Sunday, March 1, 2015

On Teacher Leadership vs teacher leadership

Like a sore tooth I have been tonguing the problem of Teacher Leadership for about a year now.  It is a worrisome thing.

It started last year when Arne Duncan launched his Teach to Lead program at the now annual Teaching and Learning Conference in Washington, D.C.  (I plan to visit the education luminaries again this March 14.  Hate to miss out on all the noshing but feel a bit at arm's length from this fete. Too many commercials?)

To say that I am suspicious would be to describe an essential character trait.  I am pretty much always suspicious, not trusting that which is relentlessly sold.  I make a bad salesman since I can even find the holes in my own arguments.  Perhaps it is why journalism appealed to me as an undergrad.

So when Duncan launched the program, with little funding behind it, I thought "Well let's just see about that."  Still, ever the hopeful compromiser, I accepted the invitation to receive Teach to Lead emails, visited the website, and watched from a twitter distance the three Teach to Lead Summits held to date.

This and the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship still bother me.

There are some hopeful signs that this is a serious movement:  There is a long list of supporters on the Teach to Lead website, groups that have resonance with teachers.

The TAF (as the fellows refer to themselves) argue that they are being taken seriously at the DOE, though you couldn't tell it by me. The DOE's official statement surrounding the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind law has too much emphasis on testing and measuring teacher effectiveness by student test scores.  If there is teacher voice in this policy, I'm not hearing it.

There are other issues that nag.  The Teach to Lead ning exhorts exemplary teachers to do what they have always done: come up with new ideas on a shoestring and commit their own resources of time and energy beyond the school day to fail or succeed on their own.  Some of us have done this for years and know just how wearing it can be.  If anything, this is a chief driver of teacher burnout: doing what is right without the official endorsement of both time and money.  Teacher as saviour once again.

But no, it's something else that is nagging me.  Perhaps it has to do with how I have been both led and hope to lead with fellow teachers.

The source of my unease seems to stem from this:  All of these initiatives still have the bitter taste of top-down management.

In all discussions Teacher Leaders are often referred to as elevated.  The anointed ones speak of the jealousy of their peers when one teacher is lifted above the others.  In all the rhetoric, it appears that Teacher Leadership is now another rung on a hierarchy which, in my opinion, is the very root of systemic problems in educating youth. The model implies that some leaders must move aside to make room for more leaders, some of whom will be Master Teachers.  Oh you lucky few.

This is a mistake.

Top heaviness does not work. It creates a steady drip, drip of initiatives that rarely, if ever, create real change in instruction.  That much the last decade must have proven, if nothing else.  It also implies that only some teachers can be good enough--something I don't believe about teachers or students.  The hierarchy itself is both fate and predestination.  Fait accompli.  It constricts rather than expands.

Like education itself, the spark and hunger for change must be ignited within the teacher so that transformation in thinking and subsequently transformation in instruction occurs.  It may sound like magic, but there are models for this that work.

We do know how to facilitate this kind of change in both teachers and students.  (See Finland, see Singapore, see soon-to-be China...)

The workplace must reflect the same model that the best teachers create in their classrooms: collaborative think tanks where sharing is encouraged and expected.  Education, after all, is an inside-out process--not the other way around.

Like many of my peers, I did not learn how to ignite that spark in my students from management. I found it outside the regimented structures.  All of the transformational learning that occurred in my teaching came from a single source: other teachers.

I found my first mentors alongside me at work, trusted teachers who led me to the clear refreshing water of understanding and owning my own work--all outside of the workplace.  The first long drink came in the National Writing Project Summer Institute where we examined our work and thought deeply about teaching and its goals. Then I engaged in the self-study of the National Board process--then online in Nings and twitter chats and two engaging listserves: the Center for Teaching Quality list (now the CTQ Collaboratory) and the Advanced Placement English listserve.  I go back to these sources over and over because continual learning with peers is invigorating, alive, and intellectually fulfilling. It continually engages me in my work.

All of these experiences have one thing in common:  committed teachers are brought together to discuss practice, to share, to problem solve, always with the work of students in front of us, coupled with trusted theoretical models.  The learning is deep and personal and carries the ring of truth that a school system's program du jour does not.

If we really are to both lead and own our profession, it calls for a flatter structure that encourages collaborative grouping.   It is through this that teacherS (capital S) will lead the profession, not an appointed Teacher Leader who is but one more bureaucratic administrator of teaching excellence.

