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Credentials Count

November 27, 2010

Economists Want to Stop Teachers’ Degree Bonuses-Washington Post

“You are just as likely to find a great teacher with 3 years of experience as you are a terrible one with 25 years on the job, and vice versa. Other than the first few years, experience does not matter one iota.”-Chad Alderman at the Quick and the Ed

“The problems with unaffordable, anachronistic teacher pensions have finally started to get the attention they should’ve gotten years ago.” –Rick Hess

That’s the latest narrative, isn’t it?  Teacher experience matters very little, Master’s degrees are superfluous and expensive, and expensive, lazy, union teachers should be replaced by charter schools and Teach for America instructors.

I have a different point of view on this.

Both as a student and teacher in Los Angeles public schools, I have seen and experienced the wonder of master teachers.  As a teacher assistant, my first assignment was in the classroom of a teacher who had entered teaching late in life, a career transition. He was clearly out of his element in a classroom full of wild, rambunctious second graders.  They hid in the cabinets, pounced from the tops of closets, sat in trash cans, and on my third day of work held an elaborate wedding ceremony during recess, complete with the groom in suit and the bride in a fancy dress.  There was even a preacher.  That teacher soon disappeared and the class was held together by day-to-day subs, for a couple of weeks.  I never found out what happened to that teacher.

However, the class was fortunate to receive a veteran teacher as a replacement, Ms. Mary.  Within the first 30 minutes of class she had made a seating chart, memorized each and every student’s name, and spoke to them in a clear and commanding tone, making meaningful eye contact with them as if saying “play time is over.”

I had never seen anything like it.

Within 30 minutes, the class of wild children had reverted back to the normal, well-behaved children I had seen in other teachers’ classrooms.  I watched in awe as this soft-spoken woman took control of this classroom and turned it into a place of learning.  She corrected me too; when I would threaten students with a consequence for misbehavior she told me never to threaten a student if I was not going to follow through with the consequence.  What seems like common sense today was an epiphany 20 years ago.  Looking back, it is evident that the preparation for the class began long before the bell rang; it is likely this woman spent countless hours preparing for her entrance, for the stage setting, for the action.

Just recently, a colleague from my former school, Bethune Middle School, started work in a new capacity at my current middle school.  However challenging our current assignment is, it is nothing compared to the raw conditions we faced at the old school.  Lockdowns, SWAT teams, drive-by’s and violence were an unfortunate part of daily life in that environment.  Teachers learned to be tough and self-sufficient due to lack of established support systems.  Moving up the street to L.A. Academy was like moving to Beverly Hills in comparison.

Ms. Manning greeting students on the first day of school

My colleague had been offered the position of elective teacher where she could create her own curriculum to implement however she wanted.  It was a dream come true!  Yet the challenges of this would prove to be daunting to this veteran teacher.  Ms. Manning (formerly Ms. Mickey) would be teaching six classes of 35-45 students in four, eight-week rotations.  This would result in her teaching 1,000 students in the course of a year: general education, Honors, and special needs students all in the same classroom, at the same time.  She was new to the school, with no relationships built with support staff , students, or parents.  She knew the students would be testing her mettle.

“Let me come over to talk to your students about how to behave,” advised the school police officer, “I mean, what, are you from the Midwest?”  “I’m from Los Angeles, and I taught at Bethune,” she responded coolly.   The officer’s eyes widened  and he quickly left the room saying, “You don’t need me!”

The students were no match for this veteran teacher.  With her steely blue eyes, she came armed with devastatingly well-planned and engaging lessons for the College Prep elective she designed.  She called students’ homes the first few weeks of each rotation and held parent conference after parent conference until the students understood she was no new teacher.  She assigned nutrition and after school detention to those who rebelled, and soon word got around school that she was not to be messed with; the antagonism dropped and the learning began.

The crowning moment for these students and their teacher was when the culminating project was due.  The students had worked in groups to create their own university and were to bring a model and written report to class to present to classmates.  All of a sudden, the campus was ablaze with students carrying poster boards, foam board models of a college campus, and T-shirts air brushed with “South Central University” on the front.  The students presented their new creations to the class and proudly talked about their work with their other teachers.   When I asked my own students what their plans for the future were, many of them would say they wanted to get a Masters degree or an Associates degree, when before they did not even know what the difference was between them.  I could tell immediately that they had been in this teacher’s College Prep elective.

The lesson I learned 20 years ago is one I believe in even more today.  There is nothing like having an experienced, knowledgeable teacher in front of the students who need it the most.  I see this every day in the hard to staff school in which I work where I am fortunate to be in a team of teachers that is highly accomplished.  They have what is necessary to push the students forward academically, and don’t for one second fall for the inevitable tricks and delay tactics that students will play to avoid learning.

