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May 22, 2010 1:12 PM   Subscribe

Are teacher's unions the enemy of reform? DISCUSS The Teacher's Union's Last Stand. How President Obama’s Race to the Top could revolutionize public education.
posted by caddis (128 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
> Mulgrew’s 165-page union contract takes the opposite approach. It not only specifies everything that teachers will do and will not do during a six-hour-57 ½-minute workday...

Why anyone would want to teach in an environment like that is beyond me.
posted by The Card Cheat at 1:22 PM on May 22, 2010


I know where you’re going, but you don’t understand. Teachers are just different.
Reading the monthly magazine of two teachers unions undermines my faith in their goals and competency. However, this guy is just terrible with words - their case isn't that weak.
posted by tmcw at 1:26 PM on May 22, 2010


"Teachers are just different."

They *are* different. Their work is too vital for it to be OK for underperforming teachers to remain in the classroom.

Should the union protect their livelihood? Of course. But not by keeping the ones with problems in classrooms.
posted by gjc at 1:27 PM on May 22, 2010 [6 favorites]


hold public-school teachers accountable by compensating, promoting or even removing them according to the results they produce in class, as measured in part by student test scores.

I think before you can compensate them for performance, you have to pay them enough to want to take the job in the first place. Also, I suspect firing all the incompetent teachers would just leave huge gaps in school staffs with no one to fill the positions. This sounds like an escalation of the stupid shit they started with No Child Left Behind, I would hope better of Obama.
posted by doctor_negative at 1:37 PM on May 22, 2010 [13 favorites]


I read this article a few days ago, and it's a quite brilliantly succinct summary of everything that RTTT means for the future of American education.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 1:44 PM on May 22, 2010


I'd love to see somebody follow up the words "underperforming teachers" with effective metrics of how to gauge that, but somehow that never happens.
posted by mhoye at 1:44 PM on May 22, 2010 [28 favorites]


'Race to the Top' website.
posted by ericb at 1:45 PM on May 22, 2010


2001: No Child Left Behind

2010: Race To The Top

2020: Just Give Everyone Straight A's And Call It A Day
posted by The Card Cheat at 1:47 PM on May 22, 2010 [8 favorites]


Further, I wonder what good it does to hold public educators accountable for the consequences of abusive homes, growing up in poverty, malnourishment in the first years of your life, and all the other things they have zero control over that can, subtly or severely, stunt the development of their students.
posted by mhoye at 1:48 PM on May 22, 2010 [58 favorites]


This brings to mind Steven Brill's August 2009 New Yorker article : The Rubber Room -- "The battle over New York City’s worst teachers."

(Previous FPP: “Randi Weingarten would protect a dead body in the classroom. That’s her job.”).
posted by ericb at 1:49 PM on May 22, 2010


Here's my crazy idea to turn schools around.

There's a vicious cycle where the smart kids with involved parents don't go to the under-performing schools because they're under-performing and part of the reason the schools are under-performing is because the great students won't go to them.

The school district would pay a scholarship of a set amount or complete tuition to a state school to any under-performing school graduate with a grade point average above the set amount. It might actually be cheaper than some of the weird programs they do.
posted by drezdn at 1:55 PM on May 22, 2010 [5 favorites]


I recall the union advocates pretty soundly lost the iSquared debate on the subject.

The argument about teacher metrics seems odd to me, and all I ever read is that teaching to the test is bad. What are the barriers to developing tests that are given at the start and end of every school year? I can see how doing it once a year would antagonize unions -- it place teachers in opposition where one side wants a high exit score and the other side wants a low entrance score. But it would be nice if someone could educate me on why the tests themselves are unreliable as is often impugned.
posted by pwnguin at 1:57 PM on May 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


As doctor_negative says, Obama’s Race to the Top is nothing more than an escalation of the stupid shit they started with Bush's No Child Left Behind. Testing and the preparation for testing is not education, and you cannot legislate talent and motivation in any field. It's a further attempt of Union busting and the destruction of public education. To improve education for a civil society you need to start with the students, their families and their social environment.
posted by semmi at 1:58 PM on May 22, 2010 [15 favorites]


But it would be nice if someone could educate me on why the tests themselves are unreliable as is often impugned.

Speaking from the field of science, I've met many students who ace courses in biochemistry, calculus, chemical kinetics, and statistical mechanics who a year or two later can't calculate a simple derivative, don't know the letters in RNA, don't know the formula for a simple harmonic oscillator or what it means.

That's why tests are useless to me - they're hoops. Easily forgotten. Skill and ability is something judged over many years in very specific subject areas.
posted by peppito at 2:03 PM on May 22, 2010 [17 favorites]


I'm not saying this is a bad post, it's a good one, and timely too, but here are a couple of Links that could have rounded it out.

It is so easy to blame the teachers (and the teachers union) for the trouble of all the schools, while their budgets get cut and cut and again cut. Maybe a real commitment to the schools, rather than some untenable test would help.

Schools, good schools, are the most important asset any democracy can have (and we are a representative democracy no matter what the absurd Texas wingnuts want to teach our children). And no one on any political side should doubt that.
posted by Some1 at 2:08 PM on May 22, 2010 [4 favorites]


semmi: "It's a further attempt of Union busting and the destruction of public education. "

Here's a thing that I've always been curious about: if this is union-busting, who's doing it and why do they care? It's pretty clear, for example, in factory settings, who stands to gain by union busting: the corporation does. Even with Reagan and the air traffic controllers, the airlines came away with some amount of money. Do governments stand to gain money by "union-busting" teacher's unions? Michelle Rhee in DC is actually paying teachers more across the board under her performance pay plan, and trying to raise private money to do it. Where on earth is the incentive to destroy public education AND bust unions all at the same time?
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 2:10 PM on May 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


Schools fail children. The ones that don't (like the one my youngest has attended since kinder and will graduate from fifth next month) are the exceptions that prove the rule. Homeschooling, or unschooling as Sandra Dodd advocates more readily fill the bill. I know some or most kids need somewhere to go and be warehoused all day, but please don't confuse what goes on in their purview with "learning." Stultifying, maybe. These debates about teacher proficiency/accountability drive me crazy(er), because all the arguing goes on among people who are not there in the classroom for hours on end dealing with real individuals, each with his or her set of goals/stumbling blocks--whether they are kindergartners or twelfth graders. If I sound arrogant about this, well it's probably because I am. I worked as a substitute twenty-five years ago when corporal punishment had just been outlawed but was still in practice. I saw more gross incompetence than I care to remember. My three oldest children never went to school or went sparingly and all learned to read and compute no problem (and analyze, assess, connect). Nor were they "anti-social." Schools are, for the most part horrible places, and teachers, however well-meaning, are doomed to be apologists. Okay, that rant aside, I get up many days and go to work as a substitute, fierce in the belief that empathy and compassion matter and convinced that it is worth any effort to keep curiosity alive.
posted by emhutchinson at 2:12 PM on May 22, 2010 [8 favorites]


As a citizen and parent:

Where on earth is the incentive to destroy public education AND bust unions all at the same time?

The first one that comes to mind are conservative religious groups that value dogma over all else. I'm sure there are many more.

As a teacher:

Unions, as they are now, make us look bad. Period. It doesn't matter that we need them to do what they are doing. They make us look awful, as a group. They defend the worst of us without using any sort of reasonable public explanation and they do nothing in terms of public relations to justify their existence. In this regard, we are our own worst enemies when we join the union.

Teachers are basically the largest white-collar profession in the world. Additionally, we are arguably the most important. Questioning attacks on the teaching profession is complex because so many people are so deeply invested in the process at all times in their lives.

In most other professions, if someone fails at their job, it is not a big deal or it is a fait accompli and there is no fixing it. While this is also true for education, the appearance is to the contrary and teachers aren't doing a very good job at disabusing people of the idea that failure (educationally speaking) is impermanent.

We need to reform education, but Mr Obama's plan is not much better than Mr Bush's. There need to be much larger and more drastic changes if a real increase in the amount of knowledge and ability in new humans is to be achieved.
posted by Fuka at 2:21 PM on May 22, 2010 [16 favorites]


Firing really, uncorrectably bad teachers is just common sense. But that's where the simplicity ends. Questions:

1. How do you decide which teachers are bad?

Test scores might be part of this but as others have pointed out, teachers in schools with low-income kids and teachers in underfunded or mismanaged schools have to work a lot harder to see gains. The playing field is not remotely level. It makes sense to hold schools accountable for student performance but there is a difference between accountability and being punitive.

2. Where do bad teachers come from? Is there something we can do in the process of teacher hiring and training that solves the problem before we have to fire well-intentioned people? Do school cultures have an effect on teacher quality?

I would argue that dysfunctional schools with cultures of low expectations and cynicism tend to make teachers worse, and good schools tend to improve their teachers.

3. Will firing the worst teachers really solve the problem?

I believe it won't. Teaching well is surprisingly difficult, the difference between mediocre and good is huge, and there are huge systemic problems with our education system that can't be solved only by good teaching, for example the lack of rigor in many curricula, the lack of exciting applications of knowledge embedded in the school day, etc.
posted by mai at 2:21 PM on May 22, 2010 [8 favorites]


On one hand, teachers need collective bargaining and I don't blame them for circling the wagons -- my experience suggests that there's a hell of a lot of people who think their job is easy (three months off, six-hour days AMIRITE?) and that they could be doing it better no sweat. Not to mention the difficulty of coming up with good performance metrics.

On the other hand, unions sometimes really do seem to go the extra mile to protect a few people who shouldn't be there and freeze the status quo.

I'm pretty sure destroying the unions is NOT the answer, though I think it'd be interesting to see a state try this experiment, because I'm pretty sure it'd be fun to watch the befuddlement when the consequent changes over a decade or so are marginally positive at best, and the usual suspects have to start beating whatever drums they have left (probably privatization, de-professionalization, and/or the inherent stupidity of <insert class of underperformers here>) more loudly.

For my part, I think part of the answer might be in nudging the various *EAs more towards professional associations and a bit away from unions. Have them largely create/update the professional standards -- if they don't come from teachers, they're probably going to suck anyway, and you can start to get some kind of buy in. Also, use some combination of carrots and sticks to change how PAs are staffed/governed -- I know there's some concern (even among teachers) that the people who choose a high degree of activity in the unions tend to be careerists while the people most concerned with being better teachers are too busy studying their topic, working on lesson plans, coming up with classroom strategies, and running extracurriculars. But destroying any kind of educator's collective will mostly end up meaning more ed policy being created by land developers and lawyers and others disproportionately represented amongst legislators, and less of a voice for actual educators.
posted by weston at 2:31 PM on May 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hey, go ahead. Get rid of unions. Pay me on how well my students do on tests. I've got enough seniority to demand AP classes and the upper-level lit classes my high school offers. Of course, I'm a shit-hot reading teacher (if I do say so myself) but if keeping a job means only teaching upper-middle-class students the niceties of prose and poetry, well, sorry, low-socio-economic kids: Sure hope the new teachers, with no real classroom experience, can get you to read at grade level. (And if they can't, well, maybe you'll like the new teacher you get next year.)

I would hope better of Obama

Why? He's a corporatist through and through.
posted by John of Michigan at 2:38 PM on May 22, 2010 [31 favorites]


This is a rather simplistic statement and I know I'm not expressing it well but I feel a need to bring it up. It doesn't fix the immediate problems but I say this as a currently certified public school teacher who was in a public school classroom for 10 years, a private school classroom for 2, who has children who attended private schools and who is now home educating and loving it...

The problem is not so much with the teachers but with the parents. I've been there, done that, have the t-shirt. Parental responsibility is rarely mentioned in these articles, especially not in proportion to how important it is.

I firmly believe that if more effort was put into showing parents / caretakers that a child's home situation and support system is the number one path to success, we would make more headway against our problems with education. We think that the sorry home lives of many of these kids is off limits but starting at home is the best way to turn the tide. The best teacher has little chance with a child who got no sleep, had no dinner last night, had to babysit his other siblings and get them ready for school or else is in an emotionally intolerable situation. Let's pour some of this money into helping things at home both for the families that are seriously in trouble and for the ones who just don't realize how much difference some effort on the part of their children can make. Better day care, better DEFACS involvement, better and more parenting courses... I don't know how to do it but I know that NCLB and RTTT are just fancy names for misguided efforts. Something drastically different needs to be done and quickly. The schools already do too much parenting. Let them focus just on EDUCATING. Let all these experts figure out another way to make these parents accountable, take the home stress off these kids and all Americans see the value of education. We have to make education "cool" again. People have to need it and desire it for their children and not just count on schools to feed and watch their kids for 10 hours a day.

