Wednesday, September 21, 2011

When "reform" became the answer and teachers became the problem

Former education secretary William Bennett knows exactly what’s wrong with America’s schools.  In response to a report College Board published about an unexpected drop in SAT scores across the nation in 2010, Mr. Bennett jumped right to the source of all of educations problems – teachers and their evil, money grabbing unions.

According to the report published by College Board – the company responsible for developing and scoring the SAT – the drop in SAT scores from 508 (the level recorded six years ago) to 497 on the reading component is due in part to “the record size and diversity of the pool of test-takers.”

In his 15-paragraph article posted on, Mr. Bennett devoted three paragraphs to how much money is spent on education in the US, six paragraphs on teacher contracts, teacher pay and unions and one paragraph, the last one, recapping College Board’s assessment of the problem (there is a two-paragraph introduction as well).  Like most education “pundits”, Mr. Bennett ignored the reason stated in the report by College Board (which has no political stake in presenting its findings) and went right to what he knew was the obvious cause – teachers and unions.  And why not?  Teacher bashing and demonizing unions has become the cause celebre among conservatives and other “reform-minded” citizens. 

Are there bad teachers in American schools?  Of course there are.  Just as there are bad mechanics, bad doctors, bad accountants, and bad financial planners.  Are some of the examples Mr. Bennett cited in his article legitimate causes for concern among parents and administrators and in need of reform?  Again, the answer is yes.  However, rather than examine the causal theory supported by College Board, Mr. Bennett saw this as another opportunity to push an agenda bent on dismantling the system by blaming the easiest and least defensible target.  Furthermore, he fails to make even one direct correlation (no studies, no data, no programs, no anecdotal records – NOTHING) between a one-year decline in scores and the performance of ALL teachers.  More important, Mr. Bennett failed to give relevance to any of the following factors that may (or may not) have attributed to the decline in SAT scores:

a)      The overemphasis on high-stakes testing at the expense of authentic learning experiences.  The pressure on students and teachers to raise standardized test scores has created a “teach to the test” mentality across this nation.  Its origin can be traced to the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act and has continued into the Obama administration’s Race To the Top education program.

b)      The lack of focus (and resources) on our “top performing” students due to an overemphasis on our “lower performing” students.  Please understand I am not advocating that we ignore our struggling students so we can increase SAT scores.  I am saying that over the past 10 years, there has been a deliberate shift in instruction that has been geared toward struggling students at the expense of others.

c)      The deterioration of American families and their focus on education.  Many families have heard the “blame the teachers” cry from politicians so often over the past few years, that they have adopted a similar mantra.  Many have an “It’s not my child’s fault…it’s the teachers fault” approach to every issue and circumstance involving their children.

d)     The deterioration of the economic support system for our schools and our students.  More of our school-age kids are living in poverty than in any time since the Great Depression.  More and more kids are helping their parents raise younger brothers and sisters. More and more kids are escaping the pressures of home life via video games and other non-academic endeavors.

e)      Last but not least, absolutely no “blame” was placed on administrators, district and/or state officials who have allowed some of the deplorable situations Mr. Bennett described in his article to continue. 

During this past legislative session, Florida enacted sweeping education reform similar to what Mr. Bennett proposed.  Senate Bill 736 (and its accompanying House Bill) is currently being implemented.  Its purpose – claim its supporters – is to remove “bad teachers” by eliminating tenure and reward “good teachers” by creating a performance-based pay system.  Sounds great, right, Mr. Bennett?  Here’s what education reformers are not telling you.  Under the new system, it takes three years to fire a “bad teacher” when it took only 90 days under the old system.  As for rewarding good teachers with bonuses based on student performance, these savvy reformers forgot two key elements – funding and providing a valid instrument in which to assess all students.  The result?  Already financially-strapped school districts will have to redistribute funds to pay for the program as well as create assessments (and administer and score them and calculate whose students have shown learning gains) with ZERO funds given to achieve this wonderful reform.

My advice to Mr. Bennett is this:  Let those who work most closely with students decide how to reform the system.  My guess is Mr. Bennett is “gambling” that the public won’t know any better and will continue to buy into the “Let’s bully the teachers”approach he and like-minded folks have already begun.