My unease, I think (still questioning), stems from the idea that the term Teacher Leadership has been co-opted by the current structure into an elevated position handed over by the powers that be.  Those who currently sit at the top of a hierarchy see only one methodology and, I fear, will defeat teacher leadership in the end.

True collaboration is invigorating, not defeating (the way official Teacher Leaders describe the response of their former peers).  Leaders LEAD by invitation, modeling the joy of discovery and the pleasure in sharing a success, and then step aside to let the process drive the change.  Like teaching itself, there is an egoless component, since the true goal is to achieve that satisfying moment when students take over and the leader is no longer needed.

This is where we should be headed: a profession that takes over for itself and does not need the endorsement of the ruling class.

Consider teacher leadership, lowercase.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Not your Public School Anymore...

January 21 federal HELP (Heath, Education, Labor, and Pension Committee) hearings begin on the federal No Child Left Behind law, (NCLB) which has been controlling the work of public schools for twelve years.  View hearing here.
Even if you do not have a child in school, never had a child in school, or despised your own schooling, you need to pay attention to this debate.

Why?  Because your tax dollars have been funneled into a variety of boondoggles, mean-spirited rulings, and questionable educational practices that have made some private individuals very rich while impoverishing, shaming, and sidelining others.  

Meanwhile children have been submitted to the largest un-tested social experiment ever perpetrated on a helpless group of citizens and are suffering under a narrowed and constricted curriculum.

Here is an argument you are likely to hear, first from Charles Barone of the Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).  Barone spoke last week in support of Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s decree that the law must be repealed, but not the tests.

"I don't know how else you gauge how students are progressing in reading and in math without some sort of test, some kind of evaluation," Barone said. "If you want to see a kid's vocabulary, how they write, if they can perform different math functions, the only way is to sit them down and give them a test."

In this argument, Barone presents an either/or logical fallacy that appeals to common sense.  Either you test them--as we have been doing for the past 12 years--or you have no evidence of student ability.

Most adults will accept this argument on it's face. (Of course! You have to test them.) But, in addition to its insultingly facile nature, it simply isn't true.

The facts are that teachers have always relied on a variety of forms of assessment to gauge where their students are and have reported these assessments in a variety of ways: report cards, parent conferences, remediation, specialized groupings.... (Surprise: we've always known who struggles.)

Teachers also use assessments to celebrate and encourage all students to find success in something: school plays, art shows, band and choir concerts, debates, school newspapers, spelling bees, repairing cars, wiring a house, building a tennis pavilion, welding, creating an architectural drawing, drawing blood, entering a variety of contests both athletic and academic--every one of these activities are authentic and evaluative.

Nothing provides greater feedback than a real audience, a public display, a finished product, or a scoreboard.  Nothing is more "real-world" than these activities.

A multiple-choice test is as "fake" an assessment as any devised.

Barone also ignores that since 1969 the nation has had the National Assessment for Educational Progress, also called "The Nation's Report Card," an annual, standardized test that provides reliable, valid data on the achievement of our students in all of the various reported groups, but does not punish school systems by withdrawing funds or testing every child every year.  The data from these tests is used diagnostically to look for broad areas for improvement in the delivery of education.

Ironically, this national tool has been used to measure the effectiveness of NCLB.  The verdict: a steadily rising rate of achievement among all students flattened once NCLB was put in place.  In some areas the achievement gap between sub groups has closed--but primarily because the top group dropped down, not because the bottom rose.

Against this assessment the high-stakes-testing-hold-all-schools-accountable initiative has been an abject failure.

So why would we repeat, at great expense, work that is already being done?

Barone, DFER, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have been speaking for business groups who stand to gain financially from a policy designed to prove every public school a failure.  The options offered for "failed public schools" are always about shifting public dollars into private hands: charter schools run by private groups for profit, online courses run by private groups for profit, testing created by private groups for profit.

As a single example consider Pearson, the British-owned testing behemoth.  Your tax dollars have supported this outfit for years.  Hired to "hold teachers accountable" this group has been siphoning off local dollars with little oversight, shielded by the very loud "you gotta test 'em" voices.  Operating profits (that's profits, not sales) for 2012 alone were $1.4 billion.  In large part, this is money derived from taxes paid by citizens.

