Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Engaging Teachers: Rhee Think So

[Note: Apologies for being off-line for a while. My daughter was born on August 19th, and I'm only now emerging from the 'baby bubble.' I'm happy to say I'm back -- fueled by strongass coffee and pissy about the economy getting all the presidential campaign love...particularly since better public schools could have helped prevent much of what has befallen us electorally, geopolitically and otherwise (By golly, I betcha better schooling could have even prevented Sarah Palin's public speaking style and specious logic therein)].

Before we delve any further into the crass business of education reform, and personnel issues therein, let's consider "engaging teachers" from an adjectival perspective. What does it mean to be 'engaging?' At its most base, it means that one communicates extremely well. Further up the 'Effective Teacher' pyramid, so to speak, the words "entertaining" and "compelling" come to mind. All of us can remember their favorite, most engaging teachers. I think that most of us can usually count them on one hand. Regardless of the number of teachers we can fondly recall, we tend to remember them vividly. If we examine these memories a bit, perhaps "resonance" and "relevance" enter our picture of what those teachers were like. My terms, however, like memories, are mighty slippery. After all, by my definitions, Sarah Palin is muy engaging. But would you want her teaching your kids social studies? Maybe. It depends on who you are. It depends on what you have to say. Just like good teaching.

"Engaging teachers," considered as a perfect progressive verb phrase (i.e., indicating an ongoing action) brings us to this post's context: NCLB has led us to engage teachers, and the teaching profession, like never before. Relatively speaking, had we placed as much scrutiny on the current Bush Administration as we have/do our teachers since 2001, it's likely we would never had heard of Henry Paulson or seen the outsourcing of everything from our war machine to our regulatory infrastructures. More than ever, teachers and the kids they teach --- particularly low-income, Black, Latino and Special Education students -- are under the gun. The gun goes by many names: Annual Measurable Objectives, Program Improvement, Restructuring, and, lately, where teachers are concerned, Performance Pay (or 'Merit Pay'). Merit pay -- paying bonuses to teachers for raising test scores -- has gotten lots of attention lately.

Monday's NY Times editorial (10/6/08) on D.C. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee's proposal for raising teacher pay to spark performance, entitled 'Merit and the D.C. School System,' argues that she's on the right track. I agree. Essentially, she's asking teachers to give up their tenure in exchange for the possibility of substantial bonuses (in some cases, pushing teacher pay into the six high as $130,000). Rhee proposes that teachers choose between maintaining their employment status quo (tenure after x years, pay by seniority/years in the system) or signing a new, one-year, probationary contract wherein they'd agree to be rigorously evaluated. If the evaluations are positive, then the teacher becomes eligible for the bonus pay. If the evaluations are negative, the teacher can be fired. The more positive, the bigger the bonus. While the extent of the evaluation criteria remains unclear, I'd like to believe that more than mere test scores will be taken into consideration. The latest dust-up regarding the SATs should serve to remind us all of how misused, and limited reliance on standardized testing can be. That said, if Rhee's criteria takes other factors/measures into account (e.g., attendance, participation in advanced courses, etc.), then I'm all for her proposal. Indeed, it's about fucking time. No sooner than her proposal is floated in the national press did we start hearing a host of criticisms.

The Washington Post's Jay Mathews responded by calling for something less competitive, more collaborative...arguing for a team-, or school-wide approach to merit pay. He argues that Rhee's idea undermines the team concept he feels forms the backbone of successful schools. In Mathews' view, teacher resentment would run too high, and block all attempts to work collaboratively. My disagreement with Mr. Mathews is two-fold: 1) He neglects to consider the sports-world analogy. Fans, teams and their owners all agree that high-performing players should be paid more. Insanely high athlete salaries aside, the basic concept and the agreeable consensus is valid, and, frankly (har har), as "American" as hot-dogs. Rhee's proposal mirrors the pro athletes' choice to forgo a long term contract, sign a one year deal, then enter free agency and score a mother lode deal. And 2) Mathews either underestimates or just ignores something most secondary school teachers know all too well: Teachers tend to be a divisive, back-stabbing, resentful lot. Faculty lounges, grade-level curricular planning, department meetings, etc., all offer an impressive array of observable phenomena speaking to the fact that teacher alienation typically runs high. Can you blame them? I certainly don't. Is NCLB to blame? Nope. Are the teacher's unions at fault? In some ways, yes.