Again, it's a huge mountain to tackle but maybe our focus needs to hit closer to home...literally.
posted by pearlybob at 2:45 PM on May 22, 2010 [14 favorites]


I've been involved with teachers in various professional and unprofessional ways my whole life and I'd like to humbly advocate that the people who need to be fired and rigorously tested for aptitude in most cases are the school administrators who are often the worst teachers around who manage to play politics and have the stomach for worshiping whatever rules and theories are currently in vogue.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:52 PM on May 22, 2010 [34 favorites]


I'll point out that university professors in the U.S. usually teach between two and eight class per year. Any respectable university almost never asks for more than four courses per year, above four courses the university has basically given up on prestige through research, including grant money. So one may reasonably assert that teaching four classes per year is a half time job, the other half time usually devoted to research, and then teaching six to eight classes per year is a full time job.

Grade school teachers otoh usually teach sic courses per day, obviously they don't have the collage professor's administrative duties, status, etc. but nevertheless I'm not sure exactly when you expect they'll prepare their classes. To be blunt, you're calling them teachers while your managing/working them like babysitters. If you want better schools, just hire enough teachers that all teachers get two planning periods instead of one.

Also, you simply cannot expect that all teachers will actually have any particularly great skill. In particular, those who study education must focus on doing controlled experiments that explore the average classroom with an average teacher, well usually they just claim their pet theories are correct because the brilliant teachers they specially hired for the job beat average teachers.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:59 PM on May 22, 2010


I've been involved with teachers in various professional and unprofessional ways my whole life and I'd like to humbly advocate that the people who need to be fired and rigorously tested for aptitude in most cases are the school administrators who are often the worst teachers around who manage to play politics and have the stomach for worshiping whatever rules and theories are currently in vogue.

Thank the lord that someone has mentioned that it MAY not be the workers...it may just be shitty management.
posted by hal_c_on at 3:00 PM on May 22, 2010 [6 favorites]


Why is the school district administration responsible for all this vetting? In most cases it appears that the administration does not have the resources or the qualifications to properly evaluate teachers. I think more of this evaluation should be conducted before they receive their teaching degree. Teaching degrees should be more rigorous and include more classroom teaching time than they do now. Perhaps an extended internship or residency program. The teachers would be evaluated by their academic advisors and senior teachers working more closely together. The worst teachers would drop out before they even graduate and no union or school district will ever have to deal with them as official teachers. Of course this means you would have to pay teachers more and that means the above scenario will never happen.
posted by Procloeon at 3:04 PM on May 22, 2010


I'll say what I've been saying for about 20 years now. We aren't going to fix kids/education/schools/families/society until we make a fundamental change as to how we view consumerism in this culture. Until we stop convincing people that they have to spend money they don't have, that both parents need to work two jobs to pay for the boat/snowmobile/bling/tennis shoes/flat screen tv/pimped out car/whateverfloatsyourboat things are not going to change.

Someone needs to stay home and manage the kids as they grow up... teachers aren't paid or equipped to deal with the kids, and nobody else gives a crap.

I'm not hopeful... I don't think we can accomplish this....
posted by HuronBob at 3:08 PM on May 22, 2010 [10 favorites]


I'll point out that university professors in the U.S. usually teach between two and eight class per year. Any respectable university almost never asks for more than four courses per year, above four courses the university has basically given up on prestige through research, including grant money

I appreciate your point in the context of this discussion, jeff, but I just wanted to add that the only thing that even makes this remotely possible at current enrollment rates are a legion of underpaid and overworked adjunct professors. I have taught 6 (six!) sections of undergraduate courses each of the past two semesters. That is not three per term, that is six sections per semester. This is due solely to fiscal necessity (and not the pay-off-the-yacht kind, but the be-able-to-buy-groceries-and-maybe-get-married-one-day kind). I just want to highlight the fact that what is happening in education is precisely what is happening in other fields: overworked, underpaid, ostensibly part-time employees are brought in to trim expenses (i.e., benefits and a living wage) to pad the bottom linee. It is sad but it is the status quo just about everywhere from what I can tell.
posted by joe lisboa at 3:12 PM on May 22, 2010 [18 favorites]


Well when you look at something that gone so political and so far off the rails as the Texas textbook story going on now, do you really think the teachers want their unions to allow them to be the puppets of some nutters?

My my city we have a guy on ethe school board. I have worked with thi guy. He is a smooth talker and can memerize the less astute. He ran on his alleged knowledge of technology. The moron cant even log into a computer without a half dozen emails telling him to *try* to login.....
posted by MrLint at 3:15 PM on May 22, 2010


Bottom Linee is my burlesque stage name, kindly disregard and/or treat as a typo above.
posted by joe lisboa at 3:16 PM on May 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Every time someone suggests to me that we get rid of unions, I remind them of why we have unions in the first place. Then I ask, "Do you think any of the pressures and influences have vanished?" Unions continue to be a stick holding a bear trap from slamming home on your ankle. We've forgotten that the bear trap is still there.

Granted, unions can be a vast pain in the butt, but for almost every strange position in the contract came a strange situation before it. Collective bargaining is useful because the other collective (corporations) does not have our best interests at heart.

I have no magical ideas for solving the numerous educational problem this country faces, but anyone with any plans in mind must remember history: that "Sixteen Tons" song didn't come about because it's a fun little ditty. Given their druthers, corporations of all stripes would like nothing better than to pay everyone the barest minimum, keep them in terror of losing their jobs and being blacklisted, remove all safety features they can get away with, then lock everyone exactly where they are for just as long as the Corporation thinks they are necessary.
posted by adipocere at 3:17 PM on May 22, 2010 [21 favorites]


I don't know how to do it but I know that NCLB and RTTT are just fancy names for misguided efforts. Something drastically different needs to be done and quickly. The schools already do too much parenting. Let them focus just on EDUCATING. Let all these experts figure out another way to make these parents accountable, take the home stress off these kids and all Americans see the value of education. We have to make education "cool" again. People have to need it and desire it for their children and not just count on schools to feed and watch their kids for 10 hours a day.
/em>


What HuronBob just said. This.

posted by pearlybob at 3:19 PM on May 22, 2010


OK, someone asked, Why are tests so bad?

Because many tests, especially standardized ones, don't assess learning; they assess test-taking ability. Real learning is about being able to consistently do something: explain, analyze, define, apply, synthesize, assess, build, measure, compose, add, divide, derive, solve, dribble, pitch, design, etc.

Real assessment of learning, especially higher-order learning, needs to focus on measuring authentic performance of the behavior/action rather than filling in a little circle with a pencil. Real learning and real demonstration of learning can be extremely hard to accomplish at all in an institutional, regimented setting. This guy has some good ideas at the college level and the unschooling people some useful ones.

I teach college classes, so this thread doesn't apply directly to me anyhow, but still, I'm a decent enough teacher though certainly not a charismatic, inspirational virtuoso -- who, by the way, are always going to be about 1% of all educators. I'm smart, I like my job, I know the material, I like my students and want them to learn -- more than that: I want them to love learning the way I do. I try to model and foster curiosity and excitement -- after 28 years, I'm still really jazzed about every subject I teach and continuously looking for ways to do it better and fine tune the rough spots.

And the one great frustration I and most of my colleagues face is that despite all that, nobody can make someone else learn something, especially a person who is resistant to the whole process and won't/can't invest in it. For instance, a fair amount of my secondary English education or elementary ed. majors hate reading although more of them like writing. If you think even Teacher of the Year can magically reverse that or stem the massive anti-intellectual tide of our whole culture, well, I just don't know what to tell you.

And when I try to imagine my livelihood depending on making a room full of, say, 40 middle-school kids improve their reading skills (as measured by some bogus multiple-choice test), I practically get a perforated ulcer just thinking about trying to function effectively in such an environment. Good luck getting anyone marginally qualified to stay on board in Education Thunderdome.
posted by FelliniBlank at 3:20 PM on May 22, 2010 [15 favorites]


I think before you can compensate them for performance, you have to pay them enough to want to take the job in the first place.

I've never understood this argument. My wife's cousin is a teacher, and so is his wife. In their first year working at the same public school they pulled in close to 65 grand a year. No, it's not doctor money, but it's plenty for a newly-wed couple. They didn't seem to fear they had hit to the roof as far as salary goes either.

My wife has several friends who are teachers, and they've never once complained about pay. Every time I see a teacher's starting position, the pay is GOOD.
posted by toekneebullard at 3:23 PM on May 22, 2010


Every time I see a teacher's starting position, the pay is GOOD.

See above. I make less than the janitors at (any of) my schools. This is not hyperbole. Your generalizations are as flawed as they are dangerous, as true as they may be anecdotally.
posted by joe lisboa at 3:26 PM on May 22, 2010 [10 favorites]


My mother was a third grade teacher at a district roughly three hours from a major city. Toward the end of her career there were a lot of new families coming from the city. One of their main reasons for moving was better education, community and resources for their kids. The catch was that many parents planned on keeping their city job because it payed more or they couldn't find a local job. That means they commuted up to three hours each way everyday to their job. In many cases both parents had extremely long commute times. These parents were somewhat baffled by the poor performance of their kids and insistence that they should be signing homework and permission slips occasionally. Poor student performance was quickly followed by poor teaching evaluations conducted by a vice principle who received her teaching degree three years ago and spent one year as a teacher. My mother retired early because of these conditions. I fail to see how firing "bad teachers" could fix such a situation.
posted by Procloeon at 3:31 PM on May 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


Part of the problem with teacher assessment is how the hell do you do it? My wife is a bilingual second grade teacher in brooklyn; her kids are required to be grade level in spanish to get to her class, but there is no such requirement for english. She brings kids up multiple reading levels over the course of her year, some of them reach grade level, a few do not. Basing her performance on a single test without considering how far her children have come is not sufficient. And don't get me started on using administrator assessments of her teaching.

And teachers deserve to be compensated well. My wife may only spend 6 hours 57 1/2 minutes in the classroom, but she puts in another 2 hours each night plus 4-8 hours on the weekend working.
posted by deliquescent at 3:38 PM on May 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've never understood this argument.

It's not a difficult argument to understand. Teaching requires a BA and additional training, but usually pays well below average for college graduates.

You say your friends earned close to $65K, but if they were two fresh graduates earning average starting salaries for new BAs, they'd have been making $96K.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:55 PM on May 22, 2010 [4 favorites]


If the home is failing the students, that's all the more reason for educators to figure out a way to engage these students for the short time they are in the classroom.

It's true- in urban, public school districts, teachers are paid VERY well compared to others with the same education level. In less urban districts, not so much.

Testing is the only way to measure performance. If the test doesn't measure what you are trying to teach, then we have to come up with a better test.

"She brings kids up multiple reading levels over the course of her year, some of them reach grade level, a few do not. Basing her performance on a single test without considering how far her children have come is not sufficient."

If we know they have moved up reading levels, then we know how to test for that. Read a paragraph, answer some questions. The more questions the kid gets right, the better their comprehension on that test.
posted by gjc at 3:56 PM on May 22, 2010


Last time we had this discussion, what I walked away with was that there is a bit of an divide in the imagination of how testing could / does work out.

Coming from social science or industrial design, you can easily imagine a an ambitious and massive data collection process where assessment, metrics, and interventions are iteratively refined and validated. For example, schools in low SES neighborhoods do worse on everything, but that just means that you need to compare within low SES classrooms. Kids who are in AP Bio will do well on everything, which is why you need to consider how well those same students did last year to see the teacher's added value. You'd use this information to look closely at the teachers who pulled off great results in bad looking situations, discover what the effective practices are, and do real randomized experiments with several interventions on other classes and teachers. You'd do the same for the effects of administrators.