Current law ensures the profits will keep rolling in.  To wit: when our students test, teachers sign a legal document--every time--that stipulates they can have their license revoked if they read the test. The argument implied is that teachers cannot be trusted to teach well if they know what the kids will be tested on (huh?).

The truth is that released tests would require the creation of a new test every year.  That is expensive and would cut into the 1.4 billion in profits.  Our Virgnia legislature supports these business interests through law.

This also conveniently keeps out any oversight by experienced educators.  We can't know for certain what students are asked to do.  Additionally, these tests do not provide the valid information from tools we used to rely on to gauge student ability: The Iowa Test of Basic Skills or the Stanford Achievement test.

There are more costs associated with testing: Every district must provide computers and reliable internet access ($$).  The tests must be administered to very careful guidelines, usually by someone in the building whose job is dedicated to this ($$$). Data must be collected, reported, printed, published which requires personnel and software in every district and state ($$$).  Teachers must create specific goals that can be quantified, measured, reported, described (time and $$). This, more than anything else, is driving good teachers away--and affecting the quality of teaching.

All of these local costs support the testing multiple-choice monster, but Pearson profits!  The organization is also clearly overextended, promising and profiting on products they cannot produce. For instance, they have hired freelance writers--not educators--to write test questions and seasonal employees--not educators--to score them.  Shoddy products, indeed.

Yes, kids will always have to take tests.  But they do not have to be mandated by law, shift public money into private hands, carry damaging labels, and destroy the lives of children.

Educators already know who needs support for learning. Our money would be better spent in achieving equity of resources for all of our students--well-equipped school buildings, access to books and enriching experiences, and well trained and supported teachers.

Repeal the law.  Dump the tests.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

More Joy...Less Stress

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is carrying a great burden." Philo, 1st Century.
"I grow old.  I grow old.  I will wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled."  T.S.Eliot

School is back in session tomorrow.  With one semester ended and new courses beginning, it is deja vu all over again: first day of school.

The last post described my schizophrenic existentialism.  Survival mode means focusing on the details of the day and ignoring the larger picture as much as possible--which includes ignoring the utter lack of interest and passion among the seniors.  Age?  Or 12 years of testing mania at play?

My mantra for the fall was: "If nothing else, we are going to have some fun."  So....lots of smiling, laughing.

That is an old person's prerogative: just let the little things go.  We don't care so much anymore.  The trousers will be rolled.  Your paper is late?  No sweat.  We will work on a way to git 'er done.  Fell asleep in class?  You must be uber tired.  Sleep is probably better than what is going on right now. No breakfast?  Here's a granola bar.  Screw the no food, no drink rule.

Highlights from the fall where I was completely unaccountable and did not do my job collecting data and leading from the front of the room:

  • Getting the chance to really get to know my students while wandering around the city library on a field trip.  Exploring the building, talking about favorite places to eat, laughing at the name of the old guy in the painting (it is a funny name).  You know, just talking?
  • Joining in on a technically inappropriate joke in class.  But, hey, it was hilarious.
  • Letting the kids interview me as practice before their interviews with other adults.  Talk about engagement.  Everybody sat up straight and joined in that day.  (This should tell us something about how kids want to interact with the grown-ups. They think we are kind of interesting.)  I gave honest answers. They mostly wanted to know what it was like when I was young, how I met my husband, stuff like that.  No one asked me about grammar....
  • Helping the kids develop the questions for our British literature study.  (Again, not doing my job.) They were given the topic: The Evolution of the English Language.  They came up with doozies: What is English? Why do other languages borrow from English? When and where was the English language created? How was it influenced (and how frequently)?  How old is the English language?  How long did it take to develop?  How many countries and people speak English? We hung the questions up.  They knew the answers later.
  • Putting kids in groups to read and share their own writing.  Many highlighted this as their favorite exercise.  They learned without me...
  • Dancing to a students' rap music played through his phone until he was so disturbed by my old lady, white girl moves that he put the phone away (trousers rolled).  That's another day when I can say that every student was fully engaged...and laughing.  I didn't write him up.
  • Watching kids explain their work to their parent/grandparent/guardian sometimes in Spanish or Bulgarian, on a conference night where I did not lead the conference. Don't I wish I spoke more than one language like so many of my students....?
  • Hearing a student share a poem (written in 7 minutes) and enjoying the snapping and applauding from the kids after...followed by an instant evaluation: "You need to put that in the creative writing magazine!"  Who needs a gradebook? Who needs a teacher?
  • The day we wrote about someone we were grateful to have in our lives. And then called them. And read it to them.  That assignment was never turned in.

