fresh voices from the front lines of change







It was Teacher Appreciation Week this week. Unfortunately, someone forgot the appreciation part.

President Obama, for one, kicked off the week by proclaiming that from now on the week would also (instead?) be forever known as National Charter Schools Week.

Declaring charters to be "incubators of innovations," the president praised charter schools for having "brought new ideas to the work of educating our sons and daughters."

Apparently, no one had sent the president the memo that charter schools are hugely controversial, particularly with teachers.

What's "Innovative" About Charter Schools?

In fact, the week before the president exuded about charter schools, a new study was presented by the National Education Policy Center revealing that one "innovation" that large charter school franchises definitely can not claim is cost savings.

The study looked at the per-pupil spending of charter schools operated by major charter management organizations (CMOs) in New York City, Texas and Ohio with district schools and found that many high profile charter network schools outspend district schools of similar size, serving the same grade levels and similar student populations.

But probably teachers' biggest beef with charter schools is that they don't have to play by the same rules that public schools do, while they loudly claim to be "innovative." As school finance analyst Bruce Baker explains:

Charter schools are limited public access in the sense that:

    • They can define the number of enrollment slots they wish to make available.
    • They can admit students only on an annual basis and do not have to take students mid-year.
    • They can set academic, behavior and cultural standards that promote exclusion of students via attrition.

Furthermore, Baker continues, in many states, charters are allowed to operate completely outside the authority of locally elected school boards and municipal governments and can contract with private management firms and private boards that can require student disciplinary codes and parental participation regulations that would not be tolerated in a community-operated school. So in many respects, a great many charter schools -- although they receive public funds -- are not really "public" schools at all.

So it is quite likely that any supposed innovation coming from a charter school would have absolutely no applicability to a traditional public school because the student populations and set of circumstances governing those schools are so remarkably different. It's like doing a controlled experiment in which the test groups gets to change all the variables and manipulate the results.

So if President Obama had the power to choose when to honor charter schools with an unfounded proclamation about their "innovative" powers, he could not have picked a worse time to do it.

What Teachers Really Think

One wonders if the president's choice for when to proclaim National Charters Schools Week had to have come from his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Duncan is undoubtedly a big fan of charter schools. But in his kick-off address for Teacher Appreciation Week, which appeared on the Huffington Post, Duncan avoided the subject of charter school altogether and instead ticked off a list of "what teachers say they want" without ever quoting a single teacher or sourcing a survey or research study of teacher attitudes and desires.

If Secretary Duncan had bothered to look up some actual evidence of what teachers feel about their current lot in life, he would have found that they are extremely dissatisfied with how they're being treated. Which is why the Secretary's post was triggered nearly 200 comments, most of them deeply critical of him and his policies, and mostly from teachers, practicing and former. This example from Alex Messer was particularly pointed:

The truth is Arne Duncan's policies represent a destructive force to education in America. Just this past month, 3-5th graders were subjected to NINE hours of high-stakes tests in NY State alone. And this is just the beginning. Teachers have had their names published with their employee evaluations in national newspapers - which happens in NO other profession. As if this public humiliation were not enough, the new evaluation framework being agreed to in NY State - and shepherded under Duncan - will lead to teachers being fired based on faulty data with margins of error over 50%. The current trend of high-stakes testing and teacher bashing will have ramifications that people aren't quite seeing yet.

Testing Teachers' Patience

Regarding those tests, at least some portion of the ever-expanding regime of high-stakes testing mandated across the country closely followed or preceded Teacher Appreciation Week in many states, including Texas, New York, and Florida.

Teachers by and large don't think too much of these tests. According to the education trade newspaper Education Week, a new survey of more than 10,000 public school teachers has found that "only 28 percent of educators see state-required standardized tests as an essential or very important gauge of student achievement. In addition, only 26 percent of teachers say standardized tests are an accurate reflection of what students know."

What teachers would prefer instead are ongoing classroom assessments that would actually tell them something about what their students are learning while the teacher can actually do something about it. And they would much rather see class participation and performance on class assignments-- the things they see going on in their classrooms everyday -- as more important measures of student learning.