In this morning's NYTimes (10/09/2008), Randi Weingarten herself weighs in with a letter to the editors. She takes a decidedly Jay Mathews approach. That's understandable given her moderately successful version of collective (i.e. school wide) merit pay, where high performing schools get a pot of money, and decide for themselves how best to divvy it up among the teaching staff. The nascent program she started piloting in NYC seems to be faring better than Denver's, and the media's response hasn't been too critical, with most education writers taking a 'wait and see approach.' Part of my problem with Randi is similar to my legitimate gripe that secondary schools get the short end of the stick where funding and research are concerned: she's just too 'First Five-ey' for my tastes, harping on idealistic notions of collaboration, and granola-birkenstockey views that say schools are or need to be warm, inviting, places. Like Mathews, she argues that paying certain teachers higher than others violates the very values of teamwork teachers try to instill in their students. Like Mathew's, the sports analogy, hell, the very concept of monetary, individual incentives seems to elude her. The other part of my problem with Randy has to do with her lamentable overbite. I mean this in both a literal (check out her mouth) and figurative way (wanting to make schools community centers, featuring health care and day care centers, etc., while not doing much to deal with the very serious problems already in play [drop out rates, the achievement gap,etc.]).

Be assured, I am very much pro-union (I'm a member, and have throughout my teaching career), politically- and otherwise. However, I realize all too well what a load of deadwood exists in the teaching ranks, especially at the secondary level. That's but one reason why you're likely to remember more crappy teachers than good ones when looking back on your own schooling experience. Rhee's proposal is not anti-union. It's balls out overdue. Moreover, it allows teachers to choose for themselves instead of simply grazing along with the herd, to the detriment of our children and larger society.

Hell, don't take it from me. Check out one NYC school teacher's view. In a recent, NY Times education blog, Christine Gralow writes of a charter school set to open in 2009. She correctly hails it as precisely the kind of model we need more of. Here's an excerpt:
In order to recruit the country’s top teachers to work with these at-risk students, the school’s founding principal will cut administrative costs and put a higher percentage of the school’s public funding into teacher salaries. He’s also seriously raising teacher qualifications, offering teachers a potential $25,000 bonus, and expanding the school day and work year for teachers. The principal will make $90,000. There will be no vice principal.
I say "Amen!" To Christine Gralow, to the school described above, and to Michelle Rhee. The time is now. The situation is beyond dire. So many of our kids are languishing in are schools and, as a recent study strongly indicates, achieving even less than their parents' generation.
It's time to step up to the plate, and to do so boldly.
Michelle, I'm digging the way you swing that bat!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Teaching Profession Needs A Major PR Makeover

Teaching kills for a host of reasons. Lots of teachers won't tell you otherwise. Lest I get branded a 'Serial Whiner' (With no apologies to former McCain advisor Phil Gramm: "Whiner" like the teaching colleague whose idea of staff meeting participation is ridiculing everything while managing to grade papers, and purposely leave facial dandruff droppings in the meeting room 'cuz he hates the custodial staff slightly more than either himself or his eighth grade algebra students), here's what I think would mark the beginning of a major PR boost:

1) Provide the following financial incentives for classroom teachers:
  • Eliminate State and Federal Income Tax for all K-12 public school classroom teachers

  • Forgive student loans completely for folks teaching grades 6-12. Lots of states already do so for teachers working in critical shortage areas or subjects. Given the sorry state of our secondary schools, the case for expanding "critical" is easily supported.

  • Increase starting salaries for classroom teachers. More so for those teaching grades 6-12: 70K for urban school districts, 50K+ for rural (or, at least 10% than what the rural cops are making). Use a combination of federal and private sector funds to pay for this (after all, 'they're' the ones already paying steeply in the form of overpopulated prisons, and a shitty workforce). Michelle Rhee (DC Superintendent of Schools) has the right idea in a strongly modified version of merit pay (i.e., substantial, conditional raises, performance-based [not necessarily test score increases]).