So much of school is not kind.

We tend to rule from a deficit model:  start with 100 and take away whatever is not there.  We measure what you're missing, not what you came with.

We hold everyone to the same due date (for fairness) when what goes on outside and inside school is not really fair.

We sort kids into groups and everyone knows who the Bluebirds are.  We make the same rules that everyone must follow.  We ask everyone to pass the same (stupid) tests.

But some kids have more access than others.  Some have more support than others.  Some have more healthy food than others.  Why does school always have to have these "fair" rules when everywhere else the scales are tipped?

We'd be better off teaching and modeling some empathy or, perhaps, how to have some fun everyday.

Mantra for the spring:  "If nothing else, we are going to have some fun...."

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Schizophrenia of Teaching

The title of this blog came to me this morning after reflecting on the semester just ended. This year, semester-long courses ended before the holiday break and new students and courses arrive January 5. It is a good time to review.

Part of the ruminations included moments of deep despair, survived only by deliberately ignoring the larger system within which I labor and focusing on the details of each day.  It means setting aside an awareness that "official dogma" is in direct conflict with the necessary components for real learning.

Schizophrenia.  When being honest about what could be done in relation to what we are often asked to do there is a clear division.  At times it is impossible to hold the two images at once. It's crazy-making.

And then, in an effort to avoid writing, I clicked through some missives my brother shared, one being Pope Francis' Christmas address.  And here is one of the 15 ailments the Pope sees in the Catholic Curia:
Suffering from 'existential schizophrenia.' "It's the sickness of those who live a double life, fruit of hypocrisy that is typical of mediocre and progressive spiritual emptiness that academic degrees cannot fill.  It's a sickness that often affects those who, abandoning pastoral service, limit themselves to bureaucratic work, losing contact with reality and concrete people."
Yep.  That would be it.  Thinking too hard about education means living a double life.  I'm a hypocrite.  Let me count the ways.

1. Despising the tests that I neither trust nor find a reliable measure of ability (to do what? take a test? on an esoteric bit of old information that students will quickly forget? On a computer that's as far from the real world as you can get?) while simultaneously making sure that every student passes both the reading and the writing test.
Devoting hours to collecting and pouring over data, directing human and financial resources to remediation time and rah-rah "you can do it" sessions to insure that every child passes because they cannot graduate without those passing scores, and I desperately want their 13 years in school to mean something--though it is my firm belief that the tests mean that their degree means less and less....

2. To hating, absolutely despising and decrying grades while simultaneously using them as both carrot and stick to engage students in their work.
Seriously, what is an "A"?  An abstraction for.....I'm not even sure any more.
My students are fully round people.  Some break the rules in creative and disruptive ways, and we should encourage that.  After all, how will change come about if we don't have rule breakers? Others rise above difficult lives, come to school everyday, work hard, but still just don't 'get' what intellectual pursuit is, what it means to wrestle with ideas.  In fact, some students openly avoid any equivocation in their lives.  They want to comply, to have something they can count on day after day. They don't want disruption.  Is compliance an "A"? Is risk-taking?

3. Two days before break I proctored re-takes on our state tests. Every one of the hundred or so students in the room was a 'failure,' having already failed one or more of the tests. Some would return the next day to try, yet again, to pass more tests.   Of course the idea that you can fail the test one day and pass it the next, sometimes by a 30 point margin, begs the question: what is this test anyway?
Every computer in the building was employed and our Media center was a hush of test-taking seriousness--as it had been for the previous six (soon to be seven!) days.
The kids were incredible. Polite. Patiently waiting while teachers helped them reboot computers, find scratch paper and calculators.  Raising hands to tentatively ask "Am I allowed to go to the bathroom?"in the midst of the repeat of a sometimes four-hour long test (just one of many).  Not a peep when they were reminded that their addiction to cell phones would have to be curtailed.  Hushed voices, serious, focused faces.
I wanted to scream: Walk out!  Fight back!  You're better than this!  Hell yes, you can go to the bathroom, and if they won't let you, throw some furniture! You! You're the kindest student I've ever taught. You! You're hilariously funny! You! You're athletically gifted. Celebrate that!
But I did not. I helped and encouraged them to do their best.
I marveled at how well they have learned what we have taught them: This test, on this day, is all that matters.  Your worth is being measured now.
The kids have got it.