But this is not another anti-TFA spiel that asserts it can only be one way or another.  I do believe there is a place for the kind of teacher produced from Teach for America.  There are still schools, mine included, that are hard to staff and were it not for the two year stint of such instructors, would face even greater instability.  Fostering and developing the talent of new teachers, both TFA and traditional career, should be a goal of any education reform carried out by states and the federal government, but never at the expense of one or another.  Many of my good friends are former TFA corp members who would tell you themselves that TFA is not the answer to the purported education crisis. Ultimately, however, ed policy must begin to address the real reasons why schools like mine are so hard to staff, why burn-out of all teachers is greater here than at other schools, and what changes must be made to mitigate the impact of society’s ills on our student population.

Let’s take a deep breath during this Thanksgiving week and give thanks to all educators, rookie and veteran who do right by students every day in the classroom.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. November 27, 2010 3:09 pm

    I am pretty sure I get better every year. After the first year, I knew I was meant to be a teacher. But each lesson tweaked the second, third, fourth time, only got better. It is both an art and a science, I believe. Mostly, it is a vocation. I must admit my Master’s in my content area (I teach high school) has been as important, if not more, than my Education program. Saying it doesn’t matter was just dumb, Mr Alderman.

    • November 28, 2010 10:10 pm

      I think most educators would agree that we have such a thing as a gut feeling when learning has occurred, when a life has been touched, when a student has moved forward…but none of this matters without cold, hard data. Unfortunately, this data gets manipulated every possible way in order to reach ludicrous conclusions about teaching experience.

      What about teacher contributions outside of the classroom? The teacher who knows how to work the AV equipment? The teacher who knows how to fund-raise successfully? The teacher who knows what streets NOT to drive down after dark? What a disservice we do to communities when we strip them of their institutional memory.

      Thanks for reading, and for your thoughts!

      • November 29, 2010 6:02 am

        At the risk of being politically incorrect, my experience has led me to conclude that part of the issue is something I cannot control–my students are coming to school unprepared to learn. And it is not just the kids who are hungry or scared; many are given every THING they need and want, but every year I start from scratch teaching 15 year olds to sit still, read the book, recognize their place in the process (ask questions, engage themselves, review independently the unfamiliar aspects of our topic, contribute to a group, etc). So many of us are social workers, cheerleaders, character educators, friends, mentors, parents–and I mean that more seriously than when I used to toss it off as a “you know what I mean” comment with other teachers. Sometimes it feels that I am doing the same job I did with my three children. Really. There is not enough time in the day for me to do more than engage them with my content and demand that they test me on it. This other stuff is too much. It is scary to think that those who have no idea what goes on in a living, breathing, successful classroom are judging our purpose, success, goals and methods.

      • November 30, 2010 11:36 pm

        This is a conversation I was just having with a colleague at work! Not only are we raising our own children, but we are expected to assume a vast amount of responsibility for the upbringing of our students as well.

        I never have minded being all those things you mentioned when it comes to my students. And it has taken a toll. I can’t brush it off when I get home. Being a teacher is a way of life. But now, the tide has turned, and we are being judged on things over which we have no control. And it is unfair.

        When those who have chosen this career as a calling say enough is enough, who will replace them? We lose 300,000 teachers a year to attrition. Are there that many Teach for America instructors to replace them? No. And then where will we be?

        Thanks for your thoughts and for reading our blog!

  2. David B. Cohen permalink*
    November 27, 2010 4:14 pm

    We have to insist that people in research and policy discussions say exactly what they mean. Maybe those years of experience don’t matter when it comes to changing certain test scores in certain conditions. And if that’s Mr. Alderman’s definition of what matters, then we can certainly thank him for his time and send him on his way. I have a feeling he would admit that other things matter, and one could hope he would concede his statement above should be more nuanced.

  3. Jim Davis permalink
    November 28, 2010 6:57 am

    Thank you for this piece… and for connecting classroom management to learning, not just to control for control’s sake. Whether or not they will have sufficient “presence” in the classroom is one of the major concerns of the teacher preparation candidates with whom I work. Helping them see that such presence is grounded in authentic concern for student learning is part of the challenge to their preparation program. And it is never an inappropriate tiem to thank a teacher. JSD

    • November 28, 2010 10:15 pm

      I wholeheartedly agree that some matters must be taken care of first before instruction is even to begin. In my hard to staff school you had to deliver a message to the students: “I am here because I choose to be, you will learn because you must, and you will be safe in my classroom.” These students have seen sooo many people come through their classroom (from elementary and previously at this school before we stabilized) that they assumed you were a substitute or a “must place” teacher who had no other choices. And you were treated accordingly until you proved otherwise.

