Sunday, June 20, 2010

Are Teachers Fair Game?

An article by David Brooks, "Teachers Are Fair Game," caught my eye today. I will tell you right off the bat that I am not a fan of David Brooks, but the headline of this particular article caught my eye for a couple of reasons: 1., I had seen an article in my paper today about the reading ability of freshman in Charleston County (SC) abt which there will be more below; and 2., I had heard recently from a professor that Obama's new education plan is being seen as not much better than "No Child Left Behind." That sentiment seems to be supported by other teachers, too.

Now, let me say right upfront - I had a number of absolutely outstanding teachers during the course of my education. I had teachers who encourage, supported, believed, and pushed me to believe in myself. Their efforts helped me to rise to a high academic level. I have nothing but respect for the majority of teachers, their hard work, their care, their out of pocket expenditures for their students, and their passion for teaching. Those were the kinds of teachers I was fortunate enough to have, from first grade on up. I was fortunate to grow up in a state (NC) that had an outstanding public school system, as well as outstanding state universities.

But I know not all teachers are like the majority of the ones I had, unfortunately. And it is to that point that Brooks writes:
I started covering education reform in 1983, with the release of the “Nation at Risk” report. In those days everybody had some idea for how we should reorganize the schools or change the curriculum—cut school size, cut class size, create vouchers, create charters, get back to basics, do less basics, increase local control, increase the federal role.

Some of the reforms seemed promising, but the results were disappointing, and tangential to the core issue: the relationship between teacher and student. It is mushy to say so, but people learn from people they love.

Today, aided by the realization that teacher quality is what matters most, a new cadre of reformers have come on the scene, many of them bred within the ranks of Teach for America. These are stubborn, data-driven types with a low tolerance for bullshit. The reform environment they find themselves in is both softhearted and hardheaded. They put big emphasis on the teaching relationship, but are absolutely Patton-esque when it comes to dismantling anything that interferes with that relationship. This includes union rules that protect bad and mediocre teachers, teacher contracts that prevent us from determining which educators are good and which need help, and state and federal laws that either impede reform or dump money into the ancien régime.

Ah, and we have come to the crux of the matter - the unions:
The past few years have seen an absolute change in the correlation of forces. It used to be that a few policy wonks would write essays assailing union rules that protected mediocre teachers; these pronouncements were greeted with skepticism in the media and produced no political movement. Now powerful political players, most notably President Obama, are making such arguments. The unions feel the sand eroding under their feet. They sense their lack of legitimacy, especially within the media and the political class. They still fight to preserve their interests, but they’ve lost their moral authority, as we’ve seen in New York City, Denver, Chicago, and even Washington, D.C.

The battle is not over, not by a long shot. Although the environment for change is more fertile now than ever before, we have yet to see what it can yield. An education reformer sent me an e-mail a few months ago saying he had never been so optimistic about the state of education reform—and yet never so pessimistic about the government’s ability to solve fundamental problems.

As I was saying above - there are concerns about this new Plan of Obama's being little different from Bush's in the overall effect. And, of course, the issue of unions protecting teachers who shouldn't still be teaching (or in some cases, never allowed to start).

That brings me to the article that was in my paper on Sunday. What I didn't tell you was the full headline, particularly the subheading, which, frankly, brought me up short: Literacy Rates Show Improvement; In Charleston County, fewer incoming freshmen reading at fourth-grade level or worse. Did you catch that? High school students reading at a fourth grade level or BELOW. To me, it begs the obvious question - how in the HELL did they make it to high school??? Honestly, this just does not compute.

I might add, this is being said in a positive way. Here's more:
The Charleston County School District's new and aggressive campaign to improve students' reading already has sparked notable improvements, with the superintendent calling the gains a "great reflection of progress."

New figures show the percentage of next year's freshmen who read at a fourth-grade level or worse has dropped from 18 percent to 14 percent. Last year, nearly one in five students couldn't read better than a fourth-grader. This year, it's one in seven.

"When they came to me with these numbers, it was the best day I've had in a long time," said Superintendent Nancy McGinley. "It proves when we focus on something, we can get it done."

School officials learned about students' weak reading skills last year after The Post and Courier requested this analysis. The superintendent and school board responded by making literacy the district's top priority, and the emphasis on reading has permeated every school.

Oh, yay! But here is the take home message:
Still, while this year's results seem promising, it will take several years to know whether it's a one-year blip or part of a long-term trend. The district didn't track this information until last year.

Which begs another question: why not? Had the Post and Courier not asked them, they wouldn't have known how many of their Senior High school kids could not read the level of material for the class they were in?

But here's my favorite part:
Schools always have worked on literacy, but teachers and principals received a clear message this year that they would be accountable for students' reading skills, McGinley said. She said she thinks this year's results reflect several years of attention on the issue.

All evidence to the contrary, apparently. I am just saying, to claim they have "always worked on literacy" when such a large number of students cannot read anywhere CLOSE to a high school level, is laughable.

The good news is, though, they are going to work harder at it:
District officials made new efforts this year to promote literacy, and they plan to roll out a more expansive, intensive, multi-million-dollar plan this fall to identify and help weak readers.