4. While working on a strategic plan for our district we listed our beliefs.  And I believe them--every one.  But, sadly, I do not think that we will realize our vision of helping every student find their purpose, talents, and skills in this world before they leave our system.
There are too many forces we cannot control.  Over half our students live in poverty.  Their parent(s) need jobs that pay enough to put affordable roofs over their heads and healthy food on the table. Some need even more than that. The children need safe places to grow and explore before their "official" schooling begins.  All children need a variety of hands-on, playful experiences and a chance to get off their block.  Otherwise all of school is just an abstraction to which they have no connection.  Some of our students have never see the other side of town, much less a hiking trail or an escalator.
Without these supports in place the yardstick that measures success deems them failures before they ever step foot in our buildings.  And once they arrive there we begin to sort them into 'awesome" and 'abject failure,'  perpetuating a dismal view of the world.
But I signed on because if we list and fight for what we believe maybe we can get the wider community to believe it too.

So a New Year's Resolution is in order when going about the daily work of teaching children.  I will follow Pope Francis' directives and strive to be the apostle of  education.  He urges us to avoid the 'funereal face':
"In reality, theatrical severity and sterile pessimism are often symptoms of fear and insecurity.  The apostle must be polite, serene, enthusiastic and happy and transmit joy wherever he goes."
Less hypocrisy.  More joy.  That is the tonic for teaching schizophrenia.

Next blog: Moments of joy.

Monday, December 1, 2014

UVA and Our Heart of Darkness

All of Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz...

If you think our country isn't currently sinking in a fetid sea of corruption born of greed, inequality, and a slavish adherence to market forces, think again. Read the recent account in The Rolling Stone of the brutal, animalistic, predatory rape of a freshman woman on the campus of The University of Virginia. The scales will fall from your eyes.

The description of abusive behavior perpetrated at the venerable university is physically sickening.

Update: This article is now under scrutiny by the media for its failure to fact-check.  This is a sad turn of events surrounding violence perpetrated on women. However, I stand by my premise that women are being abused and the powerful are ignoring their sacred trust in order to protect their 'brand.'  The evidence for this lies in the student body reaction after the article and the pile of stones placed by women on the campus, with each stone representing an event.  There is clearly a problem.

The case is finally--years  later--the subject of an investigation.  But only after the leaders of the institution have had their hand forced by the publication of repetitive, abhorrent events swept under the rug to maintain UVA's "reputation."  In the modern parlance, the UVA 'brand' must be protected so the dollars keep flowing.

If you doubt a systematic abuse of women on the campus, look at the pile of stones placed on the Phi Kappa Psi porch last week by young women who have been the victim of "a bad experience," as the women in the Rolling Stone article came to view their sexual abuse in frat houses. As in: "I had a bad experience" after I was drugged and then raped by privileged frat boys.

From the article, it is clear that money talks--and that some are more equal than others.

Thirty years of concentrated effort has been centered on privatizing nearly every institution in this country because the 'magic of market forces' promises to right any wrongs through fevered competition.  But it has brought us down to this: we would sacrifice our own children in order to maintain a money-making machine.

UVA, like other public schools across the country, has seen state funding dwindle as taxes have been held low. Nearly all schools continually search for grants, donors, and wealthy alumnus with nostalgic ties to campuses. They pander to the monied elite, many of whom have fraternity ties.  De-funding public schools has been the policy of the right, including K-12 schools where "vouchers" are promised to bring market-driven competition into the lives of all our children.

In the 70's, when I was a college student, most of the funding of state schools was provided by the state.  When state funding was the norm, students found higher ed in easy access.  Who knew these would be the golden years of opportunity to advance by furthering an education?  It was possible then to work a part-time job, live independently, graduate debt-free, and find a decent job.

No more.  But that could be the case if we had the will.

Today we pit our students against each other in a "race to the top" where achieving high test scores and grades encourages cheating and a single-minded attention to scores, not learning for its own sake. Students, too, understand the need for winning at any cost and are mired in a market that demands ever more from those competing for limited resources.

Following a high-school career driven by the desire for a seat at a college--students land on campus where they apparently drug and drink themselves into oblivion. On some level the students must realize their purposeless existence of chasing the next score (money, grades, whatever).

