’ union was broken during Katrina? The vote to go charter as a district happened while the teachers were evacuated.

      Thanks so much for your thoughts and questions. I am still trying to figure things out and am always looking for creative solutions that will improve my classroom instruction and the educational community. And congrats on your blog too. More educators would be writing about their experiences throughout the nation, and connecting with each other.

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