Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Obama's Ideas on Education

A few off the top comments:

Charter Schools are not the solution for the chief problem of having an even handed, well staffed, well equipped, well supervised public school system. They have their place for specific groups and needs. However, they are overrated in general, and are not held to solid education standards in most cases. They need to have more transparency and accountability.

Longer School Year and Day: I think these ideas have merit. Students learn better in more contiguous blocks of time. The summer break may dissipate some of the effectiveness of teaching. Students in many countries spend more time in school.

Caveat--- These ideas will cost money. Money for increased teacher salaries, cost of keeping the buildings open, air conditioning for schools that currently don't have it, etc.

Merit Pay for Teachers: Since I was a teacher, people will expect me to be opposed. And I am.
In fact, I wrote a paper when teaching outlining arguments against it when it was being considered at my high school.

Before I present the reasons why IMO it is a bad idea, let me say that my experience, limited mostly to one high school where I taught for 28 years, is that you can divide teachers into three groups (not thirds): one group (25% could just be let go and replaced with better material); one group (about 50%) do an acceptable job, but could do better with good supervision; the final group (25%) are very dedicate, see themselves as professionals, and if all of the administrators were sick for a week or two and these teachers were housed in tents --- they would still do a great job. About two thirds of administrators could be replaced.

Better teachers and administrators could be hired. However, in the case of teachers, if you want entice many prospective quality teachers into the schools -- salaries will have to be raised. Otherwise, they will use their talents in more lucrative occupations. (Today, though, with the recession might be a different story.)

However, I don't think will will get a better educational system through merit pay; it sounds good, but has many problems.

What's wrong with the Merit Pay Idea:

---It will destroy the professionalism of teachers and turn them into car salesmen and saleswomen. Professional teachers really care about their subject and the students they teach.
They will speak up before administrators and let them know when their often silly ideas are going to damage the important matters being done.

(When I was teaching elementary school, fifth grade, our young principal wanted to impress the parents and more or less ordered that all teachers have each student make a life size image of him/herself to be place in the student's seat. Time should be taken out of instruction to make sure these images looked good. He felt it would impress parents, the superintendent and gain him points. Mrs. Anderson, an older woman and fellow fifth grade teacher and I instead put up around our room examples of the projects we had been working on in our classrooms, with some examples of students' work. Quite a few parents who had children in other grade levels expressed delight in finding in our classroom what they really wanted to see --- instead of the silly student "dummies" that their third grade child's classroom had on display.)

(Another example: I returned to my high school after retiring a couple times just to see how things were going. On one occasion, I spoke to a friend, a younger man who had been the school principal for about five years. He told me something like this: (Names are not the actual ones.) "You know Bob, when you and Ralph, and Agatha, and Lou left, I secretely thought 'Now, I won't have these oldtimers speaking up at my staff meetings offering ideas different than mine, and challenging my plans.' However, now, I feel sorry about losing you people: You teachers were the backbone of this high school."

BTW: we all had tenure. Tenure is often pointed out as something teachers should not have. I disagree: if the district has good supervision, waits three to five years before granting tenure, then they will most often build a group of professional educators that are real professionals -- not "yes men", not always easy to bully, but responsible and dedicated. What if one of them starts drinking, or just becomes "lazy"--- well, there are ways to remove tenured teachers. It takes time to gather evidence, but it is certainly not impossible, a little inconvenient.)

---If the type of teachers you hire are the kind that need bonus or merit pay to do their best -- you have not hired dedicated teachers. They work regardless of the salary.

---Teachers form, in most schools, a cooperative community. This collegiality and willingness to exchange ideas and feed off each other would be ruined by merit pay. For example, I had a way of teaching paragraphs to average and below average kids. And, it worked, but I would not have shared it with another teacher who needed help --- if there were merit pay.

---Competition would squelch cooperation; breed jealously; infighting, resentment and this would be obvious to students.

---Who decides on which teachers get merit pay? I hope not the principals: most are totally unqualified, don't know good teaching when they see it, and don't have the time. And, there is definitely a tendency for administrator to grant merit pay to those teaches that cooperate or even "butter" them up.)

---Merit pay is usually based on how well a teacher's students do on standardized tests.

What tests? Who designs them? What do they measure? In math do they not only measure mechanical application of math processes -- but math thinking? In history do they stress fact or understanding of the lessons of history? In English do they have students write a paragraph, and are these paragraphs examined by one, preferably two teachers?

