How Did We Stop Honoring School Teachers? Why Does It Matter?

In the past month I have had the same heartbreaking conversation with school teachers from several different school districts. These teachers describe the following reality: school administrators—under intense pressure to raise test scores to protect their own jobs and to protect the reputations and rankings of their school districts—are exerting intense pressure from the top which sometimes includes threats, curriculum packages imposed from on-high, and consultants in classrooms correcting teachers’ practices in front of students. One teacher described a colleague reduced to tears because she was made to wear earbuds in the classroom and be corrected (by consultants in the back of the classroom) on her teaching technique while she was working with the students.

Today when we think about school teachers, we have been conditioned to believe that the biggest mission of those who would improve schools is to get rid of bad teachers.  But weeding out bad teachers is not the biggest problem, which is that morale in many public schools is so low that many teachers—including excellent teachers—are just giving up and changing careers.  In lots of states there are teacher shortages because fewer and fewer college students consider teaching to be a desirable career.

Sure there are some weak teachers; we all remember our worst teacher. Nobody thinks employing poor teachers is a good idea. But good administrators have the means to counsel these people out of the profession and the teachers’ unions themselves have developed peer mentoring along with peer assessment programs that are helping teachers in local school districts improve the practice of all teachers and encourage the poorest teachers to find other work.

Public policy is largely to blame for today’s crisis in teacher morale. The federal testing law, No Child Left Behind, driven by accountability but very little in extra resources to support the professionals who staff our schools, was designed to “incentivize” teachers through fear.  School ratings were tied to what was supposed to be ever-rising test scores. The law threatened teachers to work harder and smarter and blamed teachers when the test-score needle didn’t move quickly. Then Arne Duncan’s No Child Left Behind waivers—to permit states to stop some of the law’s most punitive requirements—were awarded to states when they complied with additional, Duncan-approved, federal requirements that included tying a large percentage of teachers’ formal evaluations to students’ standardized test scores. Nearly 20 years of punitive federal policies have had precisely the effect that could have been predicted, even if it wasn’t the law’s stated purpose. There has been a collapse in our society’s trust in teachers (even if polls continue to show that parents admire their own child’s teacher). Teachers were supposed to work harder and smarter, but because all test scores didn’t significantly rise, many people seem to have concluded that teachers don’t work hard and aren’t very smart.  It is as though we’ve had a national ad campaign to smear school teachers.

Here is Parker Palmer—whose books explore the idea of teaching as vocation—writing 20 years ago and predicting why our test-and-punish policies would be so damaging to teachers: “Teachers make an easy target, for they are such a common species and so powerless to strike back. We blame teachers for being unable to cure social ills that no one knows how to treat; we insist that they instantly adopt whatever ‘solution’ has most recently been concocted by our national panacea machine, and in the process we demoralize, even paralyze, the very teachers who could help us find our way.” (The Courage to Teach, p 3)  “(I)n every class I teach, my ability to connect with my students, and to connect them with the subject, depends less on the methods I use than on the degree to which I know and trust my selfhood—and am willing to make it available and vulnerable in the service of learning… Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness.  They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves… The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that teacher and students and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, require.” (The Courage to Teach, pp. 10-11)  I wish all teachers would read or reread Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach, for these days our teachers are disheartened.

I wish the rest of us would sit down and read or reread Mike Rose’s wonderful 1995 book, Possible Lives.  Rose, a professor of education at UCLA, spent four years touring America’s public schools. Here is how he describes the book in the preface to a 2005 edition: “This book is a documentary of the possible, recorded from a journey through America’s public schools. The good classroom is the focal point of the journey, and we will spend time in many of them, learning about our children, their teachers, the surrounding communities, and the idea of public education. In doing so, we will learn about America itself. Such a journey seems more needed now than when Possible Lives was published just more than a decade ago.  In the midst of the culture wars that swirl around schools, the fractious, intractable school politics, the conservative assault on public institutions, and the testing, testing, testing—in the midst of all this, it is easy to lose sight of the broader purpose and grand vision of the common public school… I’m… struck by how the teachers in this book talk to young people. By turns, their exchanges with students are comical, sober, challenging, inviting, probing, quizzical, supportive—in short they take their students seriously as thinkers, as young people with a mental life and a desire to be competent… The way a teacher talks to students—the way any of us talk to each other—either opens up or closes down thought… Implicit in the activity of the teachers in Possible Lives are theories of teaching and learning…. (N)ew teachers (not to mention parents or any adult who works with children) need an orientation to cognition and learning that encourages a nuanced perspective on the developing mind.”  Possible Lives profiles good teachers from across America in cities, small towns, and even a one room country school.

