3.04.2011

change can be empowering

And it can also be scary. With budgetary crises around every corner, the world of education has taken many brutal hits in the past few weeks. On top of the amazingly long stand-off in Wisconsin, the latest news includes "Draconian" cuts to Detroit's educational budget (which might result in class sizes of up to 60 students) and the mass firing of all Providence teachers (this supposedly being a budgetary, rather than reform move). How can one little state be wrapped up in so much educational scandal?

If people play their parts right, this moment might be very empowering for teachers and students across the country. But all signs point to big change.


I have to start this post with a disclaimer.

Disclaimer: I SUPPORT TEACHERS. I have a great deal of love and respect for the profession, and that is exactly why I think we need to be brutally honest when we talk about it. I do not mean to generalize, but there is certainly a big picture that needs to be seen, and to see it, we have to acknowledge that there are good and bad teachers, there are good and bad administrators, there are a zillion factors that contribute to educational success, and no one can possibly attack them all. That being said, let's start with a baby step.

So you know I support teachers. But I do not support the teachers' union. Unions in general are fine by me, but I don't think the teaching profession should be represented by a group that protects workers that are easily mistreated. Yes, the union has done a lot to prevent unfair mistreatment of teachers in the past. But I think its role has become ridiculous. The union is an impediment to reform. For as much as it has protected good teachers, it has also protected bad teachers. It sets up major barriers to fair evaluations (and therefore, to teacher development) and promotes seniority as the main measure of teacher effectiveness. But that's not even my real beef with it.

I don't think the teachers' union respects teachers. I'm using possessive there for a reason. The union is supposed to belong to teachers. And yet, I know many, many teachers who are obligated by law to join and pay dues, even though they would rather not be represented by the union. And here's why I think so many teachers are offended by that: teaching is a profession, an art, a science. It requires a great deal of skill. If you're good at it, you're proud of it...and you're not scared of evaluations. To watch sub-par teachers be supported by the union is insulting to teachers who know what it takes to be stellar.

I think we need to finally treat teaching as the profession that it is, akin to being a lawyer or a dentist. It should require a great deal of education. It should require full-time work, year-round. It should set high standards, and rewards should be based on performance. And it should be well-rewarded, very well-rewarded. We should hear kids saying, "I want to be a teacher when I grow up, so I can be rich." Or something close to that...

The union might say it wants that too. But ultimately, it's just very political, and very polarizing. A union victory means a political victory for representatives, so rational negotiating often turns into a debilitating stand-off. I was a teacher during one of those stand-offs and I didn't feel supported by the administration or the union. I felt like a pawn.

This leaves us in a catch-22. Unfortunately, teachers still need protection. The accountability that we demand for teachers has not yet been extended with as much oomph to administration and policy makers. So abuses can, and do, occur. But as long as we are protecting teachers with a union, the profession can't really move forward.

What to do? I'm not sure. But I've seen some good thoughts. This presentation from The New Teacher Project (who ran my certification program), demonstrates the importance of eliminating quality-blind layoffs. It also dispels some myths about seniority-based layoffs and offers some ideas about effective evaluating (to avoid the pitfalls of evaluations by administrators or value-added analysis). And while I'm not sure how I feel about this move to grade teachers' colleges, I think it points to an important variable in the equation: higher education. Teachers' colleges are in a key position to help define the way we recruit and prepare the best possible teachers of tomorrow.


If you'll allow me to spew for just a little longer, I'll just add that this is also extremely interesting from a partisan perspective. Traditionally, Democrats support unions and Republicans oppose them. But there are a lot of Republican teachers. And there are increasing numbers of Democrats who are fighting the teachers' union.

So I'm excited to be in education during such an empowering moment. It's personally empowering for me. So I'll share with you now my own big change. Next year, I'll be shifting research gears to work for two new professors on teacher/district/evaluation-related studies. I couldn't be more excited. It's made me start thinking of ideas that might actually be valuable in an applied sense...not just on paper to earn a degree.

Am I being idealistic? Absolutely. Unfortunately, the catalyst for all of this is money, and to get more money into education, we have to change the way people think about it. Here is some final food for those thoughts from one of my favorite commentators...


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