For those who realize their dream (is it their dream?) of graduating into a job, most face beginning life mired in debt where true adulthood--owning a home, raising a family--is pushed further into the future.

We haven't learned much from the past.  This story has been told before (Leopold's Congo, the Gilded Age, Louis XVI).

Concentrated wealth corrupts absolutely.  Our education system has absolutely been corrupted by the same forces.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

There are no magic bullets

This week my brilliant seniors led their own discussion on the epic tale of Beowulf.  It was their first Harkness and they performed phenomenally, as all students will when given the guidance and opportunity to follow their thinking around a text.

At one point both of the classes arrived at a similar conclusion--just one of many they circled around until they were able to summarize their thinking and talking.

They decided:  Humans seem to have a desire to either find or create some superhuman hero who will swoop in and clean up all our messes, while we watch with relief. This "other" will even save us from ourselves.

Here is how one student put it:  "We seem to have two types of heroes.  There are those who are our permanent heroes, like firemen, policemen, soldiers, and teachers who are with us all the time, helping us out of trouble along the way, but we don't really pay attention to them because they're always doing that work.  And then we have the less permanent heroes who come in and do this awesome act one time and then go away."

They went on to discuss how we tend to put sports heroes or celebrities on a pedestal, and that our adulation of these heroes actually de-humanizes and alienates them from the larger group.  (I told you they were brilliant.)

They decided that Beowulf was one of these better-than-real-life heroes who actually ended up alone, confronting the dragon by himself--with the exception of their favorite character Wiglaf--at the end of his life. (For some reason Robin Williams comes to mind.  A man who ultimately had to face his own dragon, isolated and alone, probably in part because we kept insisting he was larger than life.)

Our public education policy for the past decade has embraced this superhero mindset.

After a decade of "education reform" it should be painfully obvious that there is no simple lever or heroic treatment that will wipe away all issues inherent in teaching our diverse student population. NCLB has failed on many fronts and set us back over ten years.

It is a fiction created by lazy and simple minded leaders--or worse, by cunning, Orwellian opportunists who selfishly now wallow in profits based on a deception.

It has also been an easy sell for the public to  embrace.  Like the students said: there's something about us that really, really wants a hero who will make it all better.  These seventeen-year-olds seem to understand the folly in that kind of wishful thinking.

Four times this summer, on four separate reading and listening occasions, I encountered leading educators using this exact phrase: "There are no magic bullets."  In each instance the person--like Richard Allington in one amazing day-long review of research around reading--was refuting the idea that we could just buy a program, plug it in, and hope to lift all of our students out of the illiteracy that plagues their forward movement.

There is, however, a better more lasting answer to the question of how to improve our education system and that is to turn to the permanent heroes who have been doing the hard, repetitive, one-on-one, down and dirty, very unromantic work of helping students one at a time: our teachers.

As two of the educators encountered over the summer stated--there is no replacement in the teaching of reading and writing than actually doing a lot of reading and writing.  And each kid needs to be met at the level where learning those skills will happen.  And, no, those computer programs do not work (tried, tested, proven a waste of dollars).

Statistics show that both of these skill-based "interventions" have been dropping over the years with less time spent on both.  In 1999 the NAEP showed a narrowing of the achievement gap in reading comprehension among high school seniors, not because the bottom came up, but because the top readers declined.  We have not moved that number at all with any of the current magic bullets.  We are stalled.

Along with the "magic bullet" phrase, another theme has emerged in my professional work: a teacher and his or her training does make a difference.  Its clear in our building what happens when effective training doesn't occur as opposed to when it does.  And it is clear what effective is.  It has been studied.  One-shot outside consultant visits are ineffective.  "Effective professional development is intensive, ongoing, and connected to practice..." says the National Staff Development Council.

We have seen what happens when mandates and one-and-done PD scramble the messages of good instruction and the decisions made far from the classroom have to be implemented on the run. It creates a morass.  The one we are currently stuck in.

How we treat teachers -- through both compensation and ongoing, effective professional development--also makes a huge difference in advancing learning.  Because teachers who've gained real skill are choosing to leave when they can.  It is a story that is being repeated over and over.

That critical fifth year has played into many of those up-close and personal scenarios I've witnessed. Watching a novice teacher grow in confidence and ability, through the aid of veteran teachers who are short on both time and energy, generally takes well into at least the fourth year.