In a 2015 piece published in The American Scholar, Rose once again reflects on the teachers he observed while writing Possible Lives.  Rose describes the professional challenges teachers face every day in their classrooms, this time contrasting today’s technocratic emphasis on gimmicks and the sequencing of particular techniques to the real work of a teacher: “If you pare down your concept of teaching far enough you are left with sequences of behaviors and routines—with techniques… What is new is the nearly exclusive focus on techniques, the increased role of digital technology to study them, and the attempt to define ‘effective’ by seeking positive correlations between specific techniques and, you guessed it, students’ standardized test scores… Techniques don’t work in isolation.  The sequencing of questions, for example, is a crucial skill, but it depends on the teacher’s knowledge of the material being taught, children’s typical responses to this material, the kinds of misconceptions and errors they make, and the alternative explanations and illustrations that might help them.  A teacher can’t ask meaningful questions for long without this kind of knowledge. In equal measure, the effectiveness of techniques, particularly for classroom management, is influenced by students’ sense of a teacher’s concern for them and understanding of them… This pinched notion of teaching (through a sequence of techniques) combined with a ‘no excuses’ stance toward low achievement yields a troubling response to economic inequality: the belief that the right kind of education can overcome poverty.”

Rose summarizes the qualities of the fine teachers and classrooms he observed: “For all of the variation, however, the classrooms shared certain qualities.  These qualities emerged before our era’s heavy reform agenda, yet most parents, and most reformers would want them for their own children. The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety, which in some neighborhoods is a real consideration  But there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect.. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority… A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed. Students contributed to the flow of events, shaped the direction of discussion, became authorities on the work they were doing. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility.”

Several years ago, I was invited by a friend on the staff of the high school in my own community to visit classes for a morning. This is an inner-ring suburban public high school, majority African American with well over fifty percent of students living in poverty. My own children graduated from this high school, which is why I was so touched to be invited back for a visit. I spent an hour in several fine classrooms, but one stands out as an example of the kind of classroom Rose describes. The class is what is called at our high school a social studies elective, a political philosophy class for high school juniors and seniors. It is significant that this class is not required for Ohio’s graduation exam requirement, which allows this teacher some freedom. The students were in the midst of reading Voltaire’s Candide, the topic of the day’s discussion, and the teacher handed out copies of a list of fifteen questions to guide the day’s conversation. He asked the students collectively to decide which questions they thought were so obvious they could cross them off without discussion (usually the more literal questions), and then led the conversation for the rest of the hour by inviting students to name the questions they would like to discuss. One young woman became so engaged she hoisted herself up onto the radiator behind her for a better view of the students across the room. The teacher made a careful effort to engage all the students, often passing over a loquacious young woman to make a space for the quieter students. Finally the teacher wondered about Voltaire’s attitude toward religion, and the students felt safe enough to raise their questions. No one had been able to work this out very well, and all felt comfortable admitting that. What followed was considerable conversation about whether Voltaire is criticizing religion or hypocrisy. At the end of the hour, the teacher challenged the students to think about that question as they finished the book.  I came home admiring the intellectual safety of that classroom where earnest teenagers were encountering such a book for the first time.