There is an education research literature which does a lot of this and which nobody except academics reads, partly because the stakeholders (teachers, parents, policymakers) do not know the language or methods of social science.

Teachers seem to have an overwhelming belief that the above is impossible. Administrators will never be held to account and will instead use their data to justify capricious and arbitrary actions. Policymakers will mandate only the dumbest options. The public will constantly naively demand tried and failed solutions. As a result, the best thing is to never start collecting information.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 4:01 PM on May 22, 2010 [11 favorites]



After teaching in public, charter and private schools for the last 8 years, it's pretty easy to know who the good and bad teachers are. All one has to do is ask the students and inquire with the other teachers on their perceptions of their colleagues, and the pretty bad ones will be obvious to point out. The difficulty is finding the rare administrator who will actually take action to improve the 'bad' teacher or to get rid of them altogether.

Also, on a side note, I think the bad teacher is mostly the one that for whatever reason, just wants to cruise on the teaching world. They are comfortable with the 6-7 hr day and summer breaks, don't want to push themselves or do extra work during the school year, so they just use the same recycled lessons or ideas year in and year out and do the absolute minimum.

As others have said upthread, to teach well is difficult. It requires much creativity and flexibility to create interesting and effective lessons. (and loads of time) As much as I aspire to be this kind of teacher, I know it's an ongoing effort since it requires so much of a person mentally, physically and emotionally. Unless you have lived in the trenches and have striven for this type of goal, it really bugs me when people say that teachers get it easy and have the summers 'off'. I know preschool teachers and I have family members who are university professors, and all of them agree that to teach well will burn you out by the end of the year and to be quite honest, the summer to recharge the batteries are a necessity.

I wish there was a easy way to create a rubric to sort out the teacher by quality, but there is not. What is needed is for quality principals who have been teachers themselves at some point to lead the way and fix our schools.
posted by dealing away at 4:07 PM on May 22, 2010


Are teacher's unions the enemy of reform?

No. ALL unions are the enemy of reform.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 4:08 PM on May 22, 2010


joe lisboa: "I appreciate your point in the context of this discussion, jeff, but I just wanted to add that the only thing that even makes this remotely possible at current enrollment rates are a legion of underpaid and overworked adjunct professors."

There is a large part of research universities that don't operate this way. From what I've seen here on MeFi and elsewhere, this practice seems to come mainly from the humanities and community colleges. I had a single adjunct professor in my engineering education, and they were full time employees of the college who taught on the side while working on their master's. I haven't looked into this but I would guess that anything pulling in lots of NSF, DARPA or corporate grants doesn't have an adjunct problem.

It's true though, that community colleges have deferred all the pain of costs by slowly growing an adjunct farm league. The local CC has 350 professors and probably three times as many adjunct. This is why I don't really like unions -- they very much appear to operate on the behalf of incumbents against outsiders and the young.
posted by pwnguin at 4:14 PM on May 22, 2010


Are teacher's unions the enemy of reform?

No. ALL unions are the enemy of reform.


Oh, so that's why Wal-Mart hates unions so much...
posted by sallybrown at 4:16 PM on May 22, 2010 [6 favorites]


No. ALL unions are the enemy of reform.

That's the kind of ignorant you can't blame on public education. No sir, I believe you've earned that ignorance with your own hard work.
posted by mhoye at 4:17 PM on May 22, 2010 [12 favorites]


My story: inate ability at test-taking that, after years in the real world, I realize had over-inflated my IQ numbers and my self-esteem, as well as getting me a 'merit scholarship' in a college that was not as good for me as my otherwise-first-choice would've been.

Most successful people have their stories about the ONE great teacher who inspired them or pushed them in the right direction. One out of how many teachers they had in 12-13 years of primary education? I had none.

I did have a mother who was an 'ex-teacher', giving up the profession to raise the kid(s) (in her case, just me). I got extra attention from her in my early years; I was starting to read before starting kindergarten; that head start ultimately led to me being pushed ahead a grade, skipping 4th. That was a disaster, and I ended up pushed back, after which my parents lost faith in the LA public schools and had me put in a private school that was really for 'rotten rich kids'. (One of my bullies was the son of a 1950's television legend; my friends included the son of an entrepreneur famous for doing TV commercials and the son of a powerful Hollywood agent) In order to afford it, my mother let herself be recruited by the school as a part-time librarian and substitute teacher; she was more qualified than most of the school's full-timers (one Social Studies teacher essentially did a 1960s version of Glenn Beck for his class; it was so awful I credit him for making me skeptical of Conservatism). Those were not the happiest years of my life but were the happiest of my mother's.

As my parents continued avoid the publics, I did High School at a Catholic school, where the first thing I learned as a non-Cath was what prejudice and discrimination are; my test-taking skills continued to serve me well, but the only thing I really enjoyed in those years was the school band, even though I had little musical ability.

Conclusion from my own personal (very anecdotal) evidence:

Standardized testing (as we know it) is NOT the answer. Testing, done well, can be part of the answer, but nobody has figured out how to do it well, because it's complicated.

Private schools are NOT the answer. See above.

Stay-at-home moms hurt themselves more than they help their kids, but if my mom had had the option to home-school me, I probably would've had that ONE great teacher.

"Race To The Top?" Great, another competition-based system in a country where the Colts are considered a failure because they lost the freaking Super Bowl.

one more thing...

ALL unions are the enemy of reform.

That's the kind of ignorant you can't blame on public education.


Actually, that's the kind of Big Lie that the Texas School Board is now teaching. Not ignorance. LIE.
posted by oneswellfoop at 4:27 PM on May 22, 2010 [4 favorites]


This is why I don't really like unions -- they very much appear to operate on the behalf of incumbents against outsiders and the young.

I get what you are saying, but it is precisely the union for adjuncts (at two of my employers) that make it possible for me to make ends even meet in the first place. And these are not the community colleges (which basically pay something amounting to less than minimum wage when all is said and done) but the state research schools, some of them with very good academic reputations to boot. My quote-unquote enemy here is not the unions whatsoever - that is the only line of defense I have left at this point, even in the face of the quote-unquote seniority of my elder academic peers and all of the benefits that attach to said.

Sorry for all the quote-unquotes above, my apostrophe key is being obstinately apathetic tonight.
posted by joe lisboa at 4:29 PM on May 22, 2010


Until people realise that the only valid test for an educational system is what proportion of kids it turns into happy and productive members of society (i.e. it has a twenty year latency and an imprecise scale of measurement) this debate is always going to be pissing in the wind.
posted by cromagnon at 4:33 PM on May 22, 2010 [7 favorites]


For all the talk of teacher metrics in this thread, there's one painfully obvious way to identify an incompetent teacher: Talk to the parents of their students. I remember clearly a conversation that Mrs Deadmessenger and I had with one of our neighbors before our daughter started second grade. Our neighbor had asked who's class our daughter was going to be in the next year, and when we told her, it was met with an eyeroll and far-too-polite murmurs about how we might have to be a little more aggressive about making sure she was keeping up. (A more honest answer from our neighbor would have been "RUN AWAY, RUN FAR FAR AWAY!!!!") This teacher was a disaster, and damn near every kid in her class was behind by the end of that year.

Of course, this isn't objective enough of a measure to use as a base for personnel decisions, but if you need to know who the good teachers and bad teachers are, I assure you that the parents are WELL aware.
posted by deadmessenger at 4:37 PM on May 22, 2010


Hold on, let ZenMasterThis explain his position. HOW are unions antithetical to progress. Explain your work, answering adipocere's question from above, "Do you think any of the pressures and influences have vanished?" That is, unions historically were formed for a reason. Do those reasons still exist?
posted by John of Michigan at 4:42 PM on May 22, 2010


Re: teacher pay - yes, teachers earn enough in most states, but 1) not all states pay enough to live where you work (example: California house prices require teachers to commute or rent to serve certain areas, extending their 6 hour work days with a couple hours more in commuting, followed by time at home with a few hours of grading tests and homework), and 2) the pay isn't enough to get a surplus of teachers to apply, so many areas are scrambling to get people who are simply qualified to teach can be a struggle.

That offensive aphorism "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach" could be reworked as "those who can earn more, do; those who can yet don't focus on the money, teach." At my wife's school, there are only 3 teachers who are qualified to teach all levels of math offered at her high school, of the 8 or so teachers who teach math. If you really love math, would you want to spend your day trying to teach it to kids who are often question the reason they learn any of it? Or would you prefer to work in an academic or research field and make much more money and challenge yourself daily?

To be a good teacher is more than knowing your material - it's being able to convey the knowledge, to make it interesting, and to be able to control classroom after classroom of students, day after day. Providing an incentive for teachers to do well is great. But what of providing an incentive for new, skilled and enthusiastic teachers? Would you take a job with the idea that you might earn a significant increase next year, if you teaching skills are as good as you hope they might be?

Increase the base pay levels for teachers, elevate their status to that of other skilled professionals, and the supply of teachers will improve.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:43 PM on May 22, 2010 [4 favorites]


The first step to understanding American education policy is disabusing yourself of the notion that America really values education.

As long as you hold onto that fallacy, none of it makes any sense.
posted by Legomancer at 4:55 PM on May 22, 2010 [15 favorites]


High stakes tests are what happens when you have MBAs taking the place of educators.

The funniest part of the test mania to me--and I'll grant that the idea that something must be measurable to be valuable is just dumber than a crate of crowbars---is that high stakes testing actually does exactly the opposite of what its proponents* says it does. High stakes tests do not in any way foreground the actual teaching that goes on; rather, the teacher's skill in the classroom is backgrounded to such an extent that it matters less and less the more enamored districts become of standardization. It's a shit-stupid Fordist clusterfuck, and our polity is immeasurably the poorer for it.

* These people are never teachers.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 5:07 PM on May 22, 2010 [4 favorites]


No. ALL unions are the enemy of reform.

I submit if we hadn't spent the last forty years strangling unions, students who didn't excel in school would still have jobs to go to.

If idiots manage the school system, why should we expect good students? (Hint: Idiots do run the school system.)

Very few people truly care whether our public school system is good or not. They don't give two shits about the students, either. They are too concerned with running the school system like a business and scoring political points. (Google anything recent about Texas schools, for example.)

Teaching to the test is not teaching. Holding school funds hostage to ever-increasing standardized test scores isn't teaching either. It's typical small-minded, non-caring corporate "motivational" horseshit.

Teachers, like any other group, consist of both good and bad performers. But, good or bad, they've been made the whipping horse for a lot of things absolutely beyond their control. Obama, unfortunately, appears to offer more of the same "reform" that's brought us here.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 5:10 PM on May 22, 2010 [6 favorites]


Here's my 7 point dream, from the "inside" (in Canada, but the analogs are all there):
1 - Teacher's should have a "college" a la MDs, lawyers, engineers, etc. Yes, the "union" or whatever you call it (up here, I'm a member of an "association" but it acts just like a union) should be abolished. It is an obstacle to effective teacher evaluation and, when necessary, removal. Today, it aids and abets incompetence.
2 - Education Faculties must also be abolished. Teachers should rise out of the more "pure" disciplines as mathematicians, scientists, historians, literary critics, writers, etc. They should want to teach. They should work in classrooms with master teachers for a year in order to gain a probationary certificate.
3 - Teachers should be paid in such a manner that a potential engineer, or doctor, or lawyer, would feel it worth her/his while to try it.
4 - Elementary school teachers should be just as competent in the subject area, as they are in dealing compassionately with children ages 5 to 12. To that end, they should be the highest paid teachers.
5 - Test scores do not necessarily measure teacher competence, but measuring competence is an important piece of this problem. If teachers are competent (see above), they should be the ones to determine the tools to measure competence.
6 - School principals should rise from the ranks (as chosen by their colleagues, not by school boards), and should have full power to evaluate, probate, and terminate teachers.
7 - Every school should run autonomously, though curriculum may be set at a more regional level.
posted by kneecapped at 5:29 PM on May 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


This part jumped out at me:

[The] bill he sponsored in February that not only ties student test scores back to teachers but also names the educational institutions that trained the teachers, so that education schools, too, would be held accountable.

What if all states decided to do this? Would anyone object to such a proposal?
posted by el io at 5:37 PM on May 22, 2010


What if all states decided to do this? Would anyone object to such a proposal?

