Setting the Standard in Education

Posts Tagged ‘Obama administration’

Chaos and Teachers’ Voices

In Federal, LA on July 6, 2010 at 4:09 pm

As I was reading Joanne Jacobs’s blog today, I came across this tidbit from Organized Chaos. Its author, Ann Bailey-Lipsett, was invited to a panel discussion with Education Sector. You can see the whole video here. Here’s what Jacobs quoted that interested me:

With first graders this process usually starts out in a few different ways.

The “structure-seekers” ask a lot of questions like “Where do I put my pencil?” “What is the right answer?” and “Do you want us to use blue paper or light blue paper?” while the “oh good, freedom! Let’s see what we can do/get away with” group gets busy making something happen. Not necessarily the right thing, mind you, but paper gets cut, glue bottles are out, excited chatter starts. Then another group, of course, the “run and hiders” manage to sneak into the classroom bathroom, or into the classroom library . . .  All the while, the “I have the right answer” group of children is walking around the room telling everyone else what to do with utmost confidence. And of course, because they are 6 and 7, they end up crying, stamping their feet, and swearing that they are not Susie/Jamie/Max’s friend because Susie/Jamie/Max wont listen to their idea.

Which is, actually, somewhat similar to what’s going on in the education-sphere as we all react to Race to the Top, and the (possible?) changes in Elementary and Secondary Education Act (The act formally known as NCLB).

Some states immediately got busy applying for RttT grants, while others refused to participate in the process. Some are not acknowledging that any change is occurring and will not until they’ve seen progress from other states, while some, who comfortably followed NCLB, are still waiting for specific instructions. Even in the room today, as I listened to the debate over how much students’ standardized assessments should play into teacher evaluation I couldn’t help feel that this how we are reacting to the discussion even on a personal level. Some of us are the bossy first graders announcing we know what the answer should and should not be. Some of us figure it will all play out in the end and we’re just along for the ride, while others look at this as a blank check to start some change.

Was this classroom full of 6-year-olds or policy-makers?

I really enjoyed Bailey-Lipsett’s insights, so I figured I’d look a little deeper and see what the rest of her blog post had to say. I thought a few of her points were really important. First of all, there is a worry that this method of being “tight on goals, loose on means” as Duncan has said can backfire. Bailey-Lipsett says she named her blog “Organized Chaos” specifically because of the craziness that results in these similar methods. Everyone has a different reaction and it takes a lot of energy to get to the end. However, after thinking about it, she realizes that with the right constraints, she ends up with better products in her classroom than when she has more structure. The idea behind the methods is clearly that with so many people trying many different things, there will be a big mixture of successes and failures from which to learn. Those lessons can then be applied in the future. If we only try one method, we can only know whether that one method worked. If we try many, there are many lessons to be learned.

Another point that of worry for her is the part of teachers in all of this. This has been a particularly contentious issue recently. The Administration has said many times that they want teacher input, but most teachers don’t feel like they are a part of the process. They don’t even feel much connection to the process, since it takes time for any of the new initiatives to take effect. Schools are still caught up in whether or not they will make AYP, pitting teachers against a system of punishment and blame. She said Brad Jupp pointed to the ability of unions to be the voices of teachers in all of this, but to her, in the current climate, that’s not feasible. Teachers join unions for protection from lawsuits, not as a place to voice their opinions. Perhaps that is the critical point that needs to be made. The unions have become powerful in many places because of their large membership, but there are so many teachers who are members that don’t even follow what their own unions are doing. If you thought national voter turnouts were terrible, you should see union voting. Rates of under 20% are not unusual.

One solution would be to create a grassroots movement to get teachers more involved in their unions. Young teachers with new ideas could actually participate and make a difference. I had a discussion with some others about this very thing. Within UTLA it literally only takes a handful of votes to get elected as a delegate in the House of Representatives. Get some people together and you can have your voice heard. While this grassroots approach has potential, I am a top-down kind of guy. I think to get things done quickly, people at the top need to make them happen. Perhaps instead of dealing with unions (which also leaves out all those who don’t belong to them), the administration should be looking to create ways for teachers to have input. Task forces and advisory committees could be formed and polls taken to see what teachers want. Why should it be so hard to find out what teachers think?

What do you think? How can teachers be heard better? Tonight, I’m off to a screening of “Waiting for Superman.” I’m sure you’ll hear all about it tomorrow.

A Fresh Start

In Uncategorized on April 12, 2010 at 6:42 am

I was inspired by a few different sources to start this blog. It’s the first time I’ve seriously thought of putting my thoughts out there. While I am more than happy to give my opinion verbally, it is rare that I put things down on paper (or screen as the case may be). First and foremost, I want to thank my friend Jason whose own blog, while completely unrelated, nevertheless gave me the courage to believe that I can do this myself.

