Friday, February 13, 2009

What Happens When Overburdening Teachers Succeeds?

Stafford Palmieri, over at Fordham's blog, is not happy that teachers at a couple KIPP schools want to unionize. I'm not sure why she's so panicky when the first KIPP school in NYC has done fine with unionized teachers and I'm quite disturbed that she thinks KIPP should "puts its foot down!" -- I think I missed the memo that said oppressing workers is now a good thing.

But what I find really interesting about the post is the latest update she added. Regarding the ramifications of the situation, and referring speficially to the KIPP AMP (Always Mentally Prepared) School, she writes:

KIPP schools and charters like it have high turnover and burnout rates (these, in fact, are some of the reasons AMP’s teachers decided to unionize). If successfully educating socioeconomically disadvantaged and typically way below grade level students requires an unsustainable commitment in the long term, how can we possibly marry the successful elements of a charter model to the large scale traditional public education system? Does that mean we need, instead, to change our perceptions of teaching as a long term career? What is the give and take between teaching staff continuity and the 80-hour work weeks of places like KIPP?

I think it's fair to assume that a number of teachers (and schools full of teachers) who have made "an unsustainable commitment" have had a lot of success. We still can't say exactly why KIPP schools achieve the results they do or how comparable their student bodies are to other schools, but I think it's fair to say that they've had quite a bit of success and that dedicated teachers working long hours is a large part of this success.

But it's readily apparent that the burden placed on teachers at many of these schools makes the job a short-term gig. High levels of stress, waning social lives, and high turnover characterize the staffs. At the same time, though, it's both rewarding to the teachers and helpful to the students.

Palmieri seems to focus on the positive aspects of this. Teachers who sacrifice their lives for their job for a few years are successful, but can't do it forever. Therefore, we should think about teaching as a job that people only do for a few years. I certainly overworked myself for a short period of time, as have thousands of other people have done -- particularly through Teach for America and The New Teacher Project.

I buy the logic, but I don't think such an assumption will work on a large-scale. There simply aren't enough people that are willing and able to sacrifice everything for a few years to work with our most disadvantaged youth. We only have so many young Ivy League grads without families. In other words, regardless of what you think about the strategy of maxing out teachers for a few years, the system simply isn't replicable on a large scale. That's why even if KIPP is, indeed, working miracles it will never solve all of our problems in its current form.

But saying that KIPP's current form won't solve all of our problems also won't solve our problems. I think the format they have -- intense schooling that's 50% longer than what we normally have -- has merit. But I think she asks the wrong question. Instead of asking if it means that overburdening teachers is the only way to succeed, maybe we should be asking if there are ways to run a school this way without overburdening teachers. Otherwise, I don't know how we can replicate their success.


RDT said...

First the math issue:

The average person spends 13 years in school. If the average teaching career was 3 years, and the average class size was 26, one in every young people would need to become a teacher.

However, only about 30% young people complete college. So half of them would have to be willing to spend the early years of their career teaching to fully staff US schools this way.

Can we really motivate young people to do this -- and do it well?

RDT said...

Second, the social engineering issue:

There are a few careers (e.g. medicine) which depend on the willingness of young people to put in long, not terribly well paid, hours. But they tend to have a high-payoff trajectory.

The teaching analog doesn't seem to propose this. Instead it is "teach for a few years, and then start over in another career."

It's probably true that young people willing to do this bring something special to teaching, an making room for them in the profession is good.

But its really hard to see how to re-make the profession to encourage lots of young people to do that.

If kids do better spending 10 hours a day in school, maybe we should just face up to the idea that we need more teachers, and more paraprofessional, rather trying to come up with ways of convincing people to work 10+ hour days for $50,000/yr.

It probably wouldn't be hard to find teachers who would work 8am-5pm days if they didn't have to take work home with them. But that would mean other staff members covering their planning/grading time and lunch breaks.

Eve Proper said...

I just want to say this is a great post.

Anonymous said...

Rachel: I've read that in some other countries (I think it may have been Japan) teachers act more like college professors in that they have fewer classes, more time to prepare and more time to study other teachers, collaborate and create very good lesson plans.

If the money was there, there isn't any reason that teachers in the U.S. couldn't benefit from that system. Keep the kids in school for 10 hours a day if they need it(I assume that's what KIPP does?) but only assign half that time to each teacher, allowing the teachers to use the rest of the time to plan, grade and consult with students and parents.

I agree with you: Many teachers would be OK with a 10 hour day if they did not have to take additional work home at night and on the weekends. In fact, including take-home grading, after-school prep time and the like, I often worked close to 50 hour weeks much of the time I taught (as did many of my colleagues). Of course, technically we were working something like 38 hour weeks (according to our contracts). But contact hours were impossible to stick to unless you never graded any assignments, attended conferences or planned lessons!

Angela Watson said...

Thanks for sharing such a thoughtful post. I've featured it on my blog as one of The Cornerstone Accolades for February 2009.