I would; see my comment above.
posted by deliquescent at 6:03 PM on May 22, 2010


deliquescent: I was referring to the practice of attempting to track where poorly performing teachers are being taught (assuming any sort of teacher evaluation).
posted by el io at 6:11 PM on May 22, 2010


joe lisboa : Adjunct teaching cannot be considered a career. That's just academia saying "you'll never be one of us, but we'll profit form your labor while you figure out what your doing with your life."

Imho, adjunct positions should effectively be outlawed by restricting federal grants, especially NSF grants, to institutions whose hiring practices prevent long term employment as adjuncts. A British lecturer, French MdC, or German assistant is expected to to research, even if they'll never make professor.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:12 PM on May 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Are teacher's unions the enemy of reform?

As the husband of a Union teacher (and the son of a recently laid-off 64-year-old non-union parochial school teacher) I say...NO!
posted by jonmc at 6:12 PM on May 22, 2010


Some issues on the framing of this debate.

First, the logic of the market -- which includes worker competition and quantitative assessment, and punitive firing -- is always pressing up against every field of society and trying to absorb into itself anything it hasn't yet devoured. So if there is a place in the world where this logic is not yet operative, or where it has been previously expelled through successful organising, the people who try to defend that area will always appear as "enemies of reform".

Secondly, and this is hard for people who aren't from a trade union background or who entered trade unions as an educated professional: solidarity means solidarity even with people you don't like; in fact, it means solidarity even with people who do a really bad job. You don't build a movement by making someone take a standardised test before you decide whether to support their right to work, and once you start allowing yourself to identify with management in the firing of slackers, you are splitting the only force able to withstand the logic of the market and leaving yourself helpless in its face, too. If you think making schools a free-fire zone will improve teacher skills and that humans flourish and develop their capacities best under constant assessment and surveillance to see if they still deserve to have a job, then I release you from the political left and you may run free in the fields and meadows of Libertaria. If you don't believe this, then you have to ask yourself where your next generation of good teachers are going to come from.

Thirdly, some have asked what's in it for Obama to bust public sector unions. There are two answers: the personal answer about Obama, and the structural answer for why it's so important for the economy that Obama be allowed to do this. Obama seems to be a typically right-wing economic Democrat, who favours the kind of "smartness" that emerges from thinktanks, and who still views marketisation as a smart and imaginative mode of reform, even after everything. As a guy who has grown up in an ideological environment that venerates markets, he, like Tony Blair, identifies with the needs of capital even where there's no capital in play, and tries to create market-like structures where they don't and shouldn't exist.

Structurally, though, if a fight can be picked with the unionised teachers, and the teachers can have their back broken -- there are people on this thread suggesting the unions should be banned! -- then the whole education infrastructure is finally laid open. If the unions can really be paralysed, and someone needs to pay for another bailout, then you can start firing, cutting back, closing down, and selling off throughout the whole education system and there will be nobody to resist it. Right-wing thinktanks will applaud the smartness and toughness of whoever's doing it, and the unions will have been discredited and destroyed, possibly by a Democrat. Parents might complain, but what are parents? It's not like they can go on strike.
posted by stammer at 6:13 PM on May 22, 2010 [18 favorites]


"and I'll grant that the idea that something must be measurable to be valuable is just dumber than a crate of crowbars"

I think the actual point is that anything valuable CAN BE measurable. It is just a matter of figuring out how.
posted by gjc at 6:22 PM on May 22, 2010


only teaching upper-middle-class students the niceties of prose and poetry, well, sorry, low-socio-economic kids

One of the most eye-opening experiences of my youth was being on the debate team, and traveling to other High Schools around Pittsburgh for tournaments. Some of the more urban schools were so unbelievably decrepit. Maybe five really great teachers made me possible. I can't imagine any of them in some of those places.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:25 PM on May 22, 2010


I'll further grant that you're right, and that I agree with you. However, as you said, the metric is two decades in the realization. A one-off test to measure a lifetime of work or the potential that is realized many years down the road is the sort of solution that comes out of third tier business schools and technocracy-by-morons. However, I maintain that something need not be measurable to have value.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 6:32 PM on May 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Re: teachers' pay - based on some googling, it looks like the average teacher's pay nationwide is around $50k, ranging from (on average) the low 30s in South Dakota to the low 60s in California. Of course this doesn't address the county-by-county variations that result from tying school funding to property taxes. I'm not commenting on whether this is appropriate pay or not, just wanted to put the actual numbers out there.
posted by naoko at 6:46 PM on May 22, 2010


Where on earth is the incentive to destroy public education AND bust unions all at the same time?

The religious right condemns public education and its supporters as pro-gay, pro-evolution and pro-tolerance of diversity and education rights. The Republican party despises the teacher unions as pro-democratic. I was surprised by the question actually.
posted by Brian B. at 6:49 PM on May 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Not exactly on point, but I think about this every time the topic of public education/bad teachers/unions comes up.

Several years ago I was taking a geography class which was part of the general education units everyone had to complete, regardless of degree. There were several women in the class who were education majors.

The professor of this class made it perfectly and completely clear from the beginning that on tests, spelling counted. So if there was a question like "What's the capital of Argentina?" the only acceptable answer was 'Buenos Aires'. Not 'Bunos Ares', Bwenos Aireys, or etc.

So during a break one night after getting a test back, I go outside, and a couple of these education majors are out there. Bitching about the fact that they got points taken off for misspelled words on the test. One of them even said, "He KNEW what I meant. What difference does it make if I spelled it right?"

I know that she is not necessarily representative of prospective or current teachers. But why would someone like this even be in an education program?

Everyone talks about how important teaching is. But there's zero barrier to entry. We make lawyers and doctors go to special schools that they have to demonstrate an aptitude for before they're admitted. Why not teachers?
posted by Bourbonesque at 6:51 PM on May 22, 2010 [5 favorites]


Disgustingly stupid.

I mean, I think we've all known for a while Obama is a conservative at heart. But it still hurts to see this union-busting, poor-kid-hating, leftover-Reagan-ass bullshit coming from him.
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:24 PM on May 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


First post! Yay!

I don't live in the US, so I'm obviously not that familiar with its educational system. However, I do know that the system we have here in Norway is trending in the same direction. We, too, are plagued by standardised tests, bad education for educators and stupid politicians (with regards to the latter, who isn't?). A school is no longer a school; it's a learning factory, and it produces results. Teachers aren't teachers, they're result-makers. Schools are funded per student, regardless of the individual student's needs, and whenever there is talk of reform, whenever there's a new curriculum to be made, whenever we're trying to fix things, the last person they ask is the teacher. The ones who sit in a classroom day in and day out, trying to actually teach these children, they are never consulted.

My mother is a primary school teacher. She teaches 1st-4th grade. My mother is absolutely brilliant, and if she'd been my teacher rather than my mother when I was growing up I would likely have been far better at math than I am now (as it is, I barely passed in upper secondary school). She, as most teachers, thinks the standardised tests are bollocks.

When they introduced standardised tests here, I was in upper secondary school. I boycotted one and went off to have a demonstration instead. (It was a poorly planned demonstration, and only five people turned up, but it was a demonstration none the less!)

Good teachers do matter. It is vastly important that the people who are hired to teach the future generations know what they're doing, that they're passionate and that they care. If teachers unions in the US truly believe that teachers should be immune to the possibility of termination, no matter how shoddy a job they're doing, then they have it wrong. But unions are important, too. Someone else mentioned solidarity. Solidarity is the cornerstone of community, the essence of a functioning society. Once you break that down, everything will go to hell, guaranteed.

Not quite sure where I'm going with this anymore. I had so many great thoughts when I started reading, but now I just feel like I'm repeating what everyone else has been saying. Might just be cause it's late. As far as first posts go, this isn't as good as it could have been. This is kind of a new format for me, what with the lack of trolls and the on-topic atmosphere, but I'll get into it eventually. :)
posted by MaiaMadness at 7:25 PM on May 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


[The] bill he sponsored in February that not only ties student test scores back to teachers but also names the educational institutions that trained the teachers, so that education schools, too, would be held accountable.

What if all states decided to do this? Would anyone object to such a proposal?


Yes. Sane people.
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:25 PM on May 22, 2010


Well, if only exotic dancers had a decent trade-union, then all of the fuss on that other thread could have been avoided.
posted by ovvl at 7:32 PM on May 22, 2010


stammer: "Structurally, though, if a fight can be picked with the unionised teachers, and the teachers can have their back broken -- there are people on this thread suggesting the unions should be banned! -- then the whole education infrastructure is finally laid open. If the unions can really be paralysed, and someone needs to pay for another bailout, then you can start firing, cutting back, closing down, and selling off throughout the whole education system and there will be nobody to resist it."

This point is at least somewhat refuted by the fact that the Department of Ed has a larger budget under this President than any other in history.

Just to be clear, education reform isn't exclusively a right wing think tank enterprise. Among the groups against seniority based layoffs in education: Children's Defense Fund, the Education Equality Project (co-chaired by Al Sharpton) and the Citizen's Commission on Civil Rights. Arne Duncan routinely gets warm receptions at NAACP and National Council of La Raza events, arguably better than he's recieved anywhere else.

Quite frankly, its astounding to me to hear stammer sound the alarm to demand mediocrity in education. Nobody should ever get fired to make a stock price go up, or because they wouldn't have sex with their boss or because they said something controversial in a classroom. No one is suggesting dismantling the essential role of unions in preventing those abuses. But nobody should get fired just because they're young and don't have tenure either.

Research routinely shows again and again that the poorest minority kids end up with the worst teachers. Education is a civil rights issue, and protecting mediocrity in teaching is ultimately consigning a group of kids to get a worse education because of where they live.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 7:46 PM on May 22, 2010 [4 favorites]


pwnguin : I've seen big state schools that hire numerous adjuncts across all sciences, sure no top tier school would use many adjuncts, but yes this happens.

I'll just reiterate that if you are teaching as an adjunct then your academic career has ended, you're life will improve dramatically the sooner you move on. In fact, there are actually pools of people with theoretically prestigious postdocs that'll never get real academic jobs.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:22 PM on May 22, 2010


Texas Ed. Board Updates Curriculum: Thomas Jefferson's Back!
posted by homunculus at 8:43 PM on May 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


When ...

• All firefighter unions in the country are eliminated, and length of service and years of training and experience are no longer the determinant of which station and to what shift and what truck/position they are assigned; when firefighters are terminated if their metropolitan statistical area experiences a number of house fires above an arbitrary level set by fire insurance industry executives serving terms as federal Bureau of Fire Fighting Excellence political appointees; and when all fire stations in an MSA which don't meet those federal standards are closed and sold to corporate units of companies like Halliburton, which will receive tax dollars to run them for a profit and staff them with minimum wage temps …

• All police officer/highway patrol/sheriff's department unions in the country are eliminated, and length of service and years of training and experience are no longer the determinant of which station and to what shift, and what duty they are assigned; when policemen and women are terminated if their metropolitan statistical area experiences a number of burglaries, vandalism, theft, and murder above an arbitrary level set by security and prison industry executives serving terms as Federal Bureau of Investigation political appointees; and when all police stations in an MSA which don't meet those federal standards are closed and sold to corporate units of companies like Wackenhut and Brinks, which will receive tax dollars to run them for profit and staff them with minimum wage temps ...

• All nurses unions in the country are eliminated, and length of service and years of training and experience are no longer the determinant of which hospital/floor, specialty and to what shift they are assigned; when nurses are terminated if all the hospitals in their metropolitan statistical area fail to curb deaths due to preventable infections above an arbitrary level set by healthcare industry executives serving terms as Department of Health and Human Services political appointees; and when all hospitals in an MSA which don't meet those federal standards are closed and sold to corporate units of companies like HCA, Blue Cross, and Aetna (oh, wait …), which will receive tax dollars and run them for profit and staff them with minimum wage temps ...