      But more than anything, before they let their guard down, they tested you, to see what your true intentions were. Were you going to stay? Were you going to teach? Did you care? Once these issues were established, then it was the general hard work teachers do everyday.

      It is different in every school, in every community. But presence and authority are definitely issues that must be taken care of first.

  4. November 28, 2010 4:59 pm

    Wonderful post, Martha. I’ve taught for 26 years and I can honestly say that I’m 26 times better than I was as a rookie. It’s easy to find the exception; the dynamic, second year teacher who’s a lot better than Mr. Deadwood in the next classroom over, but in experience, experience matters.

    • November 28, 2010 10:17 pm

      It seems like common sense, doesn’t it? I fear that in today’s world, what was a given before must now be established again, because too much misinformation is being put out there by those who claim to be education experts.

      Thanks for reading, and for your thoughts!

  5. Lynne Formigli permalink
    November 29, 2010 10:08 am

    Martha,
    I really enjoyed reading such a thoughtful, well written explanation of why experience matters. It seems strange to me how many people advocate for exactly the opposite, as if experience is a hindrance to good teaching as opposed to an essential component. It seems the only other profession which gets the bizarre standard of experience is a bad thing applied to them are politicians. Maybe we can use that to help them relate to our situation.

    • November 30, 2010 11:29 pm

      We are in that moment in time where our experience is being used against us. As a teacher in a “failing school”, who has turned down offers in other more prosperous neighborhoods due to my commitment to working with students of poverty, I am astounded that I am now being blamed for the failures of the very students I have served for over two decades. I am not the only one who feels this way. It is beyond disconcerting, and it will encourage the flight of those who see the writing on the wall. Who wants to stay on a sinking ship?

  6. November 30, 2010 5:04 am

    Of course there’s more to education than test scores. But test scores are still a great way to determine who’s actually teaching and who isn’t.

    Tell me: if you tested that classroom after a year with a lousy teacher who let them run wild and never taught anything, vs. testing the same classroom after a year with the woman who “took control of this classroom and turned it into a place of learning,” wouldn’t the class test much better with the second teacher? Surely they would, right? How could they spend a whole year learning vs. running wild yet not be any better able to add 5 + 7 or to write a simple sentence?

    I’d also add that the focus on masters’ degrees at the first isn’t supported by anything else you write. Again, to use your own example, would several masters’ courses in Paulo Freire and the history of education etc. have helped that first guy be someone who could actually control a classroom? As for the second teacher who was so wonderful, did she get that way because of a masters’ degree?

    • Lynne Formigli permalink
      November 30, 2010 11:40 am

      JD,
      I know, it sounds so reasonable and would make things easier if the student’s test scores could give us information about the quality of the teaching they were receiving. Unfortunately, the math doesn’t support this application of the data. In order for the statistical evaluation to be valid, the students would have to be randomly assigned to the teachers class (this doesn’t happen) Even our overloaded classrooms are not big enough to provide a sample size large enough to determine statistical significance. Also, it is not possible to sort out the impact of the different teachers a student has. As a science teacher, I may be having a positive or negative affect on the math teacher’s students math scores. The basic problem is the statisticians and the makers of the tests are telling us that using the tests to evaluate individual teachers is not a valid use of the data they generate, but the policymakers are ignoring this warning. Imagine being evaluated or having your pay be based on factors outside your control. This is a recipe for frustration and disillusionment. I would encourage you to read Linda Darling Hammond’s publications for a more detailed and authoritative explanation.

    • November 30, 2010 11:24 pm

      JD, thanks so much for your thoughts on testing and teacher quality!

      It does seem logical that test scores would be indicative of excellent teaching. The reality is much more complex than that. If a school’s status, a teacher’s job, and a student’s academic standing in a college prep program all depended on the outcome of the Reading and Math scores of the annual test, you can be sure that attention is going to be paid to the tested areas, and this may come at the expense of other subject areas that are either not tested or whose scores are insignificant in any evaluation. This would be a tragedy, and is not indicative of excellent education.

      Testing does have a place in the classroom and has always been a part of what teachers use to evaluate student progress. That is the purpose of testing, and that is what the tests were designed to do. I am not a statistician, but I have researched enough to know that when you use tests for purposes other than for which they were designed, the results are compromised. Results are even further corrupted due to Campbell’s Law.