Pink-Slipped Into Attrition

Another trying experience many teachers start being put through this time of year are the annual rounds of teacher layoffs that occur in school districts across the country.

As Valerie Strauss reports from her blog at The Washington Post, " two business days before National Teacher Day, D.C. Public Schools officials sent out notices to 333 teachers saying that their jobs had effectively been eliminated." Congratulations!

DC School is not alone in executing such an ill-timed slap to its employees. California also recently issued mass teacher layoff notices -- for the fourth year in a row. Many of these teachers -- perhaps 75 percent, according to one study -- may end up employed in school when the next school year begins. But how can you be certain you're not in the 25 percent?

You don't have to imagine what this does to the morale of teachers. Just listen to them:

Somehow I thought this year would be different. It's not.
Every year for the six years since I entered education, I've been laid off. It is the same cycle. Tales of budget problems start in January. Preliminary layoff notices go out in March. Final notices are given out May 15. And until last year, every year I've gotten hired back to the same school in June or July.
I realize it is not just me. It is not just Santa Clara County; it is not just California. Across the country, this has become the norm.
Try as I might, this year is no different. I developed a love for every one of my students. I started talking about what my colleagues and I would collaborate on next year. And so I cried on March 15 and, once again, despite my best intentions, it will hurt deeply when I get laid off for real.
Yet for the next eight weeks, I will teach my students with enthusiasm and commitment. I will stand up at Open House and greet prospective fourth-graders with excitement when they tell me how much they hope they can be in my class next year. And when my darlings are promoted and say they'll come back to see me next year, I'll tell them I can't wait to see them. And that's true.

Change Could Be Worse Than The Status Quo

With a general election coming up this fall, you would expect that the intolerable status quo of teachers would be a major point of contention for the opposition Republican party. Most seasoned observers believe that the 2012 election is "up for grabs," and Republicans know a wedge issue when they see one.

Yet prominent Republican governors -- such as Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, Virginia's Bob McDonnell, and New Jersey's Chris Christie -- are pushing education policies that are exceedingly harsher on classroom teachers, abolishing their rights to collective bargaining and due process, subjecting them to unfair and inaccurate evaluation processes, and threatening their health and retirement security.

At the national level, President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney align on a number of key issues affecting teachers. As an article at The Fiscal Times observed:

Both politicians place great store in standardized testing to evaluate teacher performance and student progress, and both generally back former President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program. Both favor charter schools as an alternative to failing public schools and merit pay to attract better teachers. And both have had their run-ins with teachers unions.

The only point of contention in regard to public schools teachers appears to be what to spend on them.

The Real Value Of Teachers

So what did classroom teachers think about all these pretty pronouncements about them this past week?

Here's how one teacher put it at the blogsite for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution's education reporter Maureen Downey:

It’s teacher appreciation week, again, and the fact that teacher morale is at the lowest it’s probably ever been shows that our nation is ignoring the reason that the week was started in the beginning. Think of it as the educational equivalent of taking the “Christ” out of Christmas. A holiday we’ll go on celebrating arbitrarily since it no longer has anything to do with teachers themselves.

A favorite bromide passed around by the political class is that the "value" of teachers is in their effects on the future earnings of the children they teach.

The data source for these fulminations is a study calculating that a "highly effective" teacher can lead to our kids earning many more thousands of dollars when they grow up.

While this conclusion may sound particularly impressive, it ultimately dehumanizes teachers, reducing their immense influence on our children's development and well-being to a mere cipher on a spreadsheet. And when teachers are treated almost exclusively as economic units -- a cost on a balance sheet to argue over its "value" in the much bigger enterprise that is America -- their immense real value will be continuously depreciated, and the greater purposes of education that certainly dwarf mere income -- goals like creativity and curiosity, responsibility and self-reliance, patriotism and active citizenry -- become diminished.

This week President Obama and many others in his administration did an immensely important and brave thing when they chose to break ranks from the stalemate on marriage equality. In doing so, they didn't talk about the dollars and cents of the matter and instead chose to talk about gay couples not as abstractions on a ledger but as human beings with feelings and rights and dignity. When are our leaders going to start talking about teachers that way?

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