Tuesday, March 6, 2012

How Do You Make a Teacher Great?

You make a great teacher by shaming or firing the bad ones.    Written with tongue firmly ensconced in my cheek!  But that is the approach currently gaining favor in a growing number of states.  Abolish tenure, hold teachers publicly accountable for test scores and make it easier to fire them.  Allow me to inject some sanity back into the fray and add my 2 cents.  "That's dumb". 

Gates' work in education gives antitrust a whole new meaning.
"How do you make a teacher great? You don't."  These words were spoken by Bill Gates during his speech at the annual TED conference.    Everything Gates then proposes suggests that you can in fact make a great teacher, by doing things like getting rid of all the bad ones.  Mr. Gates and I agree on many things and I admire his well publicized efforts to help and heal around the world. He penned a recent Op ed "Shame is not the Solution" condemning efforts to publish teacher ratings in New York.   The numbers were released anyway and I know for certain that no good will come of it in terms of teacher effectiveness.  No bad teachers will improve directly as a result of this.  Linda Darling Hammond does a much better job explaining why here. It took lawsuits and media pressure to force the scores out and their validity is certainly questionable.  Transparency is good.  This was bad.  Too bad no one seemed to care.  Gates spoke out as did many others against putting the scores out.    I and many others were a bit skeptical of his degree of conviction given Michelle Rhee also spoke against release the information.  Was he genuine in his objections? Worth pondering.

Gates and his foundations are known for their heavy handed approach to advance efforts and reforms that he sees as a remedy the perceived ills of our profession and education as a whole.   So based on what he supports actually we disagree on just about everything else when it comes to education policy.  What is the difference between someone with billions of dollars like Gates and someone who makes less than $50,000 a year in terms of their awareness of education like me?  Besides my amazing singing voice and skill with a fishing rod I have a firm grasp on what is happening in our schools.  If you don't believe me contrast some of what Gates says with some of the information released from the VDOE.  There's more to most stories than what you hear from the loudest people talking. 

Gates at the TED conference works to answer among
other things "How You Make a Great Teacher?"

Gates is not all bad.  He has saved more lives than I ever will and I admire his dedication to doing what he believes is good.  But he comes from a world where software glitches are remedied by patches and working hard to debug programs.  For each problem there is a practical and tangible solution derived from effort and re-invention.  It is natural he applies this model to education.  In his mind we are failing.  He is wrong.  In his mind bad teachers are responsible.  He is wrong.  Our profession is not immune from individuals who do not do their job well but simply "culling the herd" will do little to help where and how students need it.  It will likely accomplish the opposite.  Still the ratings measures and software systems pour from the minds of economists, statisticians, software engineers and other worlds who are curiously not involved directly with education. Are they really designed to improve education?  Worth pondering again.  More importantly what unintended consequences will these steps generate.  Consider the tangible example shared by Gates of having students log on and access great teaching.  On paper it sounds good.  For the average kid it is a bit shortsighted and noticeably unrealistic.  Worth pondering.  

In Gates' mind we can test away our problems and use the data it provides to guide or way.  That would put us back to the top of international comparisons. You guessed it, wrong again.  Now going 0 for 3 in baseball is not a huge deal but when you are a billionaire who has a firm grip of the keys to the reform agenda and the ear of every politician, we've got problems.  It has become difficult for the citizens of this nation to make informed decisions about our education system in our the current climate due to the negativity that has been aimed squarely at our schools.  It is hard to find good balanced reporting that paints a holistic picture of where we are educationally and why.  Maybe that's why the TU likes Jon Stewart so much.

Evidence Gates is moving away from his Charter support? What's next?
Gates correctly suggests that good teachers make a difference.  But instead of working with them to strengthen our profession, he slaps us with some labels and walks away.  He references the "Top Quartile Teachers" and admits that the way to measure variation with teachers is "based on test scores."  Gates and those at his megawealthy(yes that is a word) and influential philanthropic Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation think it is data that will lead us to the promised land of learning where we apparently once stood as a nation.  They have advocated for charters, privatization and multiple measures which seem contrary to free and appropriate public school.  They argue the result will be a more learned population, better workers, international strength, restored prosperity...all that good stuff.  I'll admit education is key to the success of our students and our nation. 

What Gates either won't admit or doesn't realize is the path and measures he supports will attempt pave the road to improvement with the careers and enthusiasm of once good but now demoralized teachers.   Ultimately dooming any such approach to failure.   Education develops people not computers.  It is not a business.   Methods advocated by Gates will irrevocably alter how kids approach learning and not in a good way.   It will undermine quality public education and simply define us as improved numerically.  What makes things worse is Gates is quickly becoming the prophet to many like-minded school reformers and their 8 fold path is heavily laden with testing, value added measurements, elimination of job security, and numerous other things which few classroom educators can support.  Ask yourself this: If we all want the same thing(improvement) then why is that reformers calling for such measures do not typically inhabit classrooms?

Do I sound scared. I am.  I am fearful of what they are turning our profession into.   I fear my own children will face a diminished quality of schooling based on a narrowing focus.   The job and system I have labored in for more than a decade is being threatened by ill conceived legislation, short sighted leadership and profit driven corporations intent on getting their share of the tax income. Finally an utter inability to separate good ideas from bad makes people in the know very nervous.  The current path cannot coexist with quality public education as we know.  So the lines are drawn.

It's clear which side the TU stands on this and other similar issues.  You cannot simply make a great teacher.  You can make someone better and find ways to help them improve their professional practice.  Efforts to do so should not pit teachers against each other and must not be devoid of sound human judgement.    Beware attempts to use metrics to judge people.

I enjoyed the part of the video where Bill Gates plays Oprah and hands out free books. The response from those in attendance is lukewarm  at best and the applause are noticeably timid.  Maybe they wanted cars?

What if we spent testing funds on smaller classes?
Great teachers to me are like wizards or magicians.  Trying to "can" what they do and replicate it on scale is futile.  To be honest much of what keeps me from being better is simple.  What is missing is TIME.  I do not have the time to accomplish what I want to , and increasingly I do not have time to accomplish what I need to.    Why?  In part because of the measures stemming from efforts to make teachers great.

I'll close with simple advice to any education reformer who sees it differently.  When your work gets tough and you feel uncertain of what exactly you are working towards.  Stop.  Take two weeks off and don't even think about things related to school reform during that time.  Then quit and go find some other institution and profession to destroy besides education.  Those of us who are working in schools will reform ourselves just fine.

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