• All state department of transportation-related unions in the country are eliminated, and years of training and experience are no longer the determinant of where everyone from highway engineers to roadside cleanup crews are assigned; when transportation workers are terminated if their state experiences a number of traffic jams, potholes, and number of structurally deficient bridges above an arbitrary level set by concrete, steel and asphalt industry executives appointed as Federal Department of Transportation political appointees; and when all transportation departments of states which do not meet those federal standards are closed and sold to corporate units of companies like Dolese and KBR, which will receive tax dollars and run them for profit and staff them with minimum wage temps …

… then, and only then, will people begin to understand the insanity of turning over any of the central bedrock institutions of our democracy and the social compact (particularly our public education system) to for-profit corporate interests. And when we get away from narrow, right vs. left, Democrat vs. Republican thinking and realize that the fight is not amongst ourselves, it's against huge, well-funded, extremely wealthy interests out to loot the largest slice of public money that all 50 states currently dole out of their budgets, then we'll begin to understand what's at stake here.

Where we teachers have failed is in fully educating the citizens of this democracy (including apparently a number of posters here) about this insanity, in not driving home the lessons and warnings of our past elected leaders from Washington to Lincoln to the Roosevelts to Eisenhower about the extreme threat posed by profit-above-all-else-type thinkers. (And yes, I am a teacher; couldn't you tell? The union made me post this.)

I'd write more, but I'm in Tennessee, which "won" the Race to the Top. Since whether I'll be able to continue a 20-plus-year professional career as a public school teacher and supporter is now mostly dependent on how random seven-year-olds assigned to me in the future will fill in the bubbles on a corporate for-profit test produced by nameless, faceless and unaccountable academics elsewhere, I need to spend more time brushing up on how to make sure my fellow citizens' children test well and less time on worrying about educating them. Also, less time surfing the web and reading odious things like that link.

(By the way … a one-sided screed written by a clueless outsider advancing a narrow corporate agenda … that's your "Best of the Web"? Really, Metafilter?)
posted by AirBeagle at 8:59 PM on May 22, 2010 [41 favorites]


Do governments stand to gain money by "union-busting" teacher's unions?

In my particular district, the teacher's union is angling for a 2.75 percent raise the first year of their new contract, and unspecified raises the following two years.
This in the face of a 21 million dollar budget shortfall and an unknown, but likely larger, budget shortfall next year.

So, yeah, I'd say there's some money in "busting" the teacher's union.
posted by madajb at 9:46 PM on May 22, 2010


I'm not sure why teaching is such a mysterious profession. After all, we've all had teachers before. Nevertheless, I have seen many altruistic people come in from the business realm to tackle the world of high school on "fast-track" programs. Some of them are still teaching, and teaching well. Some of them had a nervous breakdown in their first week. The psychodynamics of being the only grownup in the room are pretty intense. It takes more than a few years to master the art of classroom management. Knowing the subject is an obvious prerequisite. Knowing how to master the art of caring about 175 students a day (in secondary school) is equally important, but not quite testable.

Have you had teachers who have changed your life? Was it reflected on the bubbled and normed standardized tests you took at the time?

I do not feel significantly underpaid (although I make less than 60K a year, with an MA and 25 years of experience), but something feels wrong when two civil servants (my partner is a public defender, making about the same salary with more education than I) are worried about putting a single child through college.
posted by kozad at 9:54 PM on May 22, 2010 [5 favorites]


The argument about teacher metrics seems odd to me, and all I ever read is that teaching to the test is bad. What are the barriers to developing tests that are given at the start and end of every school year? I can see how doing it once a year would antagonize unions -- it place teachers in opposition where one side wants a high exit score and the other side wants a low entrance score. But it would be nice if someone could educate me on why the tests themselves are unreliable as is often impugned.

If you're interested in reading more about this, Diane Ravitch talks quite a bit about it in her latest book, The Death and Life of the American School System. She was a big proponent of choice and standards, and says in the book that she just couldn't see any reason why anybody would object to tests that just asked kids to demonstrate what they'd learned from a well-designed curriculum. Poor woman has been very disillusioned. I wrote a little bit about the book on my blog earlier this week, touching a tiny bit on some of the testing issues.

One of the problems with any kind of testing that is linked to rewards or sanctions (whether at the school level, as with NCLB, or at the level of the individual teacher) is that they will simply beg to be gamed. States watered down their standards of adequacy and proficiency in order to meet Adequate Yearly Progress under NCLB; Ravitch mentions one state where getting (IIRC) 17% correct on one of the reading tests was considered a passing grade. Cheating has also become rife in many places.

The same thing is likely to happen if teacher compensation is tied to testing. I'd love to see merit pay for teachers, in theory, because I'd like to see good teachers so well rewarded for what they will do that they will never ever leave, and bad teachers driven out by poor pay or otherwise more easily gotten rid of. I don't know if it's possible in the real world, but even if it is, tying it to high-stakes testing seems like a terrible idea. Individual teachers will find ways to cheat, both blatant and subtle; I remember reading an article about beginning-and-end-of-year testing, that talked about teachers doing things like administering the beginning-of-year tests right before lunch, and telling students, "You can go outside to play as soon as you're done!" And then giving the end-of-year tests to kids who were well-fed and encouraged to take their time.

Ravitch's book introduced me to the idea of Campbell's Law, which has been around since the 1970s. It was formulated by a sociologist and basically says that if a quantitative measure is used for evaluation and decision-making, it will tend to distort the very system it's trying to measure.
posted by not that girl at 9:54 PM on May 22, 2010 [6 favorites]


I'll just reiterate that if you are teaching as an adjunct then your academic career has ended, you're life will improve dramatically the sooner you move on. In fact, there are actually pools of people with theoretically prestigious postdocs that'll never get real academic jobs.

None of your perceived academic snootiness (quote-unquote real academic jobs? really?) addresses the basic economic realities I posited in my initial comment. The fact that you ignore them and shift to the personal speaks volumes. This is not your fault, of course, but you are not helping matters. There are students to be taught and that is my job, not churning out bullshit quote-unquote research in the interest of moving up some hypothetical totem pole in some department. Other MeFites have put it more eloquently than I in the past, but the sooner we accept that quote-unquote academics are often the worst educators around (i.e., the sooner we are willing to separate the pedagogical from the research-oriented tasks of college employees, and the bona fide educators from the mere researchers) the better.

But thanks for letting me know my quote academic career has ended unquote. No shit, sherlock. That is only further evidence that the system is fucked up. But whatever. I should just stop adjuncting and let the kids teach themselves, right? Whatever.
posted by joe lisboa at 10:41 PM on May 22, 2010 [4 favorites]


Teachers: Eyes on the ball, not on the scoreboard. The scoreboard takes care of itself.

Although I appreciate mhoye's point at approx comment #10.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 11:10 PM on May 22, 2010


I never meant to point at adjuncts and yell "scabs!", just emphatically stating that adjunct teaching isn't a career. We've all seen people waste years of their lives teaching as adjuncts when they should instead become a professor at a lesser institution, a high school teacher, or simply move into industry. We'd all benefit if those adjunct positions are eliminated in favor of more professorships and permanent instructorships with benefits.

I've seen significantly more bad lecturing form adjuncts than from professors over the years, also the productive researchers are normally not among the worst lecturers. In fact, I'd say both the best and the worst lecturers are usually among the professors who've mostly stopped research and the permanent instructors.

There are numerous good reasons for researchers teaching upper level courses, aside from simply lecturing quality. Who wants to learn quantum mechanics or computational complexity theory from someone who's never gone much further? You know, we expect that high school teachers have a university degree and a master's in education.

In Britain, there are courses called A-levels whose material parallels U.S. AP courses, except they don't award collage credit. Instead, university admissions are contingent upon A-level marks. So, for example, students might be told their admission is contingent upon receiving an A in the calculous A-level exam, and an A or B on two other A-levels.

I've seen U.S. universities seriously consider adopting a similar system : AP courses would no longer granted credit, but instead any students lacing requisite AP level material must take remedial classes for elective or no credit. In this way, universities could push more basic courses back to high school where they really belong.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:42 AM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


What frustrates me about this whole discussion is that it tends to completely ignore both the history and the philosophy of education. Which is ironic, given the subject matter.

I think teachers unions' really are a huge obstacle to reform and good education in this country for all the standard incumbent-friendly, pull-up-the-ladder, conflict-of-interest reasons...

...but I also think standardized tests, which do a huge amount of work in most teachers'-union-busting rhetoric, are not a step in the right direction.

One can know a lot of things without being educated, and the ability to temporarily regurgitate a series of facts is not the same thing as 1) actually knowing them, or 2) being able to fit them together in a coherent picture which serves as the basis for one's intellectual life. Indeed, it's not even the same thing as having an intellectual life.

In short, education is about the inculcation of virtue, which is a philosophical problem as old as Plato. Virtue is the point, but the answer to whether virtue can be taught seems to be "Sorta. Sometimes. If you're lucky." And no one has ever figured out how to do it with any kind of reproducible results.

The current educational system and with its emphasis on testing can be traced to the modern period, where it was thought that the problem of teaching virtue could be overcome through "scientific" methods. Teaching was previously considered something of an art without rigorous structure. This is why places like Oxford look drastically disorganized by American standards: teachers and students are basically left to work a lot of this stuff out themselves, and the process of learning and the mere exposure to and interaction with great minds was and is the point of the exercise. Well obviously that kind of model doesn't scale very well. So if you want to have a public education system, you need an educational model which anyone, not just rarified intellectuals, can engage. The result was the creation of education as a distinct discipline--the first education department was founded in the 1700s--as opposed to a natural consequence of mastering a substantive discipline.

But you see this sort of thing everywhere you look: Western culture has been engaged in a process of replacing discretion with algorithm for over a century. Physicians are increasingly taught to rely upon protocol instead of judgment in diagnosing and treating disease. Lawyers are increasingly unhappy with legal education's emphasis on theory, favoring purely practical education on how to file motions, etc. Insurance underwriters don't want to use their discretion and judgment to evaluate risk, they want a checklist of insurance characteristics. Police officers can no longer make a judgment call and tell troublemakers to move along before a crime is committed, they have to wait until something bad actually happens. And teachers aren't permitted to engage with their students in the messy and disorganized process of belonging to an intellectual community, they're held to standardized tests.

The thing of it is, the motivation behind this move is actually a very needed corrective to two problems if the pre-modern period. First, discretion can be and is abused. The entire jurisprudence of due process, which has erected immense procedural hurdles to law enforcement, was designed to prevent arbitrary and discriminatory actions by state actors. And those things were happening! But, for example, we're starting to see that the cost of this is that police officers no longer engage with their community as beat cops, they simply look to their checklist and beat yo' ass if you step out of line. True, you know exactly what to expect, but we've lost something now that cops are no longer able to say "Hey, buddy, I think we're done here. Why don't you go along home?" When we no longer trust institutions or professions to Do The Right Thing, we need some standard to hold them to which isn't dependent upon what the authorities say.

Second, the transition to empirically-based methodology has seen a drastic improvement in our quality of life. Life expectancies are way up. Deaths and illnesses from preventable disease are way down. Midwives had been delivering babies in more-or-less the same way since the dawn of history, but when empirical medicine led by university-trained physicians was let into the birthing room, deaths from childbirth dropped dramatically from 1% to 0.01%.* Only now we're starting to see push back against what is starting to be considered a hostile, sterile environment for the beginning of a new life.** Just because there's an art to something doesn't mean that there isn't a science to it too.

So while this modernizing move may have been necessary, all that seems to have been done is trade one set of problems for another. By adopting "scientific" educational techniques, we've gained the ability to "educate" millions of children--clearly an indispensable feature in a modern society--but we may have lost the ability to truly "educate" any of them in the same way that education worked in times past.

The upshot of this entire discussion is that it may be impossible to have a national education system which produces the sort of liberally-trained people that we stereotypically associate with college graduates. Indeed, the vast majority of college graduates I know have only slightly broader perspectives than high school dropouts, especially if those graduates went to community colleges or for-profit schools. But it does seem to be possible to have a national training system where everyone learns the basic skills of how to survive in the modern world and get a job which will feed you.

Unfortunately, that tends to produce a deeply anti-egalitarian system which most Americans aren't going to accept, i.e. at a very early age, those children deemed capable of higher education are routed into the college prep track while those that aren't are sent to trade school.*** I'm not terribly happy with the idea myself. But I think a lot of the disagreement in these discussions turns on this deeper issue, the question of virtue and its propagation, than about unions as such. But I really wish that we could talk about what we think education is supposed to be before we talk about how it's supposed to work.