Really, the national branding of teachers as failures might have caused you to wonder if such classrooms exist any more. Schools today are also relatively guarded places. Because of the school shootings in recent years and all the worry about school security, you likely won’t have an opportunity to make a visit to your community’s high school. Once again, however, Parker Palmer is reassuring. If you can find a way to visit one of your community’s schools, “Almost certainly you will witness for yourself the challenges teachers face, their lack of resources, and the deep demoralization that they feel about serving as scapegoats for our nation’s ills. But you will also witness teacher after teacher transcending these conditions and caring for young people in remarkable ways… Caught in an anguishing bind between the good work they do and public misperceptions that surround them, hundreds of thousands of teachers somehow keep the faith and keep going…. Every day in classrooms across the land, good people are working hard, with competency and compassion, at reweaving the tattered fabric of society on which we all depend.” (Parker Palmer’s “Forward” to Stories of the Courage to Teach by Sam Intrator, p. xviii)

TeachStrong: Will New Campaign Undo Teacher Bashing and Sustain Those Called to Teach?

Did you know there’s a brand new campaign to improve teaching, a campaign, according to Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post, that says its goal is “modernizing and elevating” the teaching profession?   This is a project of the Center for American Progress, the primarily Democratic Washington think tank that has ironically pushed far-right “corporate reform” in education. Valerie Strauss wonders if TeachStrong is a Gates-funded initiative, as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation granted $850,000 to the Center for American Progress this past summer.

As it launched TeachStrong, the Center for American Progress announced: “In order to ensure that all students are taught by excellent teachers, leaders must reimagine the systems and structure of the teacher career continuum. Yet the United States has never made a serious commitment to modernizing, elevating, and professionalizing the teaching pathway.”

Daniel Katz, a Seton Hall University professor of education who trains secondary teachers and secondary special education teachers, wonders at the coalition the Center for American Progress has pulled together for this new campaign: “Lyndsey Layton mentioned in the Washington Post that the coalition includes ‘some strange bedfellows,’ and she certainly was not kidding.” On the one hand are the traditional professional organizations representing teachers, school administrators, and colleges of education: the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, and the New Teacher Center.  Then there are the groups that want to disrupt the teaching profession: Teach for America, Educators 4 Excellence, Deans for Impact, Relay (online) Graduate School of Education, Education Post, and finally the National Council on Teacher Quality—which has taken it upon itself to rate colleges of education in a questionable system that merely looks at the courses listed in each program’s catalog—no visits, no observations.  Katz comments: “(I)f the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics partnered with the Hormel corporation to design a school lunch program—you hope the more knowledgeable partner is guiding the work, but you strongly suspect that a lot of snouts and tails are going to get in there too.”

As a teacher educator, Katz worries about a “campaign (that) appears rooted in the notion that everything we are doing in school is obsolete and must drastically modernize immediately or we are all doomed.”  He believes the preparation of teaching candidates in colleges of education has been significantly strengthened in the past 30 years: “While I will never say that teacher preparation is unable to improve, it is also true that anyone who has gotten a teaching certificate since the 1980s has likely seen significant changes, often positive changes…. From increased time spent in classrooms prior to student teaching, to stronger pedagogical and content preparation, to vastly improved preparation for working with students with disabilities, teacher preparation has not been standing still, and it would behoove a number of the TeachStrong partners… to familiarize themselves with the kinds of evidence that the 656 teacher preparation programs accredited by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (since merged with TEAC and changed to the Council for the Accreditation of Education Preparation) have had to provide in order to demonstrate their strengths.”

Katz ‘s greatest worry? “While the teacher professionalization efforts of the 1980s and 1990s had some positive impacts, they…. tended to emphasize teaching as a technical and rational act with special emphasis on those aspects of teaching that can be measured or demonstrated.  While this has some merit, over emphasizing it has diminished a critical aspect of teaching: vocationalism. People who become teachers feel called in some way to the profession; they know themselves well enough to have considered why they are choosing teaching.”