    • Here in California, the state is required to spend 40% of its entire budget on public education. Well over 85% of that goes toward salaries and benefits. Far too often, district-level administrators are grossly overpaid. End this imbalance or force administrators back in to the classroom they so diligently avoid. You think CEO salaries are out of line in corporate America? Sheeee-it, you oughtta take a peek at public schooling (see NY Times' 'Week in Review" ad section every Sunday)! Throw money where it counts.
    • Provide additional financial incentives for those returning to the schools they themselves attended.

2) Get more eyeballs and bodies involved in the makeover discussion by considering conscription.

Charles Moskos took so much heat for advocating a military draft as late as 2003, but the man had a point: there's nothing like personal stake-holding to stoke debate, consciousness raising, and personnel shortages. With a snotty nod to our Presidential candidates, I say we fund either conscription or the entire PR makeover by buying 3 fewer B-1 bombers, shutting down Guantanamo, and sucking funds directly from the nascent Bush Presidential Library. We don't need a bigger war machine, and we all know Dubya don't like to read nothin. Young people between the ages of 18-27 would be required to serve our country for two years. You can enter the classroom, the military, the Peace Corps, the National Parks Service, or any agency providing services to our most vulnerable populations (the elderly, indigent, or young).

  • If you agree to teach, or work in a public school (min. requirement for classroom teaching would be a Bachelor's degree, those without a 4 year degree would be assigned to support positions), up to 2 years' worth of your college loans would be repaid.
  • If you decide to stay in the profession after your term of service, you'd become eligible for a combination of continuing education (e.g., NYC Teaching Fellows program), and complete student loan forgiveness.

3) Find the Education Messiah. Fast. Get his or her ass all over the airwaves.The environment now has Al Gore. Kabbalah has Madonna. Personal computing has Steve Jobs. Our Fantastic Four (Bill and Melinda Gates, Richard Barth and Wendy Kopp) are too busy actually getting stuff done. Qualifications: name-recognition, positive telegenics, a substantial amount of wit and a profound sense of the power of teachers. A cursory scroll of pretenders may help reveal the magnitude of our need:

William Bennett (Are compulsive gambling and chain smoking among your espoused virtues these days?), Diane Ravitch (too, too), Rod Paige ('nuff said), Randi Weingarten (lamentable overbite, too busy being Al Shanker), Margaret Spellings (see Rod Paige), Jaime Escalante (He stood, delivered, and resigned due to collegue jealousy issues), Edward James Olmos (alas, he's loco in real life), the guy who wrote "Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire" (too busy kicking ass in the classroom), and Queen Latifa (she had the best of NBC's "so now you know" , school-specific public service announcements).

Nominations anyone?

Lemme know, and I'll make the phone call. I'm serious.

The profession needs a serious public relations makeover. We need the best and brightest. Even the vaunted Teach for America can barely make a difference. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • The public and our government says our high schools and middle schools tend to suck

  • Drop out rates remain alarmingly high. California's are indicative of the nation's.

  • Our teachers tend to leave the profession soon after entering

  • Studies perennially indicate high levels of teacher dissatisfaction with school-workplace environment

  • We can neither recruit nor retain secondary math and science teachers to satisfy demand

  • Our secondary school classrooms are dangerously overcrowded

  • Research and attendant dollars tend to focus on pre-K and/or elementary schools ("first five")

  • Our high school teachers are scrutinized more than Presidential candidates, getting much more blame than praise
  • More often than not, "teaching to the test" and "teacher-proof" pacing guidelines replace secondary school teachers' autonomy
  • Most sane people would rather not spend the majority of their day teaching, much less being in the presence of adolescents.

Yammer all you want about education reform. Yammer all the way to the Third World and back. It all starts in the classroom. For far too many kids, that's where it ends as well.

Eliot Suarez

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Reducing HS' Class Size the Old Fashioned Way

I live in San Francisco. My wife and I have a two year old son, and are expecting a baby daughter in seven weeks. Already, we're stressing about schools. I'm most anxious about our local secondary schools. Beyond the expected pre-school enrollment woe, my real concerns are actually projections based on current facts. We console ourselves for the time being by looking at the elementary years as one would ordering an omelette at a diner: safe to order cuz you can't possibly fuck that up. It's a whole other story when it comes to middle and high schools.