*Yes, it took a little while for this to happen, but happen it did.

**How much of this is helicopter hippie mommies perpetuating an unscientific, superstitious mindset is left as an exercise for the reader, but there's really something to the idea that it's possible to have a safe, sanitary birth without racking up $15,000 in medical bills.

***Hi there, Germany!

posted by valkyryn at 5:56 AM on May 23, 2010 [9 favorites]


Just a little story:

I teach a hard science in a department of two. I have the Honors and AP classes, my coworker has the...ummm....less than Honors classes (getting some of the kids to bother to show up is a struggle, much less educating them; others are bright enough for Honors and AP, but just don't want the added pressure). Not only will my students always score better on any test, they will always improve more on any test, because they're also just better at learning.

He says he couldn't do my job effectively, and I know I couldn't do his. I'd be interested to see any metric that even does a good job of measuring our respective performances...within the same subject in the same school. You know, other than the actual evaluations we already get three times a year by the administration; they're not perfect, but if you have good admins they at least reflect some level of reality.

I could go into the quality of the tests themselves (outright errors, poor wording, outright trivia included as testable material, nobody "accountable" for the test quality), but it would just angry up my blood.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 6:03 AM on May 23, 2010 [7 favorites]


The discussion about teachers' unions takes place as if, bluntly, there had never been circumstances that created the unions. The central idea behind the way the teachers' unions operate is that teachers who've proven themselves become difficult to remove. Why do that? So that experienced educators who expect more salary aren't routinely let go in favor of new, cheaper employees. That's it. The increasing charterization of schools (which hasn't even appeared in this thread except once) is going to be a clusterf*ck of epic proportions as people remember why for-profit education doesn't work. Teachers' unions are really the least of the problems, and the relentless scapegoating is all about money.

The current push is to turn teachers into test prep instructors and babysitters, and pay them as little as possible. Unions are an obstacle to this, but it isn't reform. An actual reform of the educational system would need to start with figuring out how to fund equal access to quality education for every student, and go from there. But that's not what the people pushing the "bad teachers" angle and standardized testing are interested in. They want cheap teachers working at corporate schools that siphon off funds to for-profit corporations, eventually. If you think that's great, then keep attacking the unions.
posted by graymouser at 6:44 AM on May 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


It's just occurred to me that there's a sort of double standard in the whole public school debate. At the same time as politicians to a greater and greater extent treat schools as corporations "producing" educated children, they get more and more involved in HOW this is to be done. The public doesn't trust the schools or the teachers; EVERYONE wants a say in this debate, whether they have kids or not, whether they know anything about teaching, education or child-rearing, everyone wants a piece of it. Politicians don't tell corporations how to run their business; as long as they produce results and do so in an ethical manner, everything's fine. You can't treat a school like any other business financially, and then demand that they produce their results the exact way you want.

A school is not a business; a school is an investment, and it'll pay off once the "results" have turned into productive, tax-paying members of society. Same with hospitals, really; making ridiculous amounts money off education and health care is completely unethical, IMO.

Did that make sense?
posted by MaiaMadness at 6:57 AM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


The problem is not so much with the teachers but with the parents.

I get annoyed with the educators who point the finger at parents for not being involved enough. My daughter's first grade class generates a staggering amount of pointless bullshit that we're expected to keep up with. There's the homework (the same spelling worksheets week after week), the reading log, the other reading log, the "voluntary" homework, the appreciation days and parties and whatnot organized by the room mom. I think teachers just don't realize how much of school they're spilling over into our family time with homework, etc. Or they think their assignments are so important that they should take precedence over every other activity.

All of this nonsense does nothing to enhance my daughter's education. All of this is a long, somewhat ranty way of saying that it makes no sense to leave the reform of the education system to the same people that brought you the system.

Someone needs to stay home and manage the kids as they grow up...
We have only one child because both my husband and I have and very much want to keep our interesting and sometimes demanding careers. We work not because we want a bunch of stuff, but because we want to be challenged and we want to keep growing and learning throughout our lives. The measure of whether you are a good parent has nothing to do with whether you work, or whether you complete all the silly tasks the school sends home.
posted by jeoc at 7:26 AM on May 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


"The current push is to turn teachers into test prep instructors and babysitters, and pay them as little as possible. "

This sucks for the educators, but if it results in more students learning reading, writing and arithmetic, then it is a win. The goal is better education, isn't it?
posted by gjc at 7:41 AM on May 23, 2010


The measure of whether you are a good parent has nothing to do with whether you work

I'm inclined to agree. And you know that when someone says "someone" needs to stay home and manage the kids, they mean the mother.

I only knew a handful of kids growing up with a stay-at-home parent. It's a completely alien concept for me. I grew up with a single mum, who worked as a teacher. Neither my friends nor I suffered from being sent to daycare as toddlers or from the after-school activities at school while we waited to get picked up. Quite the contrary.

Stay-at-home mums are very rare here in Norway. Everyone works. Either to make ends meet or, as you say, to grow and learn as people rather than sit at home with the kids all day and throw the occasional Tupperware party. I think it's even good for the kids, who learn to be independent and take care of themselves instead of constantly relying on a parent for everything.
posted by MaiaMadness at 7:43 AM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


This sucks for the educators, but if it results in more students learning reading, writing and arithmetic, then it is a win. The goal is better education, isn't it?

How can a person who is made to do everything they didn't sign up for be motivated to be a great teacher on top of it? I mean, sure, if you're teaching lower primary school, 6 to 8-year-olds, you WILL do a fair bit of babysitting, but after prepping kids for tests and breaking up fights, how will you have the energy to actually teach, especially if your wages are so low you have to work a second job just to make ends meet for your own family?
posted by MaiaMadness at 7:47 AM on May 23, 2010


One of the biggest problems here is that (at least in my mind) there is no real villain. Not that all the players are knights in shining armor, but I think it's plausible they all have good intentions. It's just that the educational system is huge and filled with bureaucracy peopled by people--intelligent, stupid, hard-working, lazy, selfish, selfless, etc, as we can be. Of course it's a clusterf*ck.

There's lots of finger-pointing between teachers and parents and government and I see how all are to blame. I wish there was real effort and focus (and maybe there is) on getting children to fall in love with reading at a very young age and giving them a way to regularly build that habit. A kid who has the ability to read can teach herself how to read at higher and higher levels, how to write, how to see the world through another person's eyes, how to form an argument, and how to think, let alone all the great factual stuff she'll learn from reading about different times and different people. But she needs to know how to read (which of course can be much harder for kids with learning problems), and to have access to books and a safe space to read them in, and most importantly she needs to want to.

My mom tutors at a school whose kids live right around the poverty line or below. She's helped them with standardized testing practice. A few of them are total whizzes at the test; some look down at the page and focus their small faces for a few minutes and then give up and start filling in the bubbles on the same letter; a few do this from the beginning. The content on these tests is in no way geared toward modern kids' lives--questions that require them to know what yarn is, or the difference between a plane and a jet, or questions based on a passage from Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" ("I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for."). My parents never sat me down and told me what yarn was, but I knew it because I read voraciously, and I was given books to read, and my house was a safe place for me to read them. Reading has been the greatest gift in my life. I wish other kids could get brainwashed the same way I was. At least then if their schools and parents fail them, they can depend on themselves.
posted by sallybrown at 8:03 AM on May 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


This sucks for the educators, but if it results in more students learning reading, writing and arithmetic, then it is a win. The goal is better education, isn't it?

Well, it's an awful big assumption that all learning being geared toward standardized testing, and moving toward a less stable, lower-paid work force will result in superior education. I don't think it will; I think the goal of the people actually involved in the present "reform" projects is to privatize education for profit. Once for-profit schools are in place, they will be putting out the minimum expenditure possible to meet the benchmarks set for them. You can believe that this will mean more students will learn the basics, but there is no basis for this belief outside of economists' fantasies.
posted by graymouser at 8:25 AM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is another divide that came out last time.

One side sees the "failure rate" of the educational enterprise as the main issue to be addressed. Standardized testing can probably measure whether a student reads at grade level, can solve basic math problems, and recalls some number of basic facts about science or history. So testing can probably tell us if teachers have pulled up students who are still at the bottom of the hierarchy of learning.

On the other hand, it may be much harder to test higher learning. Advanced topics and performance for deep understanding is more difficult to standardize and steps on teachers' ability to tailor their curriculum to their classroom. Some people might be willing to just give up on testing these; if we could get all kids to the basic level that would be nice, and then we could worry about softer metrics for upper levels.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 8:39 AM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


The content on these tests is in no way geared toward modern kids' lives--questions that require them to know what yarn is, or the difference between a plane and a jet, or questions based on a passage from Dickens' "A Christmas Carol"

Wait a minute. Are you telling me that American kids don't know what yarn is? Here, we still learn knitting and cross-stitching in school...
posted by MaiaMadness at 9:27 AM on May 23, 2010


Advanced topics and performance for deep understanding is more difficult to standardize and steps on teachers' ability to tailor their curriculum to their classroom.

I just keep wondering, whatever happened to trusting that the teacher with the education in the field knows what he's doing in marking the tests? The teacher gets a curriculum and is told, you need to teach the kids this. He does, he tests them, he marks the tests, and that's it. That's how we did it when I was a kid. What's wrong with that? If the teacher isn't doing his job properly, that will quickly be discovered by his colleagues or the parents of the kids he teaches.
posted by MaiaMadness at 9:33 AM on May 23, 2010


This sucks for the educators, but if it results in more students learning reading, writing and arithmetic, then it is a win. The goal is better education, isn't it?

How will turning teaching into a low-pay, high-turnover job result in better learning for the students? Do you really think teaching is such a low-skill job? Has this happened at private schools?
posted by dirigibleman at 9:45 AM on May 23, 2010


If the teacher isn't doing his job properly, that will quickly be discovered by his colleagues or the parents of the kids he teaches.

In an ideal world, it would happen this way. In the U.S., it often does not. Have you read the great New Yorker piece on how hard it is to remove even the very worst teachers in New York? That's just one example, from one state, and things like this happen all over the country. Katherine Boo's "Expectations" presents a little more complicated take on things, illustrating the feelings of kids at schools that are highlighted as failures. The situation is far worse than I think you imagine.

And unfortunately (fortunately?) I don't know of any public schools here that teach kids how to knit or cross-stitch.
posted by sallybrown at 9:53 AM on May 23, 2010


I think many of us stopped trusting teachers to just teach based on our experiences in school with poor teachers. Then we went to college and many of the future teachers we met confirmed our sense that these were not typically the best and brightest. Then as parents we started dealing with the teachers of our own children and again realized that many of these people just aren't that good.

We've been very lucky with our daughter so far - she's had good, dedicated, talented teachers. They give too much homework, but I think any regular homework is pointless in elementary school. But we live in an affluent area known for good schools with highly engaged parents.

As someone pointed out to me on MeMail, it is a matrix of factors that go into a good education and it is the synthesis of good parenting, good teaching, good administration and good policy that allow that to happen. Getting all those factors to line up is challenging.

If the teacher isn't doing his job properly, that will quickly be discovered by his colleagues or the parents of the kids he teaches.
Who will be totally unable to do anything about it, since he is protected by the union. Hence one of the primary arguments against teachers' unions.
posted by jeoc at 9:59 AM on May 23, 2010


Well, it's an awful big assumption that all learning being geared toward standardized testing, and moving toward a less stable, lower-paid work force will result in superior education.

The lower paid teachers isn't the goal, it simply *might* be an effect of trying to work toward a superior education for students. A lot of school districts are doing just fine, but a lot of others are failing the students left and right. These districts need to stop the bleeding. If this means some teachers need to go, then that is what has to happen.

I don't think it will; I think the goal of the people actually involved in the present "reform" projects is to privatize education for profit. Once for-profit schools are in place, they will be putting out the minimum expenditure possible to meet the benchmarks set for them. You can believe that this will mean more students will learn the basics, but there is no basis for this belief outside of economists' fantasies.

So set better benchmarks. The current system is failing too many students to be acceptable.

