Sunday, January 29, 2012

State of the [teacher's] Union

Obama addressed the nation on Tuesday night in his annual State of the Union remarks to both houses of Congress.  

Of course, when education is referenced in these speeches, (as it always is-without fail) I perk up and listen.  In general the remarks are hollow rah-rahs for the need for stronger schools. Often, the pablum is packaged in red, white, and blue and little of substance is offered.

So far, I have yet to hear a politician say anything but supportive statements about the need for a strong education system.  The devil is in the details. 

For those who may have missed it, here is the portion of the State of the Union address where Obama referenced our floundering goals in education:

At a time when other countries are doubling down on education, tight budgets have forced States to lay off thousands of teachers. We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000. A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance.  Every person in this chamber can point to a teacher who changed the trajectory of their lives. Most teachers work tirelessly, with modest pay, sometimes digging into their own pocket for school supplies – just to make a difference. Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.

His remarks are shorthand for those who follow education issues and reflect most of what has gone on in the past year.  Here's the translation.

First of all, layoffs are looming.  Most localities will run out of stimulus money this year and will have to increase classroom sizes as they lay off teachers.

Then he references the recent report published in the New York Times on how effective teachers improve a child's earning power.  This report has dubious goals and questionable conclusions about using Value Added Measures which rely on test scores to rate a teacher's effectiveness, so the remark about what "we know" is not exactly all that quantifiable.  It is clear though that effective teachers who are well supported can make a difference. A large part of a teacher's ability to be effective hinges on the system he/she labors within.  Clearly the current system under NCLB has done much to stagnate student achievement in the past decade.  And equal access to a strong educational foundation has widened rather than narrowed.  Teachers argue that their ability to remain effective has been stripped from them.

Obama's line about saving poor children through education is seen by some as a cop-out for the rest of the nation.  Laying the cure for poverty at the feet of the teaching force absolves the rest of us from making changes to a tax code that dooms whole swaths of our electorate to a lifelong struggle for economic stability. Student achievement will benefit when households are not under continual strain.

The "bashing" line comes from the media onslaught starting with Waiting for Superman last fall and continuing in the NBC Education Nation where teachers and their unions have been routinely vilified and sidelined so that billionaires and corporatists can gain credibility in their argument that the cure for public education is a weakened teacher's union and tighter, more frequent measures of teacher effectiveness--i.e. testing, testing, testing, to produce data, data, data. 

The last bit--"let's offer schools a deal" refers to Obama's language in his actual "blueprint" (why is everything a blueprint these days?).  The blueprint was released after the speech and contains the following language in reference to a plan for education:

Attract, prepare, support, and reward great teachers to help students learn: 
Teaching is a profession and should be treated like one. The latest research says a great teacher could increase the lifetime income of an entire classroom by hundreds of thousands of dollars. 
The President is fighting to protect our schools from being hurt by the recession by providing states and communities with funds to prevent teacher layoffs, and avoid increases to class sizes or decreases in the number of school days. 
The President is also asking for a new competitive program that will challenge states and districts to work with their teachers and unions to comprehensively reform the teaching profession by:
o Reforming colleges of education and making these schools more selective;o Creating new career ladders for teachers to become more effective, and ensuring that
earnings are tied more closely to performance;o Establishing more leadership roles and responsibilities for teachers in running
schools; improving professional development and time for collaboration among teachers; and providing greater individual and collective autonomy in the classroom in exchange for greater accountability;
o Creating evaluation systems based on multiple measures, rather than just test scores; o Re-shaping tenure to raise the bar, protect good teachers, and promote accountability. 

So this list looks like the devil's details.  Those who have read the report Transforming Teaching: Connecting Professional Responsibility with Student Learning will recognize some of the bullet points.  The teachers who wrote the report argue that teachers will assume accountability when we have more control over the training, the workplace, and the criteria for advancement.  In other words, ownership of a supportive system in tandem with accountability.

The door is not fully open for professionalizing teaching, but this looks like a window to crawl through.  

Nothing happens until discussion ensues.  Start talking.   Our representatives need to know which bullet points need to be pushed forward in this agenda to lift teachers to the role of professional.  Our children and the future will benefit.

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