Out here, we have so-called 'School Choice.' Does this mean that parents can choose where their kids go to school? Sorta. You make a ranked list of seven, then the district does its best to assign you to one of your top three. It sorta works. It's sorta been called fatally flawed by a civil grand jury a few days ago. Persistent overcrowding, even with perennial declines in enrollment (thus state/local funding), and incredible amounts of public frustration with a pathetic, desperate method of selection make the whole process feel like I'm back in Cuba. Sure you can vote, but there are no opposition candidates, just a slate o' shit. Just like every other urban school system, there are 1-3 notable high schools (in NYC: Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvessant. in SFO: Lowell, School of the Arts) with the rest being an utter crapshoot.

The selection method relied on by SFUSD is a six-factor "diversity index." Given that our high schools are diverse only in the sense that every culture but 'Anglo-American' (White) is represented in spades; given that 'White flight' begins rising sharply as kids near middle school (@ 34% of school aged kids in SF attend private schools, more than 10% above the state's average); given that longitudinal studies forcefully show that the worst place for African-American males to go to school is beautiful San Francisco; given that the new Superintendent had to hire an 'Equity and Social Justice' administrator to the tune of over 200K per year, I'd say the District, were it a diner, truly fucked up this omelette.

SFUSD's reducing HS' class size the old fashioned way, alright: through bungled policy, a lack of predictability for parents, mediocre schools, and attendant declining enrollments.

Are we, as the new-ish Superintendent has said, "stuck on stupid?" Should my wife and I be worried.

I'd say yup."

Leaving for Hawaii (just vacation!),

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Philanthropic Foursome $hould.Go.All.The.Way

This week was Bill Gates' first week of the rest of his life. Last week, he officially resigned from day-to-day operations at Microsoft. Now he and Melinda can focus almost exclusively on their Foundation. He's had the money for years, and where giving to schools is concerned, the man is far more impressive than Vista and/or the current state of the company he founded.

Most notably, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have given millions to improve high schools. New Visions, Learning Academies, call 'em what you will, but above all, call 'em a great, overdue idea. Small high schools, focusing on workforce preparation through academic rigor and greater attention to individual students' needs elicits the biggest "no duh!" this blog can muster. Perhaps Bill figured things out firsthand at Microsoft, when he ran up against the depressing underpinnings of a crap-ay domestic product: our under-qualified workforce. Our country has long lost its edge in regards to educational attainment. To put it bluntly, these days, a high school diploma don't mean shit.

A recent NY Times article discussing popular reasons for the current economic downturn cites a booked called The Race Between Education and Technology, by labor economists Claudia Golding and Lawrence Katz. The book pretty much lays it out. Globally speaking, we're losin' the race in some serious ways. On a national level, our high schools generally suck. Our graduates aren't ready for college-level work and seem better suited for the service sector than for places like Silicon Valley.

But if you've read this far, and if you're anything like me, then you might be saying "Yeah, that's great Eliot, but, um, where's the foursome? How about that foursome?" I say hold your horses, Henny Youngman (..."take my wife. no really. take my wife"). I can't invite you to dinner without setting the table, dude. Good thangs take time.

Time is what Bill Gates now has.

And what better way to celebrate than to hook up with public education's ascendant Power Couple, Wendy Kopp and Richard Barth. An inversion of the ol' "in-out, in-out," if you will. The oldsters rejuvenate by coupling with the youngsters, while the youngsters luxuriate in greater relevance by bumpin' uglies with the royals. Oedipus Rex, Ang Li's key-swappin' Ice Storm, a good one third of the Old Testament, the blue-faced whimsy of Krishna, and the HBO mini-series Rome aside, history and Joseph Cambell's ghost hold a special place and role for the almighty foursome: Creator-Destroyer.

The fierce-ass Hindu Goddess Kali. Jesus coming "not in peace, but with a sword." Bill and Melinda cavorting, however metaphorically, with Wendy and Richard. Nothing pretty about any of it, I suppose. But damn if change don't gotta come soon. Times have changed. Just ask those labor economists.

Up until a few weeks ago, I had no idea that the founder of Teach for America (Wendy Kopp) was married to the founder of the uber-successful KIPP (Richard Barth's Knowlede is Power Program, a charter school network kicking regular public schools' asses everywhere, everyday). That Barth started out as one of Kopp's earliest ToA employees made the NY Times story even more compelling for me. He also bears a slight, puffy resemblance to Bill Gates. Plus, um, Wendy Kopp is hot. So it got me thinking.

