Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

I promised I'd have a slew of thoughts when I started going through the massive pile-up of posts in my Google Reader, but I didn't expect to find so many so soon. I think all of these are from just the past 24 hours.

-Jay Matthews writes that less well-known small schools often provide a better education than big-name or Ivy League schools. I have no research expertise in this subject, but I do have practical experience -- and I couldn't agree more. I'd strongly recommend that any student looking at colleges give a lot of thought to attending a liberal arts college or someplace similar that emphasizes small classes, good teaching, and strong community. Ben Miller says The Princeton Review ratings are lacking, but on the right track. Their lists of the schools with the best classroom experience and such are always littered with liberal arts colleges.

-Miss Eyre shares my frustration with policy wonks whose solution is to blame teachers. I was once a teacher-blamer, and then I tried my hand at it -- it's not as easy as it looks. She's upset with Kenneth J. Cooper for faulting teachers and unions too heavily, though I'm not sure I agree with the critique. He falls into the trap of believing that just because teachers are the most important part of a school that they're the only reason our schools are failing, but he also argues that unions are at fault b/c they should've negotiated higher pay.

-I've written before (I'll try to find the link later) about a speculation of mine -- that teachers enjoyed school more when they were kids than does the average student. For this reason, I fully support people with slightly different experiences becoming teachers. Jay Matthews has the story of one teacher wannabe who was removed from the Stanford teacher training program because he was too acerbic. I don't know the facts, so I'm not going to pass judgment. But his description sure makes it sound like it's a shame.

-Debra Viadero has a good piece wondering whether people are paying too much attention to think tank research and not enough attention to the work of more neutral researchers. You'll get no argument from me, and I don't think the problem's unsolvable by a long shot. One of my pet peeves with education research is that too little research filters down to schools and policymakers -- and I blame the researchers more for this than the schools and policymakers. The fact is that academia takes far too long to churn out a high-quality piece of research, and when they do it's written in language incomprehensible to most of the general public. I hope to make a small dent in that problem with this blog.

-Speaking of things that interest only researchers, my fellow ivy tower dwellers might want to check out this piece, also by Debra Viadero, on discussions of the Institute for Education Sciences board regarding future directions, and publicity, of research. I'd score this battle as Easton 1, Hanushek 0. I think IES spends too much time analyzing interventions, and arguing that other things aren't "researchable" is thinking too much like an economist, and not enough like somebody trying to improve our education system.


Monday, July 27, 2009

Charter Schools Unionize . . . And then What?

The NY Times has a piece this morning about charter school unionization that's worth reading.

It starts thusly: "Dissatisfied with long hours, churning turnover and, in some cases, lower pay than instructors at other public schools, an increasing number of teachers at charter schools are unionizing." Randi Weingarten strikes a similar note, saying that the unionization of some big-name charter schools this year is a "precursor" of things to come.

Meanwhile, one charter school advocate says “They’ll have a success here and there but unionized charters will continue to be a small part of the movement.”

I'm not sure that last part is true. I don't know, maybe he's right -- maybe unions and charter schools will rarely interact -- but for a lot of these schools it makes quite a bit of sense that teachers would eventually want to unionize. A lot of the so-called "no excuses" schools rely on recruiting bright, young teachers (often with no families) who are willing to work crazy hours for a few years before moving on to something bigger and better -- rather like joining the peace corps, in other words.

But what happens when some of these teachers get a little older, get married, have kids, tire of working 80 hour weeks, but still believe strongly in the mission of their school? “I was frustrated with all the turnover among staff, with the lack of teacher input, with working longer and harder than teachers at other schools and earning less,” says one teacher. And I can see that turning into a recurring theme.

We can only have so many schools relying on overworked young idealists before that labor pool will start to dry up. And a school can operate with such a staff for so long before the staff starts to age. And both occurrences almost have to lead to more unionization.

Charter schools are so new that nobody knows what will happen with them over the next five years, yet alone the next fifty. I can't imagine unions playing that big of a role in the next five years, but I can in the next fifty. What happens if, fifty years from now, the vast majority of charter schools are unionized? Will it ruin the charter school movement? Save the charter school movement?

