Wednesday, June 29, 2011

If Teachers are Impossible to Fire . . .

. . . then why are so many so petrified of losing their jobs? In conversation after conversation with teachers from a wide variety of schools around the country this continues to stand out to me. And I'm not quite sure what to make of it.

What are the contexts of these conversations? They mostly arise in the following two situations:

1.) A new administrative regime comes in (at either the school level or higher) or the current regime hands down a new directive. Teachers scramble to re-do their bulletin boards, do more test prep, fill out more paperwork, or whatever else they think they need to do to cover their behinds. This certainly doesn't apply in all situations, since I've also seen teachers ignore new directives, essentially refuse to implement new curricula, etc.

2.) More worryingly, I've seen it time and time again when teachers are aware of wrongdoing by other people in the building or district -- particularly when it involves a direct supervisor.  I often seemed to be the only one in my building willing to report the unethical behavior I witnessed -- possibly because I had the luxury of knowing I wasn't trying to teach in the same district again the next year. I was recently speaking with a colleague who has witnessed outrageously unethical behavior by the principal at his school. I encouraged him to report this, and the response I received was "I need my job too much . . . [my principal] is waaaaay too dangerous.  I'm scared to death of him".

I have far too many anecdotes to fit into one blog post, but I can't tell you how many conversations I've had with panicked teachers anxious about their job status.  Given that almost all of these teachers were tenured at the time of the conversation, the anxiety in their voices doesn't jibe with the current rhetoric about teacher labor markets.  It seems to me that there are three possible explanations for this (not including the possibility that my perceptions are skewed):

1.) Teachers are, indeed, almost impossible to fire -- but they don't realize that.  I suppose it's possible that teachers perceptions are off, but it seems unlikely that their that off-base.

2.) Teaching as a profession tends to attract a lot of people-pleasers who are afraid to stand up for themselves.  This may not be entirely without merit -- I'd feel comfortable saying that most teachers I know or have met are more interested in helping others than causing trouble, but this seems like only part of the explanation at best.

3.) There's a dangerous lack of trust in too many schools and school systems.  I don't want to be alarmist or paint with too wide of a brush, but this strikes me as the most plausible explanation of the three.  If teachers don't trust their supervisors to be fair and ethical, it stands to reason that they'll constantly worry about their jobs regardless of whatever protections they have.

Is worrying about one's job always a bad thing?  Of course not; sometimes a little panic can boost productivity.  But when it results in the proliferation of unethical or downright abusive behavior, I start to worry about all the worriers.  And when policies aim to increase the worry-level of teachers, I worry about the potentially negative consequences for our schools and students.

To paraphrase the old milk commercials: Trust. It does a school good.

Monday, June 27, 2011

"For Me and Not for Thee"

Yesterday's Economic Scene Column by David Leonhardt captures my biggest objection to the "not everybody should go to college" argument.  He concludes the column by writing that:

I don’t doubt that the skeptics are well meaning. But, in the end, their case against college is an elitist one — for me and not for thee. And that’s rarely good advice.

First, some context.  Fewer than one-third of 25-29 year-olds have earned a four-year degree, and even fewer adults from older generations have done similarly.  And evidence abounds that students from high-SES families are far more likely to obtain a college diploma (to the extent that high-achieving high school students from poor families are less likely to earn a diploma than are lower-achieving students from wealthier families).  The last stat that I read was that 67% of students at the top 200 or so colleges come from families ranking in the top quartile economically while only 10% come from households ranking in the bottom half.  So if it's true that too many people are attending college, that probably means too many kids of high-SES parents are attending college.

But it seems that those who most forcefully demand that fewer people attend college and/or that more people should pursue other options possess college degrees themselves -- and plan on sending their own children to college.  Depending on how one looks at it, that makes many of these arguments either elitist or hypocritical.

Friday, June 24, 2011

What if a Principal Allows Teachers to be "Bad"?

The rhetoric about "bad teachers" may never go away -- in part some teachers will always perform poorly, act irresponsibly, and so on (just as there are poor performers and irresponsible people in all professions and fields).  That said, what bothers me most about the rhetoric is that it continually oversimplifies the problem.  Too many commentators seem to assume that bad people magically pop up in schools to torture principals and belittle children.  But reality is more complex.

