On Educational Reform

I don’t like to talk about work on this blog1. Despite everything, I like to maintain a modicum of anonymity, especially with respect to my career. But I’ve had some recent conversations that touch on it, and I feel like venting a little. So, without much detail, I’ll say that I’m currently employed as an educator. Most of what I’m going to say in this post is off-the-cuff and anecdotal, so take it with a serious grain of salt and do the research for yourself–and feel free to let me know if I’ve gotten anything wrong (but also feel obligated to direct me to a primary source).

So, I had a recent conversation with a good friend about education reform, largely based around the claims of the film “Waiting for Superman.” I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’m inclined to skepticism–not just because of who I am, but also because of the counterclaims and responses that paint it as a kind of anti-union propaganda piece, the “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” of public schools. This Washington Post piece isn’t exactly the point-by-point rebuttal I’d like to see, but it echoes the sorts of responses I’ve heard from the unions and others.

So let’s start with the basics: there needs to be reform at nearly every level of the process. Let’s start with one of my favorite topics in this conversation: teacher education. My own experience is still fairly recent, and while anecdotal, I feel like it’s fairly representative. One of the biggest problems is just attracting people into the field; teaching is not exactly the most presitgious or well-paid of careers. Education programs often go beyond the average four-year college plan, including at least one semester of full-time student teaching. Student teachers still incur tuition costs, but do not get paid for their time in the classroom, rarely get reimbursed for any travel costs, and often are discouraged or outright prohibited from holding outside jobs. That means a full four to six months of mounting debt before they can even begin looking for a teaching job. Not the most attractive of propositions, I assure you. All of the significant incentives–tenure, insurance, stability–only happen well after the novice teacher has been hired and established. Consequently, it’s hard to attract people to education if that wasn’t their goal all along.

Most teacher candidates go into education from the start. On one hand, this means that their entire college experience is supplemented with educational philosophy and psychology courses, and they’re on-track to become educators as soon as they graduate. On the other hand, this means that they often don’t get the same rigorous, in-depth examination of their subject area as a non-education major in the same field. Education courseloads are not major-plus-education, they are education-plus-subject-area. This presents a number of problems; some might be attracted to education as an option because they don’t want to do the in-depth work required by the advanced courses in the subject major. On the other hand, the people who end up teaching lack some of that in-depth knowledge, and while they may never be expected to teach a class on those topics, a more thorough understanding of any topic is important to being able to teach it accurately and correct students’ misconceptions and answer questions.

This is especially problematic when we’re talking about elementary school teachers. At least in some education programs (and I would suspect it’s a majority), elementary school and even some middle school teachers get only a minimum of education in science or math. It’s been my experience that many non-science or non-math teachers exhibit the same distaste and disdain for those subjects as non-science and non-math majors did and do, and consequently science education at the elementary level is often cursory or nonexistent. While students may do some reading or occasional experiments, rarely is there any education on the actual process of science. Math is much the same, teaching skills devoid of conceptual context. I’ve been in districts where entire elementary schools had eliminated science as a subject because no one was trained or particularly interested in it. This problem will rear its head again shortly.

My own path was different; I went to college on a typical four-year career-oriented track, but decided mid-way to go into education. Naturally, it was too late to start up an education major, so instead I went through all the four-year extensive training in my subject areas, then did my education training in graduate school. I think this gives me a leg up when it comes to some of the more arcane and advanced questions I get from students, and it certainly gave me a leg up on the pay scale to come into the field with my Master’s degree. Unfortunately, it also drove me further into debt, kept me in a dwindling program that was tied up in the academic bureaucracy of three different departments (four, in my case) so that no one knew what my requirements were or could communicate them to anyone else, and made me radioactive to various low-budget districts who won’t hire a first-year teacher with a Master’s, due to the pay requirements. Six-point-five years of college and plenty of knowledge earned me a degree that made me too risky a candidate for many underfunded schools. The economic side of the system, in at least some cases, is designed to penalize highly-trained candidates. This is a problem.