Katz evokes the themes of Parker Palmer, whose The Courage to Teach, the classic book on vocationalism among teachers, calls for creating conditions that help teachers stay connected to what called them to teaching in the first place: “In our rush to reform education, we have forgotten a simple truth: reform will never be achieved by renewing appropriations, restructuring schools, writing curricula, and revising texts if we continue to demean and dishearten the human resource called the teacher on whom so much depends.  Teachers must be better compensated, freed from bureaucratic harassment, given a role in academic governance, and provided with the best possible methods and materials.  But none of that will transform education if we fail to cherish—and challenge—the human heart that is the source of good teaching… This book builds on a simple premise: good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.” (The Courage to Teach, pp. 3-10)

Katz shares Palmer’s concern for strengthening the integrity and agency of school teachers. He concludes: “If TeachStrong is serious about a pipeline of great potential teachers, it had better look harder than most recent reform efforts that constantly emphasize getting the best students into teacher preparation without being concerned whether or not they are driven by the best motivations.  It also means that rather than focusing on impossible goals like elevating the salaries of 3 million teachers to the salaries of doctors and lawyers, it would be much better to focus upon working conditions that grant teachers significantly more autonomy and input into how their work and workplaces are conducted.”

If it intends to support school teachers, TeachStrong has another mammoth task: confronting widespread scapegoating of educators that has been pushed by some of the same groups that have now signed on to the TeachStrong campaign.  The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) operated through threats and imposition of sanctions—all intended to frighten teachers into working harder;  NCLB targeted teachers for punishment when test scores in our nation’s poorest schools proved stubbornly resistant to change. And to get waivers from NCLB’s failed Adequate Yearly Progress system, states have been required by the federal government to rate teachers by students’ standardized test scores, even as many states were at the same time implementing the new Common Core tests with benchmark cut scores set so high that in many places two-thirds of students were unable to pass.

In a commentary on college programs to prepare teachers, Mike Rose, another teacher educator, describes the effective teachers he has known and observed: “They had command of the material they taught. They created safe and respectful classrooms. They had a deep belief in the ability of their students and held high expectations for them.  They required their students to think and think hard and worked to engage students in each others’ thinking.  The richness came in the variety of ways they realized these qualities—an important point, given the push by some for increasingly regulated curriculum and pedagogy.  Part of the variation, of course, was a result of where these teachers went to college.  But the variation also came from influential teachers they had earlier in their own schooling.  The way they taught was also influenced by their personalities and by their values and background: by family or religion or positive or negative experiences in school; by the experience of race or ethnicity, social class, gender, or sexual orientation; by political and social commitments; by the love of a subject.  An important quality in a teacher education program, traditional or alternative, is how well it is able to draw on and develop these characteristics.  You won’t see this quality mentioned in any of the high-profile reports on teacher education.”

Professor Katz suspects that TeachStrong is one part a marketing campaign and another part nine principles—framed in laudable rhetoric— for improving the teaching profession. “Given the perspectives and previous projects of many of the partners in this effort, including TFA which stated in the Washington Post article that it felt no need to change its own five week training program to meet the principles outlined above, it is right to be cautious about what will materialize here.”

New York City’s New Teachers’ Contract Matters—To All of Us

The Rev. John Thomas, former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, where he writes a blog.  Last Thursday, the 1st of May, the Rev. Thomas posted the following:  “May Day commemorates the Haymarket uprising in Chicago in 1886 that began as a march by workers in support of the eight hour workday.  It continues to be celebrated in many places as a day to honor workers and to rally workers to the labor movement.  But these days May Day is perhaps more aptly described as a collective “Mayday!” on behalf of workers who have been under assault for decades—lost jobs, suppressed wages, broken unions, attacks on collective bargaining, reduced benefits, and on and on it goes.”

It is therefore particularly fitting that last week on Thursday, May 1, 2014, New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio and the United Federation of Teachers agreed on a contract that will end a bitter, long running dispute.  The NY Times covered the agreement, noting that “The teachers’ union has been without a contract for four and a half years…. The retroactive pay granted in the deal is the same pair of 4 percent raises that most other municipal unions received in 2009 and 2010.” In an earlier article, the NY Times reported that New York City’s 100,000 school teachers and other school employees represented by the United Federation of Teachers had been without a contract since 2009.  (Members of the United Federation of Teachers will be taking a vote soon on the agreement.)