When a teacher leaves right as classroom skill is taking off--and the mentors can back off and begin focusing on other efforts--the process must begin again.  It is a long and very individual process and stresses those who are committed to fixing problems the old fashioned way--through hard work and persistence.

To watch a peer walk out the door, taking the training with them, is not just a disheartening, morale-deflator for those left behind, it is bad for teaching and learning.

And it is happening far too frequently.

The impetus for leaving teaching is generally a combination of the reality of the hard work coupled with a meager salary and little hope of real, substantive support-- in the form of opportunities to work with peers, time to shape curriculum, finding resources that will reach every student all day long. Couple that with a dearth of the softer components of a successful workplace that boosts the spirit of those who labor against difficult odds, and you create a "why bother?" mentality.

Time.  And money.  And respect.

There is no magic bullet.

The hope of public education lies in the development of human capital--permanent heroes who live in a grown up world.  One where superheroes don't really exist because the work is nuanced, not simplistic.  Continual learning from others in a community of learners is a necessary part of growing teachers.  Even my seniors understand that solving difficult problems isn't likely through the efforts of one superhuman.

We need to develop teachers. (Which means finding those who are good at developing teachers, paying them well to do that, and providing time to help both parties work on skill development.)

We need to pay teachers better.  Teachers are leaving because the pay SUCKS  to begin with, and doesn't get better over time.

We need to respect teachers by giving them control over their learning and their teaching.

And, yes, we can afford this.

Stop buying magic bullets and get some real work done: grow a cadre of permanent heroes.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

NEA Representative Assembly and the Death of Democracy

Earlier this month I served as a first-time delegate to the NEA representative assembly.

As a fan of democracy, it was an amazing process to behold.


Over 7,000 teachers and education support personnel filled the convention hall and were all more-or-less on equal footing: permitted to enter into debate and then vote on over 100 New Business Items (NBI).

All items arise from the membership (50 members must sign on before an NBI is considered), are discussed by the membership, and then voted on by the membership.  My contribution to the five days was to shout "Aye" or "Nay" at regular intervals after huddling in caucuses to debate a stance on the upcoming items.

The annual meeting charts the funding of discretionary monies, so every item comes with a price tag. The ongoing tally is reported throughout the process so membership dues are not overspent.

I learned a lot as a first time delegate.

Democracy is complicated.  There is political wrangling throughout the whole process.  A strategy exists in getting items to the floor, getting time at the mike, asking questions for more information, moving items to debate or referring them to committee, forming caucuses to garner more support, debating on the floor, adjusting the wording of the NBIs so there's an easier price tag to swallow, etc. etc.

It was amazing.  And fascinating.  And definitely not for me--too old (it would take years to form the relationships)--too introverted--too slow in thinking.  If there's one thing I'm sure of it's that I need time to process.  This is a game for extroverted, fast-thinkers.

But in spite of my delight in the true democratic flavor of the whole event, my overriding impression of the NEA RA is:

This is going to kill us.

And by us, I mean teachers and the public schools we love.

Our "enemies" are not operating under the same rules.

Those allied against public education hold resources equal to those of small countries.  And the holders of the resources do not need to come to consensus to get what they want.  Decision making is dictatorial, or at the very least, held in the hands of an elite few.  No debating.  They can move fast. And the money has been buying access to decision makers for decades now.  We are overwhelmed.

Though most of the new business items were clearly student-centered (take that teacher-bashers who think the union is all about protecting teachers) a fair amount were actions in RE-action to the monied agenda.

We are going to lose that battle.

The democratic process is too slow--and tends to the moderate middle.  By the time the membership has moved on an issue the target has also moved, far, far down the road.

Though some alert members have been on top of the reform agenda for years, others are slow to take alarm.  It's taken three attempts for the members to agree to ask for Arne Duncan's resignation.  The majority of the membership had to see the handwriting on the wall before majority ruled. The NEA decision to call for Duncan's resignation will likely be ignored.

The very democratic process we celebrate undermines our attempts to save our other democratic ideal: the common school.

The unions (AFT and NEA) take their cues by reacting to policy, not developing and proposing an alternate policy.  Each NBI that requires funding to fend off an attack depletes resources, scatters the focus, puts us even farther behind, and turns off dues-paying members who do not see an organization that speaks for them.  The power brokers only need to wait until we we talk and vote ourselves into bankruptcy.

It was hard to shake the feeling that we are playing into their game--a waiting game.