Category: Politics and Education

Read This: In Praise of American Educators

Let’s start with a simple truth:  As a full-time classroom teacher, I have spent the better part of the past fifteen years wrestling with failed policies, frustrated by the suggestion that practitioners are to blame for everything that is wrong with American schools, and paralyzed, waiting for meaningful change that never seems to come.

In many ways, I’ve lost all hope for education in America.

It’s just plain hard to believe that our public schools can survive in the face of coordinated efforts on the part of politicians intent on “bending public education to their awe or breaking it all to pieces” or on the part of businesses intent on discrediting public schools so that they can step in, offer “solutions,” and pocket huge sums of cold hard cash in the process.  For the former, our schools are nothing more than ideological battlegrounds.  For the latter, our schools are nothing more than continuing revenue streams.

That’s why one of the highlights of the last few months for me was receiving an advance copy of In Praise of American Educators, Rick DuFour’s newest book.

inpraiseofamericaneducators-265

In Praise of American Educators opens with a careful study of the common myths being advanced by critics of public schooling in America.

Convinced that the United States fails when compared to international peers?  In Praise readers learn that when controlled for factors like poverty that have a direct impact on student and school success, American students and teachers actually outperform every nation on Earth by a wide margin.

Believe that charter schools and vouchers are improving outcomes for struggling students?  In Praise readers learn that fewer than two out of every ten charter schools produce student achievement results that are superior to those produced by public schools.

Certain that testing is the best way to hold teachers and schools accountable?  In Praise readers learn that national exams like the NAEP testing program and value-added models for measuring the impact that individual teachers have on students have been widely criticized as unreliable by national organizations including the National Research Council, the National Center for Education and the Economy and  the American statistical Association.

DuFour’s central argument in Part One of In Praise is that our schools are actually succeeding in spite of our nation’s commitment to #edpolicies and practices that are badly flawed.  “The federal and state policies that dominate the school reform agenda in the United States,” he writes, “are ill conceived, based on faulty assumptions, and have no record of improving student achievement anywhere in the world” (p. 102).

In Part Two of In Praise, Dufour argues that the power to improve our public schools rests in the hearts and minds of classroom teachers who are willing to work together in service of student learning.

He begins by spotlighting the steps that successful nations like Singapore and Finland have taken to make collaborative reflection between teachers the norm rather than the exception to the rule.  Then, he documents the extensive research done both within and beyond education on the positive impact that collaboration has on outcomes in knowledge-driven workplaces.  Finally, he outlines the Professional Learning Community at Work model — a structure for collaborative reflection that he has polished and refined for decades and that has a proven track record of success in schools that cross the demographic and socioeconomic spectrum.

In Praise of American Educators is a “no excuses” book at heart.

DuFour provides clear and convincing evidence that our schools aren’t the failures that vocal critics claim that they are.  But DuFour also provides clear and convincing evidence that educators are more powerful than we give ourselves credit for.  Instead of surrendering in the face of flawed policies, DuFour believes that we should step forward together to accept responsibility for ensuring the success of every child that rolls through our classroom doors regardless of circumstance.

“It is certainly true, DuFour writes, “that part of the problem in American education is that we have taken good people – teachers and principals – and put them in a bad system that was never intended to help all students learn. It is equally certain, however, that those same teachers and principals can and must play a critical role in changing that system” (p. 225).

That’s a message of hope, y’all.  And it’s a message that I badly needed to hear.

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Related Radical Reads:

Breaking Public Education to Pieces

A Brave New World for Personalized Learning

The Power of PLCs

Fruity Umbrella Drinks and Giant Jugs of Coppertone.

Cranky Blogger’s Warning:  I’m wound up, y’all.  That means this post is heavy on the Radical and light on the Tempered.  There’s enough truth in it, though, that I wanted to share it with you.  Just remember that I was straight riled when I wrote it.  

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I blew a gasket yesterday.  A neighbor read my recent post about my salary and slipped comfortably into a rant about teachers and how easy our jobs are and how he’s sick of hearing us complain given that we work from 8 until 3 and have three months off every summer.

#lovethoseguys

So I uncorked.  Like spittle flying from the corners of my mouth uncorked.  Like “Holy Smokes, THAT guy is angry” uncorked.  Like I don’t think he’s sending me any more Christmas cards uncorked.

#touchysubject

What dudeman doesn’t understand is that I DON’T HAVE A THREE MONTH VACATION.  Instead, I spend all of that legendary “free time” that teachers get working part-time jobs.