The economic problem is a major one, and if that Washington Post article is accurate, it’s a problem that Waiting for Superman largely ignores. That seems strange, since it was a recurring theme in just about every semi-popular text that I read in my education courses; it’s not as though economic disparity is some arcane issue that no one’s explored. I can’t speak for every state, but in my state the schools are funded primarily by local property taxes. I can understand the reasons for this, but the unfortunate consequence is that this perpetuates and furthers the economic divide between the rich and poor; wealthy neighborhoods tend to have schools that are better-funded, have better equipment, have more opportunities for electives and extracurriculars, and can lure top teachers away from smaller, poorer schools. On the other side of things, I have a hard time believing that anyone could be ignorant of all the schools who have cut music and art programs, sports and extracurriculars, and have even been unable to buy textbooks or equipment due to funding problems.

NCLB and related programs have exacerbated that matter by imposing various–often draconian–regulations on which schools get additional help and what metrics are used to measure student ability and growth. I know that my teacher education classes explored a wide variety of different pedagogical styles, techniques, and methods, designed to stimulate students with different strengths and different levels of ability; it didn’t teach me what the requirements of the ACT were and how to teach students to pass standardized tests. I didn’t go to college to be a test preparation tutor, and the more that schools move toward that, the more you’ll see qualified, passionate teachers leaving the profession.

The more you’ll also see qualified, passionate teachers forced out of the profession as schools cut any programs that are not explicitly tested on the common standardized tests. Music programs, art programs, and foreign languages are typically the first to go. In many cases, it seems the only reason that Physical Education remains is because it’s typically mandated by law. Whole subjects of teachers are being cut out of the industry as the number of available jobs in their fields dwindles. The teachers whose subjects and programs remain experience increased pressure to align their curricula with the expectations of the standardized tests, which generally means a very tight focus on a very small set of skills. The ACT doesn’t require you to have read Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, it doesn’t require you to know who wrote the Declaration of Independence or what the Magna Carta was, it doesn’t require you to know Avogadro’s Number or how to balance a chemical equation. The ACT is designed to measure a certain set of reasoning, verbal, and mathematical skills, and all the other things that go into a high school education–from hands-on experiments to basic cultural literacy–can be allowed to fall by the wayside. If they’re not on the test, then they’re a lower priority.

Which, unfortunately for everyone, goes against all the research that says students perform better when they can make connections between disparate fields of knowledge, and are more likely to graduate the more invested they are in the school, through courses they enjoy and extracurricular activities. Cutting out the electives and extracurriculars that students enjoy cuts down on their interest and cuts into their performance. Restricting teachers to the skills-based topics covered by standardized tests cuts down on their interest and cuts into performance. No one excels when no one is motivated to excel.

Which, I suppose, brings us to the matter of tenure and the unions. Again, teaching is not the most prestigious or high-paying of careers. It involves, especially early on, considerable education and a time commitment that well exceeds the typical 40-hour work week, much of it unpaid. Contrary to what many think, the teaching doesn’t end at 3:00, and grading papers is no small task when you have over a hundred students and have to plan lessons for the following days on top of it. The longer you teach, the more you build up a set of assignments and techniques and things that you can go back to without re-inventing the wheel each year, but novice teachers only have those kinds of archives in the form of what their colleagues have accumulated. The problem with this is that it stifles innovation; when it’s 9:00 at night and I have to be up at 5 to get ready and be at the school on-time for a staff meeting, and I have to choose between using a decade-old worksheet that may not represent the best modern research practices, a textbook-designed worksheet that may not reflect the emphases I have in my particular classroom, or a tailor-made assignment that I take time to put together on my own (with my knowledge of educational research but lack of expertise in crafting assessments), circumstances are often going to necessitate taking the easier options. Circumstances especially dictate those shortcut methods when, in the last few months of the year, when students have checked out mentally (and in many cases physically, what with the increase in field trips and family vacations) the novice teacher receives notice that they will not be hired back for the following school year. April, May, and June become a juggling act, where the novice teacher must continue their commitment to cover a certain amount of material and keep consistently grading to maintain the fidelity of the students’ scores, while also rewriting their résumés, submitting applications, and arranging interviews–with administrators at other schools, whose goals are to complete hirings before their own current school years end, and who are only available for interviews during school hours on school days. The faint glimmer at the end of this whole process is that, if you get hired by a school district, perform well for your periodic evaluations, and are not let go due to budget- or enrollment-related issues–for two to five years (more in some places)–then you don’t have to go through that juggling act again. You can settle down, put down roots, and have insurance during the summer months. That’s tenure.

