Saturday, August 13, 2011

Experience Matters

On August 13, 2011 Steven Brill wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal entitled "Super Teachers Alone Can't Save Our Schools." This article makes several important points based on his experience of studying schools in America. One of the people quoted in the article is Dale Levin, the co-founder of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP). Levin says that he was questioned by friends and families 18 years ago why he "would go teach in some ghetto school in Houston." Recently, we seem to be hearing every day that teaching is a cushy job, with high salaries and lots of vacation time. This rhetoric does not seem to match up with the reality of Levin's experiences. Apparently, some people think Yale graduates are too good for to be teachers, but it is a cushy job for "regular" people.  

"Making all those things work is the job," [Levin] continued. "It's exhausting, and it's not exciting, but it's what you have to do."...Yes, teaching is hard work and a lot of it is not glamorous. I would argue that it is just as difficult, if not more difficult, in the public schools than in the charter schools. Maybe people like Levin and Brill should encourage and support public schools teachers as well as their supposed "super teachers" in charter schools instead of denigrating them as inferior and incompetent. But I guess that would not be good for business. Maybe they just have different motives than most teachers...

"I feel overwhelmed, underappreciated and underpaid," a teacher told me one morning at one of the Success Charter Network schools in Harlem. "I work from 7:30 to 5:30 in the building and then go home and work some more," the teacher told me. "I get disrespectful pushback from parents all the time when I try to give their kids consequences. I get feedback from my [supervisors], who demand that I change five or six things by the next day. I think we are doing a great job, so I keep at it. " This is exactly what good teachers around the country do every day--whether they are in charter schools or traditional public schools. It is too bad this woman does not have the support and encouragement from her administration and colleagues to feel like she can continue teaching. Maybe their management practices and philosophy are not sustainable, and instead just burning out teachers every few years. This is supported by the data of many studies showing that charter schools have a high staff turnover rate. 

Brill continues, "They[traditional public school teachers], too, need to respond to the emergency, but they won't do it if all that we give them is a choice between sprinting and sitting down. The lesson that I draw from Ms. Reid's dropping out of the race [quitting] at the Harlem Success school is that the teachers' unions have to be enlisted in the fight for reform. The unions are the organizational link that will enable school improvement to expand beyond the ability of extraordinary people to work extraordinary hours." Brill seems to come to the realization that maybe we should not fire all 3.3 million public teachers, but instead should work with them and the teachers' unions to improve education. What a novel idea. I wonder if any "education reformer" governors will agree.

According to Brill, improving education "means creating work lives and career paths for teachers that will motivate a good portion of them to stay for a while....If there is anything that I have learned from trying to figure out the problems of American public education, it's...that teachers get far better at what they do when they've been doing it for a few years. Working long, hard hours helps." I agree--we should make teaching a career that people want to continue in their whole careers because good teachers get better each year with more experience and lifelong learning. I wonder what policy makers could do to attract high quality people into education and make it so attractive that they want to continue teaching their entire careers...If only we could come up with something...I know, maybe we could pay teachers more each year to give them an incentive to stay and grant them some sort of due process to protect them from the political whims of schools boards and administrators who may not like them for personal reasons. We could call it tenure or something like that. Of course we should have a process where formerly effective teachers who become ineffective teachers would have their employment terminated, but as Brill points out we need to try to find a way to keep good teachers because experience matters.