America seems to like solving problems often by coming up with some "super-efficient" not excessively costly ( and frequently unproductive) way of dealing with problems. We don't want to look at the reasons for American students poor showing academically, e.g. we have the greatest pecertage of poverty than most of the main modern industrialized nation. Learning has a lot to do with the environment before and outside of school.

No, we want some magic tests, given at intervals, that will measure quantifiable values and determine what schools are doing best and what teachers. Often classes are grouped for effectiveness in teaching. How does this fit in? The more "competitive" teachers will drop everything they do and focus themselves and their students on one thing --- really knowing what these tests are expected to cover. I had a critic teacher that way, who took an entire six weeks to pound into her students what she thought the tests would cover. She told me that she was an outstanding teacher because her kids did better than the other teachers on these tests.
Actually, I thought she was a rather mediocre teachers, uninspired and uninspiring, not connected with the kids, not engaging their minds.

--- Teaching is not a technology but more of an art. The personal interaction between students and their teacher is of great value. Can any set of tests laid like a template on top of this human enterprise really tell the story, and show realistically the effectiveness of the total process?

What Might Make for Better Educational Results?

----Better supervision of teachers. In my experience almost all principals and assistant principals do not make good supervisors. Many were not particularly good teachers, and did not want to be teachers. They, from the start, wanted to be administrators. No, the school system would have to hire teachers who would monitor, aid, assist, and demonstrate to the other teachers. This could be set up as a part of curriculum instruction department. Some districts might select the master teachers and have them teacher fewer classes of their own, so they can observe and assist other teachers. They would receive more pay for this job, and would have to have the personalities that could work with other teachers in ways that did not create resentment. (And again, who will pick these "master" teachers? I hope not the principals.

--- Better administrators: In my opinion, administrators should be wise and sensitive educators, instead of schedule builders, paper shufflers, and people handlers. When I taught, I thought 25% of the teachers should have been let go and at least two-thirds of the administrators.

--- Attention to Social Problems: Poverty, Healthcare and Unemployment. Now, this suggestion is not liked by our political leaders because it is too radical (radix, Latin for root). Addressing the roots of problems is time consuming, costs money, requires intelligent planning, making changes in the system. Too complex! Too much trouble! Give us the Easy Fix!

Arne Duncan--There were much better choices for Secretary of Education. Ones that would have looked at the national situation realistically, from an educator's point of view, a real educator, one who cares about kids and learning. That's an educator. Period.

--- Duncan has been chief of staff of the Chicago Public Schools for the past ten years with a not terribly impressive record.

--- Obama knew him from working with him in Chicago and by playing basketball with him.

>>> Here is what Gary Stager: teacher educator; educational journalist and writer says about Arne Duncan ( and I have heard similar comments from other educators and progressives.)

Duncan spends millions on standardized testing, turns public schools into military academies and endorses Teach for America, an organization built upon the perverse proposition that the most qualified teachers are those without qualifications. Teach for America's political wing, Leadership for Education Equity, fought hard to ensure that a competent teacher educator would not be nominated. They sure got their wish with Arne Duncan.

Arne Duncan is a strong supporter of merit pay, which like social promotion is based on ideology and wishful thinking, not fact. He is also a proponent of paying children for good grades.

Riddle me this. If Arne Duncan is such a "reformer with results" who did such a swell job leading the Chicago Public Schools, why did President-elect Obama send his daughters to private school?

Duncan is a fan of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and never met a standardized test he didn't love. His education policies and practices are indistinguishable from those of the Bush Administration. In fact, the current unqualified Secretary of Education Spellings virtually endorsed Duncan while she posed for for a photo-op with him four days ago. Today she praised Duncan's nomination while spinning her own tall tale and invoking romantic visions of student accountabily.

--- Who would be a better Education Secretary? One is Linda Darling-Hammond, professor and educational expert from Stanford. She is critical of both the less than successful and ineptly name --- "No Child Left Behind" and the reliance on educational tests for the way out of our school problems.

She was Obama's education advisor during his campaign, but was ferociously opposed by right-wingers as Secretary. So Bi-Partisn Barrack picked his basketball buddy, Arne.

Here is what Jim Korn, educator and educator-bloggers said about Darling-Hammond:

How refreshing to think of a top education official with a deep knowledge (or any knowledge) of and commitment to student achievement, educational renewal, teacher quality, research, professional development, public education.