“Ah,” you might say, “what about bad teachers? Doesn’t tenure make it so hard to fire a bad teacher that some districts refuse to even begin the process, preferring to just wait until they retire?”

Yes, it does. The union-negotiated contracts and tenure process make it difficult to fire teachers, even really terrible ones. This graphic from the Chicago Tribune demonstrates a typical process, and how it can take 2-5 years to remove a tenured teacher. Obviously, the process differs from district to district, but I suspect this is fairly typical. After all, it took over two years and nearly a million dollars for Mount Vernon, Ohio, to fire John Freshwater, who openly taught creationism in his public school science class, proselytized to his students, had been the subject of complaints by other teachers for eleven years, defied orders from the administration to stop teaching creationism for two years, and branded a student with a Tesla coil. Obviously, there’s something wrong with that system.

Except. Except that for every John Freshwater there’s a Dover School Board, full of elected ideologues with no educational background, who want to force teachers to promote their agenda. For every John Freshwater, there’s a Christine Comer, forced out of an educational position because the administration disagrees with their beliefs or legal conduct. The reason it’s hard to fire bad teachers is because the tenure system and the unions ensure that teachers have fair representation and an appeals process as a defense against ideologically- or personally-motivated administrations or school boards, against false accusations and unconstitutional mandates, and against biased people with personal vendettas. It’s hard to fire a veteran teacher for the same reason that it’s hard to execute a murder suspect. When those protections are taken away, you end up killing a lot of innocent people. Without those protections, administrations are free to staff schools with sycophants and the curriculum is decided by the non-expert school board; without those protections, any student can hold every teacher hostage with the threat of crying ‘rape’ or ‘assault,’ potentially ending a career on a whim, even if the teacher is acquitted. The appeals process protects bad teachers because it also protects good teachers, just as due process under the law protects the guilty because it also protects the innocent.

The system could certainly be more streamlined in many cases. Take, for instance, the Rubber Room situation in New York City, where teachers who were under investigation for a variety of reasons, ranging from the spurious to the serious, were removed from the classroom during the hearing process, but still required by contract to show up, and the districts were still required to pay them in full. It was an unfortunate confluence of protections for both the teachers and the students that worked out poorly for everyone. The trick for unions and districts is to strike a balance between protecting students from bad teachers and protecting teachers from bad students, bad administrations, and bad school boards. That’s a difficult balance to strike, and it differs from district to district.

The hope in any iteration of this process is that bad teachers will be rooted out before they get to the tenure stage. Novice teachers, as I mentioned above, go through a trial period before receiving tenure, and that can take between two and five years (or possibly more) depending on the district. Teachers who don’t make the cut–whether it’s because of performance or because of other issues–get pink slipped and sent back into the job pool. Teachers who survive all the cuts over that whole term are potentially retained for life.

This process creates a couple of problems, to be sure. For one, a teacher’s ability can vary greatly over their lifetime; they may get considerably better with experience, they may burn out and check out, and hell, they may do both at different times. Tenure is a gamble that a school district takes based on a few years of rookie performance. Not that there aren’t checks on that matter; teachers typically have to meet certain requirements of continuing education and periodic evaluations over the course of their tenure. It’s still not easy to fire them, but the schools typically have some recourse.

The other problem is what the process does to the pool of available teachers. My friend who inspired this rant directed me to this podcast, where an economist and education expert suggests that a solution would be to fire the bottom 5-8% of teachers and replace them with teachers of average ability. There are problems with this plan, not least of which is that it’s based around data from students’ improvements on standardized tests–which are not an accurate measurement of anything except how good the teacher is at tutoring students on test preparation. I’d be curious to see how this plan could be implemented regarding teachers whose subjects aren’t tested by the standardized tests–like Spanish class, or Shop class, or most Social Studies classes. The bigger problem, though, is the matter of replacing those 5-8% of teachers. Let’s ignore the point that this is a nationwide survey, and so those bottom 5-8% of teachers might themselves be more heavily concentrated in completely different states than the more average and above-average teachers, and saying “if only we moved teachers from New York to Mississippi” is not feasible. The teachers who are mobile, who are available for new jobs and new hires are almost entirely (by definition) made of teachers who are newly graduated and thus unexperienced, experienced teachers who have not (for whatever reason) been granted tenure by another district, and experienced teachers who have been fired from a tenured position.