Need proof?  Read this.  Better yet, stop by the dirty McDonalds near my house RIGHT NOW.  It’s a snow day and I’m grinding through a bunch of tasks on my part-time to do list as we speak.  I’ll buy you a two-pack of cookies and you can hang out with the teenagers smoking eCigarettes in the booth behind me.  Be prepared for the smell of sewage, though.  The toilets in the mens room are kind of janky.

#notkidding

Nowadays, my part-time jobs are mostly professional gigs.  I write books for teachers, deliver professional development and consult with schools, districts and companies across North America.  It’s good work that challenges me and pays well, but it ain’t easy.  Most of the time, that work involves sitting behind a computer screen trying to translate good ideas into solid instructional practices or traveling to schools and districts to show other teachers how to integrate those practices into their work.

But over the past 22 years, I’ve done more than my fair share of grunt work, too.  I’ve stocked shelves at grocery stores, I’ve manned the register at gas stations, I’ve worked the counter at bookstores, I’ve driven school busses for after school programs and summer camps, I’ve been the on-ice skate guard at the local ice rink, and I’ve worked for a landscaping company.

#notavacation

Sure, I have more vacation days than my neighbors and friends working in more traditional professions.  But the notion that I’m spending those vacation days lounging by the pool with a fruity umbrella drink and a giant jug of Coppertone is a fallacy, y’all.  The truth is that I’m spending those vacation days — and all of those “free” hours after the school day ends — just trying to make ends meet.

And I’m not the only one.  Heck, most of my friends and colleagues who are full-time teachers and the main providers for their families are working part-time jobs, too.  One works at the help desk at the local Apple store 20-30 hours a week.  Another stocks shelves at the Office Depot.  A third tutors four days a week and plays live shows at local bars three or four times a month. And a fourth coaches high level youth soccer teams.

Now don’t get me wrong:  Teaching is remarkable work and I’m blown away every day by just how lucky I am.  I have the chance to change lives — and I get to see the tangible impact of my work every time that a student walks through the door of my room with a story to share or a success to show me.  That’s the reason I still teach even though teaching doesn’t pay my bills.

#totallyamazing

But to suggest that I only work seven hours a day and 180 days a year is ludicrous.  It’s an antiquated and offensive notion that often becomes an excuse for paying teachers next to nothing.  

In the end, we have to decide as a community if we are okay with forcing accomplished teachers to find other work just to pay their bills?  What are the consequences — for our kids and our communities — when we fail to pay the folks in our classrooms competitive wages?  Can we really be surprised when good people quit, given that staying often means constantly worrying about where the next part-time paycheck is going to come from?

#worthasking

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Related Radical Reads:

Teaching is a Grind

I Made $54,000 Last Year

The Truth about North Carolina’s Historic Pay Raise for Teachers

I Made $54,000 Last Year.

I can remember the first time that I ever asked my Dad — who was a foreman at a Chevy plant that made rear axles for pickup trucks — how much money he made in a year.  It was the mid-1980s and I was working on a project for school.

His answer:  $50,000.

From that moment, $50,000 became a target to me.

If I could make $50,000, I knew that I could support a family and have a good home and go on vacations and send my kids to college.  If I could make $50,000, I could be a good provider and a good husband — something that mattered to me after having watched my father do those things for our family.

Doing my taxes yesterday, I realized that I made $54,000 last year.

After 22 years of full-time classroom teaching, after earning a master’s degree and after earning certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards TWICE, I’m FINALLY making what my father made in the mid-1980s.

#sheeshchat

#completelybrokechat

#anyonehiringchat

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Related Radical Reads:

Teaching is a Grind

The Truth about North Carolina’s Historic Pay Raises for Teachers

More on North Carolina’s Historic Pay Raises for Teachers

Do Cheap and Easy Letter Grades Tell the Whole Accountability Story?

For the past several years, North Carolina’s legislature has been working to reimagine almost everything about education in our state.  Their most recent move:  Releasing A-F letter grades for every school in every county in our state.  “North Carolina public school parents now have an easy-to-understand letter grade to help them evaluate school performance,” argued Bill Cobey, the Chairman of the State Board of Education.

The only factor considered in assigning a letter grade to each school are results from our most recent round of standardized testing.  To make matters worse, only twenty percent of a building’s grade is based on year-after-year growth rates that students show on our state’s exams.  Eighty percent is based on nothing more than passing rates.  The results have been sadly predictable:  Schools in struggling communities are almost universally failing under the new system while schools in wealthier communities are racking up high marks.

What troubles me the most is the suggestion that student scores on end of grade tests are a reliable way to identify successful schools.