The programs for struggling readers will be mandatory instead of voluntary, and the district will expand its reach to include first-graders and sixth-graders across the district. McGinley said she expects to see more progress among students as those plans take effect. (Click here to read the rest.)

I would certainly hope so.

Bear in mind, this is but one county here in SC, and holds one of the most beautiful and historic cities in the country within its confines (not that I am biased). To learn the level of literacy (or lack thereof) here is just astonishing.

Or is it? Maybe we're doing better here in Charleston County than I thought judging from this study, which has higher numbers for literacy (or illiteracy). Wow. This just blows me away.

Let me add that it isn't like I didn't know illiteracy was a problem in our country. I remember well working with prisoners and discovering they couldn't read (which meant they couldn't read the legal documents I presented to them), and being very surprised by the numbers (higher than I thought they would be). That was in MA, back in the '90's. But it was still a shock to realize how many people in this country, are reading far below the levels they need to be.

How about in your area? For the teachers in the crowd, what are the issues that get in the way of our children learning how to read and be functionally literate? What is happening in our schools that one-fifth of our students can't really read by the time they get to high school (again, how are they getting to high school???)? And what can we do to change these numbers? I look forward to your responses.


SFIndie said...

Well, I'm not a teacher, Rev, so I can't speak to the issues that teacher's face in the classroom, or what gets in the way of teaching kids to read.

But, living where I do, it would seem to me that the influx of illegal entrants who flood our school system, creating classrooms that are overcrowded, making it difficult for the best of teachers to actually teach rather than simply maintain some semblance of order, may well be part of the problem.

I've known some great teachers who gave up working in the education system because they were hindered by the poor pay, the lack of teaching materials (like books!), the deteriorating condition of the schools, the overcrowding, the lack of quality teachers, and some were just downright afraid of some of the students.

The unions did not give them the support they needed, but instead were more interested in making sure incompetent teachers could not be fired.

It's time for the unions to go away. They no longer represent their members in a fair and balanced manner (uh oh, I've been watching FOX again), they represent the union boss's need for power and control.

Anyone of any profession who does not perform their job in a competent manner is fair game. Let's start with the Bozo in the White House!

By the way, love your new picture!

Rabble Rouser Reverend Amy said...

Hey, thanks! :-)

You make some excellent points, SF. There was another article in my paper today entitled, "Failing Our Students: Exam Illustrates Literacy Hurdles." Wow. It is just amazing to me that in this country, so many of our people cannot read. Shocking.

And yes, when the unions start to protect the mediocre while leaving the good teachers unsupported, they sure need to go. It is disturbing that we lose some of our best and brightest because they are not getting the pay and support they deserve.

And what does it say abt a nation that teachers, the ones who are charged with educating our citizenry, are treated so poorly?? Again, shocking.

Great comment, SF. Thank you!

Laura said...

Stop demonizing us. We work our asses off to help our students. Why don't you judge firefighers by how quickly they respond to a fire. Let's pay them by that! Oh yeah, let's just demonize teachers who salaries end in 25 years where firefighers start. And lets pay police by the crimes they solve!
We are going to fight back!

Rabble Rouser Reverend Amy said...

Laura, I am not demonizing teachers. If you got that from what I wrote, I am afraid you missed the point.

There are lots of great teachers out there, as I clearly said. But there are lots of teachers who are not. The latter should not be allowed to stay in positions they do not deserve, or to be protected, just because they are in a union. It isn't fair to the students whom they are charged to educate.

And I'm sorry, but the logic regarding firefighers, et al. doesn't really hold up. But I appreciate your comment nonetheless.

Laura said...

There are more great teachers than not. What are the problems? Lack of respect in the home for education and literacy. The idea that it is all up to the teacher and not the student. Our obsession with a single test score over real education. The allowance of billionaires and education corporations to control education. The idea that the corporate model is good for education when it has failed. Scripted curriculum. I can go on and on. The loss of the middle class. Rich people like Eli Broad who think they know better than teachers what should be taught.

Laura said...

Unions have nothing to do with it. Everyone deserves to be represented. Explain how Massachusetts is #1 in Education: wall to wall teachers unions. My relatives schools in Irvine, Ca: all API 10: wall to wall unions.

It's not and never has been the unions. I would never work in education without a union.

Rabble Rouser Reverend Amy said...

Laura, I do not think we are as far apart as you seem to think. Please re-read my post. I extol the many excellent teachers I have had, and as someone who has completed 5 yrs (including a 3 yr Master's program) of post-grad work, I have had more than my share of good teachers.

But not all teachers are good, or well prepared. My cousin is a prof in Education, the program that trains the teachers, at a major state university. I guarantee you, there are teachers not doing their jobs.

How else do you explain the functional illiteracy of almost 20^% of the population?

I have long said that teaching to standardized tests is a ridiculous enterprise (NCLB), and Obama's "solution" is no better. It may even be worse.

And I COMPLETELY agree that the lack of discipline and parenting make it much harder for the good teachers to accomplish their tasks. No doubt abt that at all.

Like I said, I am not slamming all teachers in this post, but those who should not be in the system but are protected by unions.

I think you are focusing on the criticism of teachers in general, and not on the specifics of the criticism. A less defensive eye might be in order...