I think that largely depends on two things: how unions interact with the administrations of individual schools and how many charter schools are shut down when they stumble. While I'm largely skeptical of any claims that unions are the only reason anything is wrong with American schools, if enough schools unionize there are bound to be some where poisonous administration-staff relationships severely hurt the performance of the school. If this becomes the norm, then the charter school movement might be stopped in its tracks. But, if charters that struggle are quickly closed then all bets are off.

Personally, my guess is that unions won't strangle the charter school movement. I tend to believe that in most schools the lack or presence of a union has more subtle effects than many would believe. Particularly if individual charter schools negotiate many aspects of the contract with the teachers only in that school, I don't think things will change all that much -- which, of course, given our lack of knowledge on charter schools, we can't be sure is good or bad.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Lifetime Learning?

One thing I often wonder about is the value of learning things that you're not going to remember. I'd have to guess that I've forgotten at least 90% of what I've learned in my time in school. As far as I can tell, one can interpret this two different ways:

1.) Everybody needs different skills and knowledge bases later in life, so we should teach everybody everything and they can use what they need

2.) Our teaching has largely failed, there's little reason to learn something that will be forgotten later anyway. If most of what is taught is later forgotten, then it needs to be taught better the first time.

I guess I'd land somewhere between these two schools of thought. On the one hand, we shouldn't narrow the curriculum so much that everything will be remembered by every student because everybody will miss out on a lot. On the other hand, I would know a lot more today if there was a little less breadth and a little more depth (and later reinforcement) in my education. One book that I read claimed that a valid final exam for a class is one that's given a year after it's taught. I'm not sure I disagree.

What jogged my mind about this? This cartoon I saw yesterday:

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Teaching: A Thankless Job?

As I was procrastinating/reading the news yesterday I couldn't help but notice some positive news regarding Metro Nashville's schools -- test scores improved just enough for the district to make "safe harbor" and avoid state takeover. But I found some of the comments written by readers more interesting.

Says one reader (gregoryjohn):
As a Metro teacher, I just received an email from Dr. Register (the superintendent) about the results. There is a line in the email that pretty much sums up the problems at most schools. It says for teachers to "support your principal." No where in the email does it mention that teachers need to be supported by the district or their principal. I can tell you that not once did my principal say thank you for the work I do. Instead, at our last meeting of the year, she told us that we need to step up and do more. I spent $3,000 of my own money, 50 or 60 hours a week working and planning and tutoring my students so that the kids in 2nd grade could go from reading 10 words a minute to reading 90 words a minute and I need to give more? How about the district support those of us doing the work instead of standing in our way?

And another (Lforcommunity) in response:
Even Connie Smith's (a district administrator) own words leave out the personnel who work with the students...."the switch to data-driven decisions in curricula, improved communication and a sense of urgency." What about the work of the teachers and students, or don't they count?

I heard similar reactions when test scores shot up one year in NYC -- the chancellor's office rejoiced that their new initiatives were working while teachers wondered if they shouldn't receive the credit. And I can't tell you how many teachers at my school wondered why they'd never been told "thank you" or "good job" by one of the administrators in the building.

I'm not going to argue that teachers never receive thanks (or always deserve thanks), and I'm not even sure that their job is any more thankless than the average person's, but it's pretty clear to me that quite a few teachers feel slighted. And I think that's important to take into account when we analyze and propose policies. It's awfully easy for somebody who's removed from the day-to-day stresses of teaching to criticize or blame teachers for the ills of society, but even if they're right I'm not sure how productive that sentiment is.

Regardless of whether you believe teachers to be overly defensive, they're not irrational and they are human beings -- and we in the policy world should treat them as such.

I'll step off my soapbox now and move on to other things -- I have 634 unread ed policy blog posts queued up in my google reader, so I'll have plenty of thoughts on those over the next week or so.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Be Back in a Week or So

No, I haven't abandoned you. I've been busy doing yardwork, coaching swimming, entertaining guests, and readying conference proposals. All that should be over in the next week, as should my hiatus.