While A-F letter grades drawn from multiple choice exams may be easy to generate and easy to understand, it is ridiculous to suggest that scores drawn from the current iteration of knowledge-driven standardized tests are an indicator of anything other than kids who can remember REALLY well.

Need proof?  Then consider the fact that my sixth grade students NAILED last year’s end of grade exam in science — a result that I should be ready to celebrate given the fact that our state’s legislators recently made student performance on standardized tests a significant factor in teacher evaluation and compensation decisions here in North Carolina.  According to their metrics, I am an instructional all-star.

But nailing the end of grade exam means almost nothing, y’all.

It means that my students knew a TON of trivial details — and that I spent an inordinate amount of time cramming those trivial details into their minds instead of doing anything close to actual science in my classroom.  My kids could tell you that light bends and slows when it enters a dense medium, that scientists use earthquake waves to learn more about the interior of the earth, and that the key ingredient in healthy soil is humus — but ask them to design an experiment, to share their results in a convincing way, or to collaborate around an investigation and they’d probably be stumped.

And that’s the beef that I have with communities who are committed to finding easy ways to evaluate school performance.

The uncomfortable truth is that adopting easy to understand metrics almost always results in adopting metrics that measure outcomes that are becoming increasingly irrelevant in a world where knowing is cheap and easy.  Employers in the innovation economy aren’t clamoring for kids with killer memories.  They are clamoring for kids who are creative thinkers and good partners and innovators and dreamers and doers.

So what does that mean for people who care deeply about the success of both our students and our schools?

It means that it’s high time that WE start clamoring for something more than cheap and easy measures of school performance.  The simple truth is that high-stakes accountability models that reward the delivery and mastery of low-level skills fail everyone — not just kids who live in poverty.

#trudat

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Related Radical Reads:

If I’m .84 Points from Statistical Perfection, Why am I So Darn Angry?

Is Standardized Testing Changing Me for the Worse?

How Testing Will Change What I Teach Next Year

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More on Thom Tillis and his “Historic Raises” for NC Teachers.

In an effort to raise a bit of awareness about the state of teaching salaries in North Carolina, I wrote a bit on the Radical last weekend titled The Truth about Thom Tillis and North Carolina’s “Historic” Teacher Raises.

A reader calling themselves TW27 stopped by to let me know that my piece was garbage:

But I guess it doesn’t matter that the Democrats didn’t give teachers a raise at all in 4 years? Give credit where some credit is due. The piece is garbage when you clearly have a slant and can’t be objective.  Where are your solutions? Anyone can point out our problems, but I don’t see many solutions being offered. The Dems didn’t offer much up in those 4 years.

Now let me make something perfectly clear:  I’m not ready to let any politician — regardless of party — off the hook for systematically screwing up education.  Heck, I’ve slammed Arne Duncan enough times in the last six years (see here, here, here, here and here) to prove that I don’t suffer left-leaning fools lightly either.

But the central point in my previous piece stands:  A look at the numbers proves that the recent raises given to North Carolina’s teachers are far from”historic” and “the largest in a generation” — terms that Tillis is touting on the campaign trail.

In fact, the raises given to North Carolina’s teachers would probably be more accurately described as:

  • “Better than nothing,” or…
  • “A drop in the bucket,” or…
  • “Getting teachers back to just SEVEN percent less than they used to make before their salaries were frozen for the better part of a decade.”

And given the sketchy nature of the funding sources that are being used to float our nifty new budget, the raises given to North Carolina’s teachers could also be more accurately described as:

  • “Somewhere in that silly financial gray area between temporary and permanent that politicians love to live in,” or…
  • “A huge political gamble,” or….
  • “Damn near crippling to every other social service agency that serves the poor in North Carolina.”

Heck, I’d even be happy with:

  • “A small but important step in the right direction,” or…
  • “Not nearly enough, but the best we can do right now,” or…
  • “An honest attempt to show North Carolina’s teachers that we ARE trying and that we DO care.”

The question that voters need to ask is why ISN’T Tillis using that kind of language to describe the raises given to teachers?  Why is he peddling loaded terms like “historic” and “the largest in a generation?”  Why is he pushing the notion that the recent raises make North Carolina “regionally and nationally competitive” when the AVERAGE teacher nationally is paid $56,000 while the TOP of North Carolina’s new pay scale is $50,000?

#inquiringminds

#dontbefooled

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Related Radical Reads:

The Simple Truth About Thom Tillis and North Carolina’s “Historic” Teacher Raises

Arne Duncan is Just Plain Clueless

Bam and Arne Get it Wrong Again