I'm not sure what economists' fantasies have to do with anything. If the goal is to teach students math, what's wrong with giving them math tests? If a teacher has the bad luck to get a classroom full of dullards, the testing will show this * and more resources can be given to those students. That doesn't mean the teacher has to be instantly fired, it just means that a warning bell has gone off and someone needs to figure out whether the students' lack of progress is the teacher's fault or the students' fault.

* and that's not likely, as proper testing would have already shown that these students were in need of more help, and everyone would already know that these students were in trouble and the teacher would be given a different set of goals.

The most important things in education are the basics, and the basics are measurable. That has to come first.

"I just keep wondering, whatever happened to trusting that the teacher with the education in the field knows what he's doing in marking the tests? The teacher gets a curriculum and is told, you need to teach the kids this. He does, he tests them, he marks the tests, and that's it. That's how we did it when I was a kid. What's wrong with that? If the teacher isn't doing his job properly, that will quickly be discovered by his colleagues or the parents of the kids he teaches."

Somewhere along the line, something got messed up. Teachers discovered or were taught that doing some individualizing and targeted teaching to the specific classes resulted in better performance of their students. Completely true, if done right. If you have a class that is doing well, you owe it to them to give them all they can take.

It then mistakenly became the focus of education, rather than an added benefit. Because adding onto and tailoring the curriculum improved results, the idea that classroom teachers should become the curriculum desginers took hold. To use a cooking analogy- those old-school teachers were given recipes to follow. Now they are not being given recipes and just told to come up with a final product. Some teachers have the talent to get better results this way, some don't. Some teachers got into the biz thinking they were chefs and not cooks.

How will turning teaching into a low-pay, high-turnover job result in better learning for the students? Do you really think teaching is such a low-skill job? Has this happened at private schools?

In my area, yes. The private schools pay their teachers less than the public schools, and get better results. The reasons are varied, but in many cases, it is because the teachers are more dedicated. As are the administrators. In some cases, it helps that disruptive students can be expelled, but it also helps that in private schools, they dedicate more resources to counselors and the administrators to deal with students.

Teaching isn't a low-skill job. The problem is that it is too easy for someone without the requisite skills to become a teacher and stay a teacher long enough to become entrenched and ruin the lives of the students they were meant to help.
posted by gjc at 10:28 AM on May 23, 2010


How can a person who is made to do everything they didn't sign up for be motivated to be a great teacher on top of it? I mean, sure, if you're teaching lower primary school, 6 to 8-year-olds, you WILL do a fair bit of babysitting, but after prepping kids for tests and breaking up fights, how will you have the energy to actually teach, especially if your wages are so low you have to work a second job just to make ends meet for your own family?

That IS teaching. If some teachers didn't know that's what they were signing up for, that is on them. The students shouldn't have to suffer for that.
posted by gjc at 10:31 AM on May 23, 2010


Either to make ends meet or, as you say, to grow and learn as people rather than sit at home with the kids all day and throw the occasional Tupperware party.

Yes, I stopped growing and learning as a person as soon as I became a stay-at-home mom. You have exactly put your finger on the pulse of my life. I thank you for expressing it both so succinctly and yet so accurately. Kudos!
posted by not that girl at 10:41 AM on May 23, 2010 [7 favorites]


Schools have strange dynamics where it is expected that there is a certain amount of suck: some students will be bad, unmotivated or have huge problems. Some teachers will be worse than others. Something will be broken without money to fix it. There will always be problems. However, if one of the suckitudes reaches a certain level, a downward spiral begins where the problems start to feed each others. Then teacher finds out that he doesn't have time and energy for everything he was expected to teach, then grades or expectations start to fall, then everybody feels why bother. Then it will be a bad school, where so many things are below average that fixing one doesn't help, if fixed, they soon get pulled back down by chaotic forces. Having a teacher to be one constant source of suck sounds horrible.

I don't think aiming at excellence is a good solution at these situations. Aiming at pretty good average, aiming at normalizing the situation, restoring the peace: these are maybe less inspiring , but much more achievable goals.

Finland has good schools simply because we don't have bad schools. The low achievers are pretty good and close to high achievers. Parents or the system doesn't need to instill any competition, kids do enough of it by themselves. It is a good environment for children. I don't remember having any excellent teachers, just average good or average so-and-so, but the best thing in my schools were that they were reliable, and never horrible. I think that the education that Valkyryn hails for is something that happens freeform and in unpredictable ways, when those basics are covered.

Having a system of charter schools where status quo can be sustained by kicking problem cases to the public schools sounds horribly unfair: A system to feed the chaos and to separate the good students so that the public schools, once gone bad, cannot return to normal levels.
posted by Free word order! at 10:48 AM on May 23, 2010


Free word order!: "Finland has good schools simply because we don't have bad schools."

Not quite. There are a couple of important factors here: a racially homogenous population, nearly universal pre-K, a national core curriculum and (I'd argue most importantly), a dramtically more elite teaching force. Where teachers in the US generally finish in the bottom third of their high school class, where teachers in Finland come from the top half. Admission rates to colleges of ed are around 10-12%. Pay is differentiated by demand.

As Carey points out, though, the US isn't Finland, and I can't imagine we will be anytime soon. Finland's policies would be perfect for the US if we didn't have bad schools. But we do. A lot of them.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 12:01 PM on May 23, 2010


Demand-side learning is the bright idea that education needs to meet the potential of learners and expectations of involved parents. Teachers can't become magicians who download facts into disinterested brains. They don't need to be responsible for mediocre results on standardized tests if parent involvement or IQ isn't somehow factored in. It's a government service for families, not a quality control of production. No Child Left Behind as a slogan is fake liberalism in its darkest irony. As harsh as it may sound to the cheer-breeders, we don't need to tweak education to optimize it for the supply of low quality students, because this wrongly believes that we haven't done that enough already. If conservatives love to hate public education so much, they should either stop breeding, demand a refund at the tax office (and be ready to pay the difference), shop elsewhere, and blame the pay-scale economics they otherwise put so much trust in. Conservatives are getting away with everything here.
posted by Brian B. at 1:55 PM on May 23, 2010


And unfortunately (fortunately?) I don't know of any public schools here that teach kids how to knit or cross-stitch.

Huh. Are there any mandatory art-type classes in American public schools? We had arts and crafts, which included textile work, woodwork, drawing and clay modeling, to name a few, and we had cooking classes, too.
posted by MaiaMadness at 2:06 PM on May 23, 2010


Who will be totally unable to do anything about it, since he is protected by the union. Hence one of the primary arguments against teachers' unions.

Fair enough. But in the ideal world where teachers are trusted, the teacher's union is less anal, too, I think. :)
posted by MaiaMadness at 2:09 PM on May 23, 2010


Maia, in the US, Arts are usually the first to go. My certification is in Music Ed, Ages 4-18. When I was in a classroom in the 1990's, I was responsible for all the music in two elementary schools. My biggest load during that tenure was seeing @1200 students a week (one school had enrollment of 800, the other, 400. I saw all classes once a week for 30 min and did chorus and monthly PTA programs in both schools). Now, with the budget problems, things have gotten more dire. In Ga, several metro Atlanta counties have Arts on the chopping block and Fulton County (the county that Atlanta is in) officially cut all music classes as of the board meeting last week. I did teach Art for a brief stint in a private school and I did some textile projects with my students but for the most part, Ga students may not get music or visual art anymore, at least not funded by the state. It is a true disaster, especially for those children who had their only success in Music. I had many of those kids when I taught in the public schools.
posted by pearlybob at 2:20 PM on May 23, 2010


That IS teaching. If some teachers didn't know that's what they were signing up for, that is on them. The students shouldn't have to suffer for that.

That is NOT teaching. Parents have responsibilities, too. It's the teacher's job to educate children, not raise them. If you have kids, it's your responsibility to teach them empathy, respect, and to play well with others. That is not the teacher's job. And it's not the teacher's job to make sure that the kids pass two standardised tests a year, to parrot facts they have been spoonfed, but to make sure that they actually learn and understand the subjects they're being taught. The students suffer by being forced to take stupid, pointless tests instead of learning to enjoy knowledge, being motivated to pick up books, think and do research. THAT is what hurts students.
posted by MaiaMadness at 2:21 PM on May 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yes, I stopped growing and learning as a person as soon as I became a stay-at-home mom. You have exactly put your finger on the pulse of my life. I thank you for expressing it both so succinctly and yet so accurately. Kudos!

I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend in any way. If you found happiness that way, I'm very happy for you. My point is that that isn't for everyone, and it doesn't serve the children one bit if their mum is miserable because she felt forced to give up her dreams for them. A stay-at-home parent is in no way a requirement for a happy childhood.
posted by MaiaMadness at 2:25 PM on May 23, 2010


As Carey points out, though, the US isn't Finland, and I can't imagine we will be anytime soon. Finland's policies would be perfect for the US if we didn't have bad schools. But we do. A lot of them.

My mum took her teaching education in Finland, where she's from. An MA in pedagogy, with specialisation is Music, English and Math. You are completely right that the status of teachers in Finland makes a big difference. They're not paid much more than in any other country, but it's a profession that demands respect (bit like in Japan, where "sensei" is the highest honorific and given only to teachers and doctors of medicine), they're pillars of the community. That makes all the difference.
posted by MaiaMadness at 2:46 PM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


It is a true disaster, especially for those children who had their only success in Music.

That was me. I'm good at music, art and languages, and I love to read. But I haven't got a head for numbers, and while I love science, history and social studies when I study them myself, I just can't remember facts when they're forced on me.

And music became my passion. I'm sorry that children in the US are being robbed of the opportunity to discover musical and artistic talent. That's deeply saddening.
posted by MaiaMadness at 2:54 PM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


And it's not the teacher's job to make sure that the kids pass two standardised tests a year, to parrot facts they have been spoonfed, but to make sure that they actually learn and understand the subjects they're being taught. The students suffer by being forced to take stupid, pointless tests instead of learning to enjoy knowledge, being motivated to pick up books, think and do research. THAT is what hurts students.

I think that illustrates the exact problem. "Not my job" and "tests are pointless". Hint: nobody needs test prep if they know the material.
posted by gjc at 4:11 PM on May 23, 2010


I think that illustrates the exact problem. "Not my job" and "tests are pointless". Hint: nobody needs test prep if they know the material.

Have you ever taken a standardised test? I have, and they show nothing at all with regards to actual understanding. They're multiple choice, fill-in-the-blanks, inane pieces of shit.

My mother is one of the best teachers the school she works at has ever seen, with an MA in pedagogy and over 25 years of experience in two different countries, she teaches other teachers. She is not only a great teacher, she is also fantastically intelligent. Her students are the best in the school. If I trust anyone's judgment when it comes to education, I trust hers.
posted by MaiaMadness at 4:24 PM on May 23, 2010


And I would like to clarify that tests are not pointless. Standardised tests, in the format we see them today, are.
posted by MaiaMadness at 4:24 PM on May 23, 2010


And, in case you misread my post, a teacher's job is FAR bigger than teaching for standardised tests. Forcing them to focus all their energy on that takes AWAY from them actually doing their jobs, and believe you me, many schools do, because they want to be seen as good schools.
posted by MaiaMadness at 4:26 PM on May 23, 2010


Just joined MeFi, trying not to get sucked in... but...
As a cognitive psychologists who occasionally designs tests (for my students, and for research) the tests themselves are not pointless (even the standardized tests today). What is bad is the way that they are used. Standardized tests can be important tools in the varied toolbox of teachers, but they should remain that, a tool, used by a professional skilled in their use. Current reform efforts treat these specialized tools as some sort of magical divining rod that works for everything. The tests themselves are not bad, but the way that they are used to overwhelm every other metric is bad.
To those thinking that a lot of really important stuff can't be measured, or those wondering how we test the other stuff: There are actually a fair number of tests and surveys that exist and we could give. The problem is that they are expensive, inconvenient, and often specific to a given situation, or need expertise to evaluate. The pressure on the test-designers is to make something that is cheap enough to satisfy (no offense) all the voters and parents who know nothing about how to design and interpret tests. Which is not to say that the expertise simply doesn't exist. Often the test designers give the test, but then cry foul when it is used for purposes that it wasn't designed for (see just about every test designer who hears their tests are used for firing teachers.
For those who are saying that the parents would know the difference, what about for example, my wife, who used to teach ESOL? The parents don't always know the difference, and those less likely to know the difference are actually the ones whose children need the most expertise. Ever try to teach 10 kids how to read, who speak 4 different languages, and have different levels of literacy in their native language? Now, don't act surprised when I say that most standardized tests (and even growth models) have a really hard time not identifying all of those teachers as "failing."
I could go on (and on and on). But I would mostly be rehashing Diane Ravitch, whose recent book (Death and Life of the Great American School System) everyone who has posted above should read but also her blog Bridging Differences, for a taste of the kind of logic and evidence that this debate sorely needs. Also Dan Willingham, a fellow cognitive psychologist (and colleague) whose excellent book "Why Don't Students Like School" is a very readable, but rigorous treatment of how to apply the basic science of how we learn to educational settings (what a concept!).
Finally, I went from a much-maligned DCPS to high-fallutin' Ivy, to big research Ph.D., and I can honestly say that I had great teachers and crappy teachers at every level.
posted by cogpsychprof at 7:04 PM on May 23, 2010 [4 favorites]


One last thing...
I think the traditional news media loves loves loves these reformers, and is totally ignoring the way they are decimating our school system. Michelle Rhee in DC is a classic example of a media darling who just seems terrible when you are close enough to actually know what she is doing and how she is doing it.
posted by cogpsychprof at 7:07 PM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Have you ever taken a standardised test? I have, and they show nothing at all with regards to actual understanding. They're multiple choice, fill-in-the-blanks, inane pieces of shit.