Many of you who read this blog may live far from New York City and may wonder if New York City’s new labor agreement with its teachers is relevant to you.  Consider that New York’s previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg, was a leader in the national wave of hostility toward teachers and their unions. The NY Times editorial board, which has not always been complimentary to the new Mayor de Blasio, praised him this past Saturday in an editorial: “Dispensing with the unproductive tension that tarnished the Bloomberg administration, the two sides showed that real progress can be made—on both the fiscal and the educational sides of the contract—when there is good will instead of disdain.”  Bloomberg’s active disdain for New York’s  teachers’ union provided cover for too many leaders across the country to attack teachers and their unions. It is to be hoped that  New York’s new contract with its teachers will become a symbol of the beginning of a national change of heart about school teachers.

Four years ago, the Rev. Thomas posted another blog that seemed so significant to me that I have kept it right in the front of my clipping file of articles about school teachers.  Rev. Thomas titled his piece, It’s Not OK to Hate Teachers.  Here is what Rev. Thomas wrote on June 3, 2010: “Earlier this year Arne Duncan and Barack Obama publicly affirmed the decision of a Rhode Island school district to fire every teacher at a failing public high school.  Do we really think every teacher at that high school deserved to be fired?… This spring the governor of New Jersey, angry at the pace of negotiations with teachers’ unions, publicly urged citizens to vote down their school levies knowing full well what kind of devastating impact that would have on public school classrooms in his state.  This Sunday, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published a front page report on the teachers in the Cleveland Public Schools that, at least to me, seemed designed to paint teachers in the worst possible light as overpaid, underworked, intransigent about reform, and not overly competent.”

And since 2010, the attacks on teachers have only worsened.  Although the majority of  teachers’ contributions to the lives of their students can be named only with words grammarians would call abstract, non-count nouns—learning, reason, discernment, creativity, character, encouragement, support, perseverance, discipline—school teachers have now seen their work quantified with value-added-measures—econometric formulas based on students’ scores on standardized tests.  In fact to qualify for No Child Left Behind Waivers from the U.S. Department of Education, states had to promise to incorporate students’ scores on the statewide test into their teacher evaluation systems.  Teachers are being blamed for shortfalls (due to the recession and in some places mismanagement) in the public pension systems they pay into throughout their careers, even as many states do not have public employees pay into Social Security.  Now Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says he plans to institute new ratings for the Colleges of Education where teachers are trained.  We have come to accept the language of economics to discuss the “inputs” teachers contribute and the  “outcomes” teachers are thought to “produce,” and we’ve learned that the inputs don’t really matter.  What’s measurable in the outcomes is all that counts.

I frequently find myself thinking about the observation of Parker Palmer, the writer who devoted his career to helping people consider their vocation.  Palmer wrote The Courage to Teach to help exhausted teachers recover their connection to their sense of calling.  In his introduction to a companion volume, Stories of The Courage to Teach, Palmer asks us to appreciate teachers in ways that can neither be counted nor computed, nor measured, nor monetized:

“America’s teachers are the culture heroes of our time.  Daily they are asked to solve problems that baffle the rest of us.  Daily they are asked to work with resources nowhere near commensurate with the task.  And daily they are berated by politicians, the public, and the press for their alleged failures and inadequacies…  If you are not a teacher and are skeptical either about their plight or their dedication,… visit a public school near you and shadow a couple of teachers for a couple of days.  Almost certainly you will witness for yourself the challenges teachers face, their lack of resources, and the deep demoralization they feel about serving as scapegoats for our nation’s ills… Caught in an anguishing bind between the good work they do and public misperceptions that surround them, hundreds of thousands of teachers somehow keep the faith and keep going…. Every day in classrooms across the land, good people are working hard, with competency and compassion, at reweaving the tattered fabric of society on which we all depend.” (pp. xvii-xviii)

Thank you, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, for recognizing the work of New York City’s teachers with a fair contract.