A foursome is definitely in order. Even one as banal as additional, invigorated funding and consultative assistance. There's too much common ground, so much to be sown from the seeds that have already been planted by both parties.

At the risk of further bludgeoning the metaphor, it's time for them to get in bed together and fuck like rabbits. If they're already there on occasion, turn it up several notches. Go crazy. Install mirrors.

For our kids. Really.

Imagining the Headlines,
Eliot Suarez

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Highly Qualified Indeed

I did my student teaching at an inner-city middle school in Gainesville, Florida. Since I'll be qualifying much throughout this post, allow me to qualify "inner-city" as applied to the relatively small, North Florida university town that is Gainesville. I'm talking about the Eastside. Specifically, key neighborhoods located on the "Other" side of the railroad tracks running across what used to be the middle of town back in the late 1800s. Long after Brown Vs. the Board o' Ed., de facto segregation remains a pesky problem for lots of cities in lots of states, so, in itself, nada very notable for an area of Florida known more for pick-up trucks, gun racks, Gator fans, and other thangs people of color tend to avoid outta necessity and/or disgust. Go figure.

The school I taught in used to be called Lincoln High School. It was the 'Black' school right up until desegregation. In 1988, when I arrived to start my student teaching, it was still known as a 'Black' school, though "inner-city" was the way it was described to me on the day our professor handed out internship assignments. I was told young teachers didn't last or stay very long there. What was true 20 years ago, remains true today in similar schools across the country: high rates of teacher turnover, low levels of student performance blamed largely on teachers who tend to be inexperienced or simply ineffective.

"Student Teacher" is another way of saying "Intern." Unlike in the fields of medicine and law, education's interns must pay for the part of their preparation where they're actually on site, teaching, grading papers, lesson planning, and taking all sortsa shit from oft physically imposing adolescents smelling fresh blood. The semester I 'student taught,' I was paying for 8 graduate level credit hours while busting my ass doing a "real" (or shall I say "Highly Qualified?") teacher's job.

So there I was. Teaching five sections of 7th grade language arts. Up at 5:30 a.m. In my classroom, greeting sleepy students at 7:45. Staying until 4 or 4:30, then running back to campus for an evening class. I was 25, working my first set o' 140 kids in the spring semester of a one-year, 'terminal' Master's degree program. I knew how to design snappy lesson plans, had taken all sorts of under- and graduate level education courses, so my supervising teacher let me take the reins after one week of teaching 2 classes, and observing her other three. Was I prepared? Sorta. Certainly not for the kids' aggression, rudeness, abject need of and want for love and attention (negative or otherwise). What course or test could have prepared me for Child Services workers coming into my classroom to take away a girl who'd been beaten by her mother's boyfriend the night before, for the kid whose colostomy bag ruptured in class, for roomfuls of 30+, hormonally charged 13 year-olds? Was I "Highly Qualified" for any of that? Fuck no!

Well, OK, I admit, I was Highly Qualified in at least one sense: as in "Allow me to qualify 'inner-city'," or the phrase "in a qualified sense." Such qualification often amounts to another handy item in any politician's or prevaricator's toolbox. Consider the latest from the Federal courts (from a Clinton appointee, no less) on the matter of "Highly Qualified Teachers." Better, read a snippet of the press release from the public interest law firm representing plaintiffs in the case:

Federal Court Rules Against Families & Education Advocates: Teachers in Training are “Highly Qualified” Under No Child Left Behind

San Francisco, CA – In a closely watched case of national significance, a federal court in San Francisco upheld U.S. Department of Education regulations today that label thousands of teachers still training for their full credential as “highly qualified” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. A coalition of California parents, students, and community groups, represented by civil rights law firm Public Advocates and pro bono lawyers from Goodwin Procter LLP, contended that the regulations violate the clear standard Congress set in the Act when it defined “highly qualified” teachers as only those who meet a state’s “full” or most complete level of certification. Even the Defendant U.S. Department of Education has consistently recognized “full certification” as including only those who have completed teacher preparation programs. Yet, the regulation also labels as “highly qualified” teachers who are still “participating in an alternative route to certification” and making “progress towards full certification.”