The other major inspiration for this blog was my participation last week in an education forum. I receive emails from Teach For America about education-related opportunities and one of those opportunities was a discussion with other education-interested people about teacher retention. The discussion was hosted by InformEd Action, an organization run by Debbie Lee and Sara Erickson, two Teach For America alumni. Both Debbie and Sara worked at the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, so clearly they have some experience in teacher retention issues. If you couldn’t tell by now, I was a Teach For America corps member myself and this blog will probably be littered with references to TFA. My glasses I’m sure are tinted a TFA hue, which will influence this blog to some extent, but despite my brainwashing, I would like to consider myself a fairly rational person and will hopefully be able to remain such in this blog itself.

I suppose I shouldn’t just leave it at that, considering that if you are reading this blog, it probably means you have some kind of interest in education, so I might as well relate the topic at the InformEd Action meeting that got me thinking I needed to have a place to air my views. We ended up on the topic of Race to the Top at one point. I suppose I should back up and give a little context. The meeting was essentially a brainstorming session on the causes of high performing teachers leaving the field and what can be done to keep them teachers. Ideas thrown out included defined career paths, compensation,  stronger support systems, benefits – you get the idea. One idea that we talked about, one that TFA likes to tout, is accountability for performance. If good teachers are rewarded for  doing well, while poor teachers are weeded out, then the good teachers are more likely to stay. Of course, this is a particularly complicated issue, since many teachers don’t believe that a teacher’s evaluation should be tied to students’ performances. According to a recent poll of 40,000 teachers by Scholastic and The Gates Foundation, 36% of teachers thought that a teacher’s performance shouldn’t influence their pay at all. Only a quarter of teachers thought it was very important or essential. This is not even a question of a particular measure of performance. It’s not saying that their pay needs to be tied to their students’ test scores or who is evaluating. A large portion of teachers simply do not think their jobs should depend on their performance, which in most industries would sound absolutely absurd.

Teachers' Views on Factors Impacting Teacher Retention
Many teachers don’t think their pay should be based on their performance.

This talk about evaluation and accountability eventually led us to a discussion of what specific actions can be done to make these important changes that will encourage good teachers to stay, which brought up recent developments in accountability on a grander scale. We began talking about the article in the New York Times from that day about some governors’ displeasure at how Race to the Top has panned out in its first year. Many states were disappointed that only two states, Delaware and Tennessee, were awarded money and that the selection criteria biased some states over others. For example, one requirement was for 100% of districts to participate in the contest, which is much easier done in  Delaware with 38 districts than  California with 1500. On top of that, each state was given a limit to how much they could win. With all of the dissatisfaction with Round 1, questions are popping up as to whether many states will continue with the contest into Round 2. In our small group, we discussed some pros and cons of the concept of Race to the Top. For those not familiar, Race to the Top is essentially a $5 billion contest among states to improve their schools, mostly through legislation. The Obama administration has decided that the stick of NCLB didn’t really work, so they’re hoping carrots will be better. The White House is hoping that through these efforts, states will be riskier in trying new ways to educate their students and in many ways, it has worked so far. There are a number of states who have relaxed their laws on charter schools, something many see as a path to diversity, which could potentially lead to new better methods.

This is all a long and roundabout way to get to what I really wanted to mention, which is the issue of rewards and criteria. I had originally thought about the weakness of Race to the Top as its inflexibility. The governors were complaining that some states have it easier, because they can make certain changes due to various issues of control, such as their court systems or their teachers’ unions. Why not give more states rewards for what they are doing successfully, instead of telling them that because they didn’t reach all of the goals, they won’t get anything? I was quickly told why. Essentially, the strength of Race to the Top lies in its focus not on single initiatives, but on comprehensive change. It’s not useful to have better administrators if there are not accountability systems put into place. It doesn’t make sense to spend millions of dollars recruit bright teachers if they’re just going to leave after a year or two from dissatisfaction. Rewarding states for one change, rather than a family of changes ends up being a waste of money and in the long-run, not a means for growth in this model. This ended up being our consensus as our get-together came to a close. However, after mulling over this more and feeling like this didn’t quite jive with me, I realized what the problem was. On the one hand, for a student to excel, they need comprehensive change in their school. On the other hand, states don’t always have the power to change everything about every school. This doesn’t mean that those states need to be looked past for funding. Instead, they should be getting funding based on the proportion of schools that are affected by comprehensive reform as well as the strength of those improvements.  Despite the many documented problems with NCLB, one of its strengths was looking at schools and districts (or at least attempting to), rather than at states as a whole. A child is educated by a school, and over the course of their schooling by a district, rather than by a state as a whole. One argument against proportional funding is that it waters down the process. If every state gets something, then why should they bother making any effort at all? I would propose that just because states are being measured proportionally does not mean that funding has to be doled out equally proportionally. Perhaps funding only starts at the top 25 states based on growth in the areas measured. Or perhaps money is conditional upon improving areas that were the weakest or those that would affect the most schools. There are lots of options of how to ensure that more students are learning more and growing faster.

Hopefully that was a nice little taste of what is to come. Please leave comments and tell me why I’m amazing or why I’m an idiot for thinking such dross.