One situation that has arisen in numerous anecdotes I've heard from teachers is that a Principal will allow selected teachers (often their friends) to behave irresponsibly or worse.  Examples include showing up late, parking illegally, dressing inappropriately, eating meals with the Principal instead of teaching, leaving other people in charge of their class while they run errands, and, in at least one instance, abusing children.

Are "bad teachers" a problem in these schools?  Absolutely -- and they should be dealt with -- but not following the script we normally read (teacher is bad, principal wants to fire him/her, union steps in).  In these cases, the story I hear is that a "bad" principal allows a few teachers to do as they please while the rest of the teachers stew in outrage and cower in fear.

Did the Principal in these situations make these teachers bad?  It's not quite that simple.  But these Principals have certainly negatively impacted the performance of a few teachers while subsequently damaging the climate and performance of the school as a whole.

Situations like these are why I worry more about the extent of the damage done by irresponsible Principals than I do about the damage done by irresponsible teachers.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Unintended Consequences of College "Promise" Policies

The Quick and the Ed had a good piece today on the emerging research on the college "promise" policies enacted by various districts around the country (I believe Kalamazoo was the first and Pittsburgh is the largest, but I might be mistaken).  They're all a little different, but they essentially guarantee to pay for some portion of college for all students in the district who meet a certain benchmark.

The piece notes research indicating that more students in some of these districts are enrolling, and remaining, in college.  That's likely a good thing.  But what I don't see mentioned is one of the potential unintended consequences of the policy -- grade inflation.  If kids have to meet a certain GPA standard to receive the funds, it's likely that teachers will hesitate before giving a student a 'C' or below knowing that they could be costing the kid the opportunity to attend college -- and that districts that want to be a success story would likely pressure teachers not to give kids low grades in order to bump up their college attendance rates.  I don't know in how many places this is happening, but I know it's not zero -- so keep your eyes open for this when more reports on the effectiveness of these promise policies roll in.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Family Values Don't Matter Anymore?

One thing that continues to intrigue me is the flip in the attitudes of some conservatives toward the power of schools. When the Coleman Report was released, at least one prominent conservative concluded that it meant that "schools make no difference; families make the difference" and that education is "all family".  But for some reason now the attitude is that the poor results of African-American males are "nothing that a good school wouldn’t fix" as Peter Meyer writes on the Fordham Institute blog.

Meyer writes in response to an Ed Week article about the poor performance of black boys, arguing that if we spent less time on teaching them about character, drugs, pregnancy, jobs, and dealing with emotional problems and more time on teaching them content that we wouldn't have this problem.  He concludes by arguing that:

African American children, like most children, would do much better later in life if school taught them how to read and write – and, hopefully, a little history and science, art and math along the way – instead of being served up what has become a steady and distracting and unhealthy diet of paternalism and fries.

I'm struck by four things:

1.) I won't belabor the point here, but we have plenty of evidence that non-school factors impact academic performance.  Simply ignoring emotional problems, drug use, pregnancy, and other problems that start outside of school won't change that fact.

2.) I'm not even sure that high-poverty schools spend more time on character education, drug prevention, and sex ed than do other schools.  If anything, particularly given the incentive structure of NCLB, I'd guess that higher-poverty schools spend more time on reading and math than do others.

3.) Regarding the paternalism quote, I find it interesting that a number of the high-performing charter schools Fordham continually praises were examined in a book written by David Whitman and published by Fordham back in 2008.  What are these schools doing right?  Whitman argues that, above all else, all of these high-performing schools are highly paternalistic.