 

 

Common Core Debate Is Really Just Another Chapter of Test-and-Punish

The debate about the Common Core Standards and the Common Core tests is not really about whether our public school curriculum ought to be more uniform and perhaps more challenging from place to place. That would be a debate worth having.  But really instead the Common Core is the latest chapter in a long story being circulated by our Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, and others who share his philosophy that teachers and students alike can best be motivated by behaviorist rewards and punishments—competition, pressure and fear.

The driver here is testing—competition for high scores and punishments for low scores—along with the collection of data.  (It is essential to remember that data-driven school reform has arrived at just the moment we have the computer-driven capacity to collect and process data, and this school reform philosophy is being promoted in many cases by the same business entrepreneurs who developed the computers.)  We are told that if we threaten school districts and schools and teachers where students are struggling, everybody will work harder and our children will do better in a world dominated by global competitiveness.  Standards-and-accountability school reform has become so embedded into our national consciousness that it’s hard to remember there might be another way.

If you are looking for an up-to-date review of the issues about the Common Core, read this article by Carol Burris (posted over the weekend on Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post blog).  Burris is an award winning elementary school principal who understands child development and respects the teachers in her school as they try to cope with the pressures of our educational culture dominated by punitive testing imposed from above.

But this morning I want to examine the implications of an educational philosophy based on accountability, testing, and fear.  Two weeks ago, by a lucky chance, I spent a morning visiting three classes at our local public high school.  I describe the work of the teachers whose classes I visited here.  All three teachers demonstrated not only exceptional mastery of their academic content, but also deep commitment to the formation of their students, intellectually, linguistically, socially, ethically, and personally.  These teachers enjoy working with adolescents, engage their students in thinking critically, and create a culture of mutual respect.  My blog post about that high school visit has been read widely here in our community, followed by some comments I’ve heard at the grocery store: “Those teachers are at our high school?”  “I had no idea we had classes like that at Heights!” “Were you scared when you were there?”

All three teachers shared with me their worries about all the testing they believe is undermining their work.  They want desperately to find a way to oppose the time taken by testing and preparing for testing, but they know that in a system designed around competition and punishment, it is difficult for those trapped inside the system to protest.  In our state that keeps cutting funding we have to keep our scores high just to pass our levies.  And in a district with 63 percent of students qualifying for free lunch, and significant mobility into the district from poorer districts, we have lots of catch up to accomplish just to keep scores moving upwards.  In a system dominated by fear, teachers must work doubly hard to keep their classes flexible, nurturing and enjoyable.

Ten years ago, Parker Palmer, who has written extensively about teaching as a vocation, described the same dilemma the teachers at our local high school shared with me last week.  Palmer’s forward to Stories of the Courage to Teach (p. xviii) urges us all to visit a school, watch what teachers do, and listen to what they say:

“If you are not a teacher and are skeptical about their plight or their dedication, I have a suggestion to make: visit a public school near you and shadow a couple of teachers…. Almost certainly you will witness for yourself the challenges teachers face, their lack of resources, and the deep demoralization they feel about serving as scapegoats for our nation’s ills… Caught in an anguishing bind between the good work they do and public misperceptions that surround them, hundreds of thousands of teachers somehow keep the faith and keep going…. Every day in classrooms across the land, good people are working hard, with competency and compassion, at reweaving the tattered fabric of society on which we all depend.”

In the decade since Palmer wrote these words, our society has only intensified our blaming of school teachers. As I read about the debate around the Common Core—and the Race to the Top, School Improvement Grant, and Innovation Grant competitions, I have begun to create a discipline for myself.  I force myself to think about how each of these conversations is being shaped by an educational philosophy of behaviorist rewards and punishments and a process of measuring, and competition.  Then I try to think about what it would be like if we just trusted and supported the teachers who have chosen to help our society raise our children.  I would prefer to reinvest all the money now being spent on developing and administering tests in peer-driven staff development programs where teachers like the ones I observed could share their techniques with their colleagues.