Yes, probably hundreds. And you know what? When I knew the material, they were easy. When I didn't, they weren't.

The question is, have you ever taken one? Or more specifically, looked at the detailed results of one? The results are very detailed and show exactly what concepts were understood and which ones weren't. Good tests are designed with multiple questions on the same topic to weed out guessing.

How is testing NOT the way to measure what a student knows? If the kid is supposed to know what the formula for the circumference of a circle is, ask that question. If they know the answer, they will get it right. If they don't, they won't. How is this unfair to anyone? The kid either knows it or he doesn't. If the kid doesn't know a concept well enough to pass a Really Important Test, what happens next year when they need to apply that knowledge to some other higher concept?

You say your mother is the best teacher in her school. By what measurement, if not testing?
posted by gjc at 7:48 PM on May 23, 2010


Multiple choice testing does tell us something, but it depends on the test, and depends on the kid.
If you think "you either know it or you don't" you obviously haven't taken the written portion of the california driver's license exam
Sample question: A white painted curb means:
A) Loading zone for freight or passengers.
B) Loading zone for passengers or mail only.
C) Loading zone for freight only.

Multiple choice tests (and all tests of recognition) depend on the distractors.

Other tests (free response) could measure recall, and find much lower rates of "knowing it."

Basically, human memory does not equal computer memory.
What we have in our memory actually depends on how you assess it.

That said, I think content knowledge is very important (content precedes skill) and multiple choice tests can be an acceptable way to assess content. But neither are they inane POS's or detailed results that show exactly what concepts were understood.

It is complex. Which is why you want teachers to be trained professionals, not charismatically talented mystics (a la every good Hollywood teacher).
posted by cogpsychprof at 8:41 PM on May 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


If only bankers on Wall Street were judged as harshly as teachers.
posted by rumbles at 10:17 PM on May 23, 2010 [7 favorites]



3 - Teachers should be paid in such a manner that a potential engineer, or doctor, or lawyer, would feel it worth her/his while to try it.


Ugh. No. Teaching should not be something that people can just "try" if they want to. Thoughts like this lead to things like Teach For America.You have people who have no idea what they want to do in life, have a degree in anything, decide to "try" teaching, get 6 weeks of "instruction", and are thrown into a classroom. They have no real experience, no real training, have never been in front of a group of students before, and have an INCREDIBLY low retention rate.

What the education community SHOULD look towards is something like the UTeach program. Students do a double major in secondary math/science ed and a content area. I will admit that I may be biased...I am in one of the institute members of UTeach- but the program has over an 80% retention rate after 5 years in the classroom. You teach for the first time within 6 weeks of beginning your first semester. By the end of your first year, you've been in a classroom 7 times. Teachers KNOW what they're getting into and they're fully prepared.
posted by kro at 11:50 PM on May 23, 2010


How is testing NOT the way to measure what a student knows?

I'm beginning to think that you're misunderstanding me on purpose. Please, read my posts again.

You say your mother is the best teacher in her school. By what measurement, if not testing?

She motivates her students to want to learn. Her students are happy, she is well liked, and she manages to make her students curious, interested and willing to listen.

I think you are too caught up in the measuring stick to realise that these are people we're talking about. Teachers are not some strange alien species, but human beings, and children are not result-producing machines, they're people, too. Everyone is different. We all think differently and function differently. And I understand, it's easier for people to place others into categories, but no two people are the same. The point of testing at a primary school lever should not be to weed out bad teachers, but to find out which students need different methods, which kids need extra help, and which kids could use an extra challenge.

I said in a previous post that I have no head for numbers. Whenever I sat a math test in school it was hell. But I am not stupid, and the one time my teacher let me sit a little longer, I got everything right. I just think a little differently from other people, and I need those extra minutes to make sense of the numbers on the paper in a way that computes for me.
posted by MaiaMadness at 4:25 AM on May 24, 2010


What the education community SHOULD look towards is something like the UTeach program. Students do a double major in secondary math/science ed and a content area. I will admit that I may be biased...I am in one of the institute members of UTeach- but the program has over an 80% retention rate after 5 years in the classroom. You teach for the first time within 6 weeks of beginning your first semester. By the end of your first year, you've been in a classroom 7 times. Teachers KNOW what they're getting into and they're fully prepared.

That sounds like a really good programme, actually.
posted by MaiaMadness at 4:28 AM on May 24, 2010


This is the central
Scrutinizer
The white zone
Is for loading and
Unloading only.
If you have to load or
Unload, go to the
White zone.
You’ll love it.
It’s a way of life.
This is the central
Scrutinizer
The white zone
Is for loading and
Unloading only.
If you have to load or
Unload, go to the
White zone.
You’ll love it.
It’s a way of life.
This is the central
Scrutinizer
The white zone
Is for loading and
Unloading only.
If you have to load or
Unload...

posted by caddis at 8:17 AM on May 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Double a teacher's pay if they allow a camera installed in their room.....Fixed.
posted by xjudson at 11:07 AM on May 24, 2010


It then mistakenly became the focus of education, rather than an added benefit. Because adding onto and tailoring the curriculum improved results, the idea that classroom teachers should become the curriculum desginers took hold. To use a cooking analogy- those old-school teachers were given recipes to follow. Now they are not being given recipes

gjc, I'm really curious where you're getting this impression. My observation while studying for a BA in Math Ed and student teaching was that there are plenty of people selling and evangelizing recipes as well as pedagogical schools of thought. At least, I've seen bookshelves crammed full of such material and listened to visiting dozens of visiting lecturers on the topic.

I do see that we are trying to get chefs rather than cooks, but I'm having a hard time with your position that it's a problem. Sure, it's more difficult to be a chef, and not everybody can do it as well as everyone else, but someone who doesn't have at least a little bit of that skill is going to struggle to improve over time, not to mention adapt to changing and diverse conditions.

I think that illustrates the exact problem. "Not my job" and "tests are pointless".

Tests aren't pointless, but there's been enough problems pointed out in-thread with using them as wide-scale metrics that I hope you're realizing that even relying on tests as metrics for students -- let alone teachers -- isn't as simple as it appears.

As for the "not my job" comment MaiaMadness made, what's your precise objection? The idea that parents share responsibility for the quality of education with teachers and should be the people primarily responsible for managing a child's socialization doesn't seem particularly strange to me.
posted by weston at 12:09 PM on May 24, 2010


Is the New York Times leading the witness? DISCUSS...
posted by willie11 at 8:05 PM on May 24, 2010


The point of testing at a primary school lever should not be to weed out bad teachers, but to find out which students need different methods, which kids need extra help, and which kids could use an extra challenge.

Ps, This.

I get what you are saying MaiaMadness; and I like it.

School isn't about how we can 'trick' a student, and make them 'slip up', or to test the students ability to WRITE FAST... A 'quiz' can be so tricky that it is nearly impossible to "figure out"... this isn't necessarily making a better student... whereas asking a simpler question, but giving more time to create a full response... this is good. (or not; but as you, and cogpsychprof who is also saying things I like.. we need many methods of collecting data, and analyzing 'What is Good for Who', because there ARE multiple frameworks and methods by which a student will 'absorb' or attain an understanding.)
Sure; don't use these to hire/fire teachers... teachers always seem to be putting themselves up as the FIRST line, and the TRUE wisdom makers, and the ultimate educators, it seems to be all about the teachers, can't fire them, can't criticize them, can't talk about them, can't make strategies for utilizing them... yes, they ARE responsible for leading 'we' camels to water... but they are NOT the ones who will 'decide' if 'we' will drink or not.
A teacher is one who leads a learner to knowledge; whether or not that student will utilize or implement that knowledge is TOTALLY on the student. (I love teachers; please don't read this as a simple statement, or basic 'teacher hating' of course I see the value of good educators, and recognize that there are many out there, only I want to point out whose head the actual process of 'learning' occurs within [the students]).

Many students will fall down with the "tricky" question; yet FULLY 'get' the underlying concepts being targeted for learning.

This is a disservice to that student, and their potential.
Also, this student will likely say F@$# this (if only to self) after a series of 60's where a 70 may have been indicated. (races for numbers seem to be trouble... and make teachers have to be "fair" in the distribution of grades; despite objective standards for each students' "success" being different.

This is not engendering a passion for inquiry... it is turning a potential leader into a 'failure'.
(note to people studying learning; we eternal failures see "fail"; and believe it, ingrain it, memorize it... learn it.)
I hope you're realizing that even relying on tests as metrics for students -- let alone teachers -- isn't as simple as it appears.
But y'know what? School goes on every day, students ARE tested, students ARE expected to do, or perform, and ARE expected to do, perform and acheive WITHIN a set and defined framework, with set rules, and 'regulations'... Time limits, in noisy classrooms, with a writing tool, on a piece of paper, with proper English spelling, with grammar that is defined.... there already exists this framework, what MaiaMadness is discussing is an UpGrayyeding of these metric standards and 'rules'; what made a "great student of 50-100 years ago is NOT the same thing that makes a great student today. -- yet changes that are being tested and examined by education researchers are not really trickling down very swiftly.

Seriously, If student A will get 1.5 percent higher grade in a solitary room... Why not?
If student B will get 2 percent higher grade than a 50 by "verbally answering"... Why not?
If student C can get 2 percent higher than their perennial average of 62 by typing their answers... Why on earth not?
The GOAL is to get a person as far "ahead" as humanly possible within an age range.
I feel sometimes this is lost in a rush to say; ah, but don't dare CODDLE that child... or they will grow up HELPLESS.

No, they will grow up as they grow up; but they may have 1.5 % of an ounce more SELF CONFIDENCE.
posted by infinite intimation at 5:21 PM on May 27, 2010


On the other hand, unions sometimes really do seem to go the extra mile to protect a few people who shouldn't be there and freeze the status quo.

I'm pretty sure destroying the unions is NOT the answer...


I agree, but have seen unions perform that dysfunction in a number of settings. As someone who believes unions have done and can do great things to improve the lot of workers, I'm not sure how to provide incentives for them to improve the field. They seem to have been reduced to acting as lawyers for whichever workers are facing discipline, as they have been unsuccessful lately in increasing salaries or numbers of jobs. As their only benefit, they become more and more vociferous and tenacious about trying to prevent any discipline from being administered to any represented employee.

I look at the professions of lawyer and physician and see they have boards that actually take action occasionally to remove a member from practice based on violating expressed standards. I'm not sure any teacher's union does this, but if it did, it would create an entirely different impression about it as a professional union. What incentive do lawyers and physicians have, beyond much higher incomes and being self-employed, that teachers don't? Or are those the answers?
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:46 AM on May 28, 2010


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