4.) Perhaps most striking to me is the dismissal of pregnancy as something worth addressing.  Given that around three-quarters of African-American children are now born out of wedlock and that evidence indicates that both single-parent households and teenage mothers negatively impact the performance (on average, of course) of students, this seems like an excellent time to call for a renewed focus on family values.  It seems to me that one could build a pretty strong case that a combination of marriage, delayed child birth and personal responsibility could go a long way toward improving the results of African-American males, so I find it odd that most conservative commentators instead seem to call for better schooling instead.

update: I originally misspelled Mr. Meyer's name as "Mayer" in this post. My apologies; no matter how much I disagree with him on this issue he still deserves to have his name spelled correctly.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Attendance: In-School or Non-School Problem?

This NY Times piece on chronic absenteeism in schools was interesting, particularly this paragraph:

The problem has hardly disappeared. Last year, at 42 percent of the city’s 700 elementary schools, one in five students missed a month or more of school, according to the New School study. But four years ago, that was true of 58 percent of the schools. And high school attendance is worse and tougher to fix: 34 percent of the city’s high school students missed a month or more of school last year

Most notable to me: over one-third of all high school students in NYC missed at least a month of school.  It's obviously pretty difficult for even the best teacher to teach students who aren't there.  The bigger question that I'm not sure I've ever seen addressed in research is to what extent a school can be expected alter the attendance patterns of its students.

One can imagine a scenario in which a teacher, administrator, or schools goes above and beyond their normal job description and does things like showing up at a student's door in the morning or something less drastic.  But to what extent can we expect teachers, administrators, and schools to improve the attendance of students?  If students aren't in school we can't possibly expect teachers to teach them.  But is it fair to expect teachers and others to attract kids to school?  Should that be part of the job description?  Or should we add it to the long list of non-school factors over which schools have no control?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Outsiders and Education Reform

Reading today's Dilbert cartoon strip, I couldn't help but think of education reform.

While there is, indeed, some value to being an outsider, it seems that we more and more often prioritize the views of outsiders over those of experienced educators in a variety of ways (which, I should emphasize, has had consequences that are both negative and positive):

*Cathie Black didn't last long in NYC, but Joel Klein was an outsider before her, as was Mark Roosevelt in Pittsburgh and a number of other superintendents around the country.  Even Margaret Spellings only had some limited policy experience in education and, best as I can tell, was never a teacher, school administrator, or district leader.

*Alternative certification programs have popped up all around the country to bring non-education majors into teaching.

*Papers analyzing education policy are increasingly written by economists (some, but not all, of whom have little training in education and/or experience in schools) rather than education scholars.

*Time and time again, the reforms proposed by outsiders have received more attention than those proposed by insiders.  Charter schools were originally trumpeted by Albert Shanker, but as a very different type of reform than is currently taking place.  Bill Gates probably has probably had as much say over what happened in our urban schools over the past decade as any individual in this country (though that's likely more a function of his financial resources than his outsider status).  Merit/Incentive/Performance pay was suggested by a lot of people, most of whom were not working in schools at the time.  The current wave of tenure reform and collective bargaining changes certainly wasn't advocated by teachers, though it was by a number of principals and superintendents.  The same could be said about value-added scores and, to a lesser extent, standardized testing and accountability.  Actually, come to think of it, I'm not sure I can name the last major national reform that was really driven or advocated by teachers.

I have mixed feelings about this.  As I wrote above, some of this is good -- outsiders can, indeed, bring a unique perspective and offer some enlightening thoughts (we certainly shouldn't disregard everything somebody says simply because they're an outsider).  But, at the same time, I see no reason to continually prioritize the opinions of outsiders over those of people actually working in schools and trained in education -- in other words, while ignorance can sometimes be equated with objectivity, let's not assume it's the same as expertise.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Blogging my Dissertation

For the next two months I will be working on my dissertation full-time.  I considered taking another two month hiatus from blogging, but decided to do the opposite instead.  Since I think best when I can hash through ideas out loud and bounce them off of people, I'm going to commit to posting on dissertation-related topics at least 5 times each week from now through mid-August.

I'll avoid a long discussion of the premise of my dissertation, but will say that posts will revolve around the achievement gap, poverty, and social policy.  If you're interested in those topics, I hope you'll join me in an online discussion of them.  If you're not, I hope you will be two months from now.

update: this idea got shelved pretty quickly: I'll try to refrain from making promises I can't keep in the future