Jumping into the school reform debate

October 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’ve been reading a lot of the responses over the past week to the Rhee et. al manifesto published in the Washington Post on Sunday. This followed a week of comments about “Waiting for Superman” and the discussion about the one-sided Oprah show on education.

It seems like Rhee is getting a lot of press, but in this day of open content, the backlash is receiving little attention in the press. I’d like to see Oprah do a show with only people who oppose the reforms that Rhee and her colleagues propose, and then a show where there is an actual debate with actual facts between the two sides.

The discussion has been started, but we need those in the media who are responsible for starting it to be responsible in continuing it.

Congratulations to the Post’s Answer Sheet for publishing the dissenting views and keeping the points in the paper balanced.

I was discussing this whole thing at length the other day with one of my colleagues, and we both agreed that the problem wasn’t that bad teachers were remaining in the classroom, it was that good teachers were leaving.  In droves.

Now, I’m by no means saying that all good teachers leave the classroom to do something else, but in a lot of cases, the people who move up in the education world are the ones who need to be in the classroom the most. The people who use the best practices and technology and are the teachers that kids want to learn from are often times the ones who move into a role as a principal, curriculum, or technology specialist.

And yes, we do need quality people to do those jobs, and many times those higher level positions can have a positive impact on many more students than they would have in an individual classroom, but imagine the impact they could make if they remained a teacher and were mentors to other teachers on their campus, or were given the time to co-teach with newer teachers, or those who were struggling? And rather than paying them in time off, or a minimal stipend, what about if we paid them the salary they would have gotten if they’d become a principal, or a curriculum specialist? That’s the kind of merit pay I can get behind. One that’s not based on test scores, but rather on the recognition that a teacher has his or her greatest impact in the classroom, not only with their own students, but by showing what they do and how they do it to other teachers.

But of course, the problem with this is that then, there would be accusations that principals and administrators played favorites. Because it would be subjective, there would always be the jealousy factor. That is what the current merit pay and evaluation system tries to avoid. By giving people a set of numbers that they can compare to other numbers, the system of determining a teacher’s “worth” is easy.

Here’s the thing, though. It’s not easy. It’s not a business where you can easily see the numbers rise and fall. This isn’t sales.

There are too many factors involved with teaching and learning to simplify everything down to a few tests and the numbers associated with them. At the end of the day, you have to look at each individual student and the progress that they’ve made. Whether they passed the test or not doesn’t mean anything if they haven’t learned, and this is what the people who signed that manifest seem to have forgotten, or never known in the first place.

The impact a teacher makes can’t be measured by the test. It’s can’t be put into numbers. Teaching is about human interaction. It is about knowing what you need to do to get your students motivated. It’s about watching and learning yourself, then changing what you do to get your students to understand.

Anyone who tries to tell you that they know the good and bad teachers by just looking at statistics doesn’t know a thing about what it means to be an educator.

So how do we fix it? There is no simple answer, but one thing is certain – it cannot, and will not ever start with politicians and people who have never spent a moment in the classroom except for their own time in the education system. It needs to come from the bottom, a grassroots campaign to remove restrictions, to show student growth in a different way. It’s going to take teachers willing to buck the system and show that students are making progress in spite of being tested to death, showing that problem solving, not fact memorization is the key to being a lifelong learner.

So…who’s going to step up and start the revolution?

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