      The scenario with the two teachers you present is perplexing; of course the “lousy teacher” you describe would have lower scores. That is quite an extreme example of a teacher and does not by far represent the vast majority of educators in the classroom today. I don’t understand the purpose of your comparison. Of greater concern to the public, I would think, is exactly what test scores do measure. Are the assessments tied to the curriculum? Does a “proficient” score really indicate proficiency or have passing rates been dumbed down by the state as happened in New York? Do tests lead to the exclusion of the arts, Science and Social Studies disciplines? Do they reinforce outcomes instead of processes? Are children learning to love learning or simply memorize data to regurgitate on the day of the test, to be forgotten for a lifetime?

      Finally, the reference to masters degrees is an example of the narrative being woven by a vocal group of “reformers” who would lead the public to think that expertise and experience do not matter. I would say that a masters degree confers a set of skills and a range of knowledge that can only enhance a teachers ability, not detract from it. It is not the end all be all of certifications, but again, I am perplexed at why billionaires are so concerned about saving money by advocating the removal of bonuses for advanced certificates. It strikes me as a red herring.

      Thanks again for reading.

  7. December 2, 2010 5:16 pm

    The scenario with the two teachers you present is perplexing; of course the “lousy teacher” you describe would have lower scores. That is quite an extreme example of a teacher and does not by far represent the vast majority of educators in the classroom today. I don’t understand the purpose of your comparison

    I was only discussing the scenario you described in your own post. I didn’t understand why you would be opposed to using test scores at all, but would describe a situation in which it seems obvious to me (and I guess obvious to you too) in which test scores should easily reveal who was the better teacher.

    Experts tend to agree that test scores do a good job of distinguishing between the best and the worst teachers, especially given a few years of data. If you have three years of data showing that kids show up in Mr. Jones class at a 4th grade level and then leave still at the same 4th grade level, then you have a pretty good idea that whatever Mr. Jones is doing just isn’t working. For all the faults of testing, it does tell us that much. And that’s an improvement on what we have now.

    You don’t really answer my point about masters’ degrees. You brought up the great teacher and the horrible teacher. Do you really think that a masters’ degree would have made a difference at all to either of them?

    • December 4, 2010 12:41 pm

      Test scores don’t measure everything.

      Tests are used by teachers to measure content knowledge, ie. an end of unit test on the fall of the Roman Empire, and are only as good as those who design them. Other types are multiple choice, short answer, map-based, essay. Teachers are not opposed to tests. We have been using them long before the “ed reformers” discovered them.

      In CA high stakes testing, Social Studies scores only count for about 7% of a school’s overall score, the same for Science. Guess what? In schools all over CA, Social Studies and Science instructional time has been reduced. This is not good for students, not good for education.

      The test that measures whether Johnny can add does not give you an accurate picture of his teacher’s abilities because it wasn’t designed to measure that. It tells you not one iota about the teacher’s methods. Did she drill and kill? Did she bribe the students? Did she cheat? Or, as in my example, was she a highly talented teacher that infused the classroom with a plethora of learning experiences? Test scores do not tell you that…because they were not designed to do so. Further, just what does it mean to pass the test? In New York, (due to high stakes testing pressure) the state lowered the definition of proficiency to the point that you could score well on the test through random guessing. What do test scores mean in that scenario?

      Please cite which “experts tend to agree that test scores do a good job of distinguishing between the best and the worst teachers.” Below is just a sampling of organizations which are staunchly against using test scores to measure teacher quality:

      American Educational Research Association
      National Council on Measurement in Education
      Board of Testing and Assessment of the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences
      Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management
      Educational Testing Service’s Policy Information Center
      National Assessment of Educational Progress
      A former assistant U.S. Secretary of Education
      National Assessment Governing Board
      National Academy of Education
      Economic Policy Institute

      Finally, I though I did answer you in regards to the masters degree. But yes, advanced education helps teachers in the classroom via deeper pedagogical knowledge, university support in the classroom, connections made with fellow grad students and professors, and in many other ways that cannot be measured by a test.

  8. slausongirl92 permalink
    January 2, 2015 1:23 pm

    Thank you so much for this post it brought me great joy to read similar thoughts that I had on what a great teacher Ms. Mickey is. I went to Bethune middle school when she taught there and you know how some things are kind of etched into your memory? Well her classroom was one of them. It was a calm setting that was very informative. English was the course and I loved her for the books she presented to us. Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt is still one of my favorite books thanks to her. I was just sitting here thinking about her and the classroom and decided to see if I could find something on her. Thanks so much and yes you are so right about the need for experienced, knowledgable teachers for students because this is what they need most especially these youth in the inner city. Thank you/

  9. slausongirl92 permalink
    January 2, 2015 1:24 pm

    Reblogged this on SLAUSON GIRL.

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