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!