If you’d like to read Mr. Bennett’s article, you can find it at:

Friday, September 9, 2011

When Evaluations and Test Scores Don’t Bring “Satisfaction”

It was Friday, the day before the three-day Labor Day weekend.  When I finally pulled out of the teachers’ parking lot, it was 5:10 – an hour and twenty-five minutes after my contract hours and almost two hours after students were dismissed from school.  What is unusual and notable about this is not that I was at school that late, or that it was a Friday before a three-day weekend.  What is notable – if not extraordinary – is that there were ten teachers (out of a staff of 36 teachers), one administrator and the school secretary who still had not left school. 

This was not a rare occasion or a beginning of the school year phenomenon.  On any given day, over a third of our faculty and staff arrive well before contract hours, and the vast majority leaves well after contract hours.  Some are “repeat offenders”.  They get to work early each day and leave late each day. 

I recently wrote a letter to one of our state representatives.  The letter was in response to one he wrote to me after reading a Guest Column piece I had written for our local newspaper.  In his letter, the representative challenged my opposition to the new teacher evaluation system – a system which uses student test scores to determine 50% of a teacher’s overall evaluation.  At the end of his letter, he asked the following question, “Do you think 97% of all teachers are ‘satisfactory’?”

My immediate response was, “Yes”, but his question struck a chord with me, and I began to think about all the teachers I have worked with over the past 21 years.  I have worked at four different schools with approximately 250 teachers (I rounded down to make the math easier).  Of those 250 teachers, I could only think of a few – less than a handful – who were “unsatisfactory” in their performance year in and year out.

Perhaps age and a sense of kindness and generosity to my current and former colleagues had clouded my memory, so I doubled that number to eight.  Over the past 21 years, I have worked with eight unsatisfactory teachers – teachers who were unprepared, unprofessional, and incompetent and/or whose classrooms resembled a circus rather than a learning environment.  That left 242 out of 250 teachers, or exactly 96.8%, who were “satisfactory”.  They did their job.  They came to school prepared to teach.  They worked with students.  They supported students.  They encouraged students.  They graded papers.  They turned in grades.  They filled out IEP’s, AIP’s, 504 plans, IPDP’s, etc.  They met with administrators.  They attended workshops.  Yes, 97% were satisfactory.

Anyone who has ever had children (or spent any time around a school in the last 30 years), knows that teaching is about much more than being satisfactory, or effective, or highly effective or even exemplary (or innovating the term used in the new measurement system), and it’s about more than one man or one woman’s ability to get a group of 22 to 25 students to “show learning gains” on one test.  Teaching is about understanding and tending to the needs of children – their academic, developmental and social needs.

The new evaluation system has sixty teaching characteristics or elements.  They are all “observable behaviors” of an effective or “satisfactory” teacher.  They include descriptors such as “provides clear learning goals” and “establishes classroom routines” and “demonstrate value and respect for low expectancy students.”  All these characteristics can be measured on a scale or evaluated with a protocol, but do they truly measure the characteristics of a good teacher?

How do we measure dedication – coming to work early and staying late?  Where is the rubric to evaluate a teacher who spends an hour and a half of her own time each night (if not more) – away from her own children – to find “just the right” story, book or lesson to spark interest in that one disconnected child?  What score do you give to a teacher who stays after school to listen to a child sob because her parents are divorcing, and she doesn’t know where she is going to live?  How do you evaluate the “with-it-ness” of a teacher whose students could care less about “world cultures” when their own culture consists of gang violence, teenage suicide, bankruptcy or foreclosure?

One of the least effective teachers I know – in terms of “observable behaviors” –  is also one of the most effective teachers I know – in terms of “with-it-ness” and “meeting the needs of students”.   His lesson plans are sketchy – at best.  His record keeping leaves a lot to be desired.  He operates under the “it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission” mantra most of the time.  But he knows his subject area better than most college professors.  His vocabulary, writing and critical thinking skills are unparalleled.  More important, he knows how to relate to his students – from the nerd who sits alone in the back of the room to the loud-mouthed girl who is taking care of three younger siblings at home.  He makes learning meaningful and relevant, and they remember the life lessons he teaches them – as well as the subject area lessons – long after they leave his classroom.  His effectiveness cannot be measured by a protocol and certainly is not accurately reflected based on how his students perform on one test. 

The question is not “Are 97% of all teachers ‘satisfactory’?”  The better question is “How do you measure learning gains when learning is about more than questions on a test and teaching is about more than documenting observable behaviors?”