In other words, if you fire those 5-8% of bottom teachers, you have to take a gamble on the job pool of untested teachers and failed teachers. I can’t entirely fault districts for going with a “better the devil you know” approach even if they had a fairly easy time of firing those poorly-performing teachers.

Which is where the Hanushek plan makes the same basic mistake as just about any plan I’ve ever seen for an education reform panacea: its proposed solution ignores the complexities of reality. As I said, I haven’t seen “Waiting for Superman,” but my experience and the responses lead me to believe that it makes the same errors–and does so less out of ignorance than out of ideological reasons and a desire to promote propaganda. The truth is that there is no one culprit in the production of bad teachers and bad schools, but a tangled mess of problems in higher education, problems in the management of schools, problems of funding and budgeting, problems in the negotiation of contracts, problems in the turnover of administrations, problems in the measurement of student achievement, problems of priorities, and a further list of problems that would make even Jay-Z blush. Proposing any one school type as a solution or any one group as the villain is, at best, completely myopic, and at worst, profoundly dishonest. The only solution to education reform must be a comprehensive plan that addresses the problems at every level, from teacher education to tenure and everywhere in between, and recognizes that different places have different unique problems and needs. And that’s not a plan that can be expressed in a slick two-hour movie.

1. If recent history is any indication, I don’t like to talk about anything on this blog.

3 Responses to On Educational Reform

  1. Skeptico says:

    Tom, that's one of the best explanations I've read regarding the plight of teachers and why "why can't we just fire the bad teachers" is over simplistic and misses the point. I honestly couldn't see myself working late into the evening to prepare lessons when I have to be up at five for a staff meeting – not for the money teachers make anyway. I'm glad to that some people do it though, and those kids are very fortunate to have you as their teacher.

  2. Hemant says:

    As a teacher myself, I'm nodding through just about all of this. I'm not sure how to fix the education problem in this country, but the solutions they've thrown at the problem so far are hurting students far more than helping them. We need better, more educated teachers. We need to recruit those people who graduated at the top of their class, not the middle of it. Get more teachers with degrees in their specialized academic fields. That means you pay teachers more, especially in harder-to-teach subject areas. (I'm probably biased though… since I'm a math teacher)

  3. Eddie Vestal says:

    Just found your blog and loved this piece. I’ve been discouraged by the growth in anti-teacher rhetoric that passes for reform discussion. I believe a big part of the problem rests with policy and administration. Yet as a parent, I’ve also been frustrated with the “roll of the dice” that happens each school year in hoping that we don’t get the one or two teachers that the parents discuss with equal dread.

    Our lower middle class district with average household income of $47k pays our teachers quite well. Most make over $80K and have benefits including full pension pickup, healthcare benefits costing under $150/month for families and even $500/month to pay for the spouse’s coverage if s/he gets it through his/her own workplace. In spite of this, and possibly because of this, fees have increased yearly so that parents are now being asked to pay a fee for sports ($300-$1600), extracurriculars and clubs ($175-$600) and even an additional mandatory fee for math and science ($175.)

    I don’t mind paying $97,500 for my child’s 6th grade language arts teacher with 20 years experience because she is quite good. I do mind paying $82K for our child’s art teacher with 6 years experience who has a multitude of complaints including telling the entire class of 12yo kids that they were “good for nothings” and “idiots.” Each time parents complain about this teacher, the teacher is told not to do it again and nothing changes. This year, one teacher showed my son’s class every time she got a new tattoo on her belly, back or leg, while another sent home repeated memos rife with with mistakes in basic grammar and spelling.

    The problem is that there seem to be more than 1 or 2 bad teachers. In 14 years of school, I’d estimate that about 30% of my kids’ teachers were fantastic, 60% were average and 10% were poor.

    I understand the intent of tenure, but understand that the majority of parents see multiple instances of inept teachers receiving protection, and very few examples of teachers being attacked for teaching evolution. Additionally, it leads to the impression that teachers view their job protections as more valuable than a child’s education. Teachers are degreed professionals and should be treated as other degreed professionals, on the strength of their abilities and aptitude.

    Nevertheless, I think your post was one of the best defenses from a teacher’s perspective that I’ve read. It didn’t minimize the problems or angrily deflect valid criticism but offered an articulate perspective from educators. I wish there were more educators like you willing to work with parents to solve the education issue with honesty.

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