The rule has the effect of delaying equitable distribution of fully credentialed teachers to low-income students and depriving families of accurate information about the qualifications of teachers in their school and district to which they are entitled under NCLB. More than 10,000 intern teachers in California and over 100,000 nationwide are labeled as “highly qualified” under the Department’s regulation and are disproportionately concentrated at low-performing schools serving low-income students and students of color.

While I agree with the Public Advocates' take on the ruling (i.e., more inequity, disproportionate amounts of crappy or inexperienced teachers serving in low-performing schools ["inner city" anyone?]), the fact that most teacher preparation programs suck in a host of ways goes largely ignored. I graduated from one of the better programs in the country. Nationally recognized. Still utterly inadequate. MUCH more on this in future posts.

For now, suffice to say that "Fully Certified" can mean little more than course completion and a passing grade on a content or 'area of specialization' test. Feel very free to liken the process and product of teacher qualification to kids passing a high school exit exam and still not being anywhere near ready for college level work.

Am I saying that all certified teachers can't teach? No. I'm just trying to say that there are many games being played on the profession, on the public, and, ultimately on the vastly underserved students in our country's secondary schools.

And now, a message to the federal judge who decided that interns are Highly Qualified -- with sincere apologies to The Outlaw Josey Wales:

"Don't piss on my back then tell me it's rainin'."

More Soon,
Respect and Thanks Now,
Eliot Suarez

The Lamentable Truth

Teaching kills. To be more precise: being a classroom teacher in a U.S. secondary school (6-12) is muy hazardous to one's mental and physical health. I oughta know. I've taught in 3 states -- Florida, New York, and California --- all known for stupendous levels of educational mediocrity, high degrees of so-called accountability, false starts, underfunded mandates, inhumane propositions, idiotic Republican governors, dumbed down state tests, and inordinate amounts of corporatization. And let's not forget their electoral import in this time of Barack and McCain.

Depending on who you talk to, the states I've taught in are recognized as trailblazers and/or noisemakers. Were they part of a police line-up, I'd recommend fingering New York. At least it had the collective smarts to go with a Democratic Governor, currently a vision-impaired African-American (who's managed to unite a fractured statehouse in his first 100 days), but, alas, formerly a man after Bill Clinton's deeply conflicted heart. Gotta give it up for the whore monger. And speaking of whores and the people who fuck them, let me get back on, um, message: Our high schools and middle schools are seriously fucked. While the reasons are multiple, I will do my best to focus on what I know: teachers, and teaching, and the multitude of morons supposedly trying to help them.

My purpose herein is not to denigrate teachers or the lifestyle imposed by the so-called profession (What, exactly, is being professed? A devotion to the almighty test score? Psychometrics? An over-reliance on dry-erase markers and their swoon-inducing scent?). No.
My purpose is to declare as loudly as I can:

Teaching is one of the most noble forms of public service. Our teachers need more help and support than ever. Our future depends on it.

The hyper-scrutiny they're subjected to amounts to a violent act of betrayal. We owe our good teachers much more than what we perennially, chronically give them on a number of fronts. And I am here to let you know: Something's gotta give. In fact, something will give, something is giving, and it's as ugly as our drop-out rates, as the still-relative dearth of Blacks and Latinos earning graduate degrees , as the business community's constant complaints of under prepared workers, as painful as the tens of thousands of dollars a community college freshman has to shell out for remedial coursework because s/he only learned how to bubble things in correctly, as ugly as the utter and abject waste of precious human capital on both sides of the desk (to put it in terms that even the assholes running the American Enterprise Institute would understand), so to speak. We all suffer when teachers and students lose on such an epic scale.

May this blog do what it can to change the game, bit by bit. After all, I'm a Highly Qualified Screecher (oh so much more on that later).

I'll conclude this maiden post with two pithy-ass things on my mind this very minute:

1) The only good things about Margaret Spellings can be found on her face: What she does with her bangs, and her exquisite choice of eye wear.

2) The worst thing I can possibly call you in this blog: Rod Paige.

Much More Soon,
My Love and Respect Now,
Eliot Suarez