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Sunday, October 2, 2011

My Vision for America–Part III

Discussion of education reform is going on right now somewhere near you because many in this country are concerned about the education of our children and grandchildren, and millions of these people are quite worried. 

I have referred in my recent blogs on education to a current  book written by Thomas Friedman and Steven Mandelbaum titled:  “That Used to Be Us”.  Once again, I will take that book as a launching pad, exploring one of six items that the authors say is needed to bring America to where we need to be related to both the economy and education.  But first, I must again put this discussion into the context of my evolving Purpose Statement for public education which I continue to amend:

To involve an entire community of educators (administrators, teachers, students, parents, volunteers and other interested citizens) in the teaching of traditional and foundational curricula (history, English, mathematics, science, language, technology);  in the drawing out of experiential learnings (through the arts, simulated games, and problem-solving) and in the discovery of skills, talents, concepts, beliefs, values and verities, in order to produce accomplished individuals, informed citizens, critical and independent thinkers, lifetime learners, cultural literates, world-class workers and competitors, and compassionate human beings willing to advocate for the welfare of the human family.”

The first and primary need is for  better teachers and better principals.  According to research, the most decisive factor in student achievement is excellent teaching, and yet many of our teachers are poorly educated.  Unfortunately, we have not made great strides in developing excellent teachers.  Friedman and Mandelbaum suggest a first step might be a new National Academy, modeled after our military academies.  In my opinion, regional academies might be more practical and more accessible. 

However, I think we must start at a wholly different point:  in high school (maybe Junior High), current teachers and administrators must make a conscious effort to identify young people who are, or could potentially be, in the top 10% of their class; who may already be tutoring or mentoring their peers; who may already demonstrate some passion for teaching.  Current teachers and administrators need to start identifying these students early on and engage in leading them toward a teaching career, perhaps by visiting their families, or having them teach a class, having them visit other schools and teachers, showing them some results of good teaching by relating success stories of students, or having them actually meet with the persons who have become successful because of excellent teaching.  While their target should be those in the top 10%, the recruiting teachers should always be on the look-out for potential teachers below that level who can be tutored or mentored into the top 10% , and who have that passion for teaching that can also be nurtured.  Current teachers must become recruiters, tutors and mentors for potential teachers. 

In order to have this first step mean anything, however, there must be some other criteria in place:

--  How many of you have ever heard of a famous school of education at a college or university?  Schools of education at various universities and colleges must advertise and promote themselves more vociferously; they must become schools of excellence as well known as the Wharton School of Business, or MIT, or West Point, or the Duke Medical Center.  Maybe they could become regional academies with names that are known throughout the world.  After all, prestige is a strong incentive. 

I strongly believe that these schools must, above all, be the instigators of change in the teaching profession.  It is simply not enough to train teachers in the history of education theory, child development,  or the mechanics of teaching in a classroom.  Teachers must be trained to be facilitators: they must understand group process, they must have an understanding of how to use new technologies to advance learning, they must have an understanding of counseling techniques, they must know how to work with a team of educators including student peer-teachers and volunteers; they must have instruction in experiential learning, in the scientific method, in the facilitation of learning through use of unexplored or additional resources; they must know how to involve parents, businesses, and citizens in the education process and in the education community.  This is not your grandparents’ world.  This is a new world we are living in, and new methods of approaching it must be part of every educator’s repertoire.

--  Students must be able to see the teaching profession as one of the top five career choices.  One way to do this, of course, is to have the beginning salary for teachers reflect the salaries of other professions in an area.  We cannot recruit, let alone maintain, excellent teachers if we do not make salaries commensurate with excellence!  Until excellent teachers can be provided with salaries that engender prestige, status, success, and passionate commitment to that profession from the community, we can forget about making substantial progress in public education.  How do we pay for it?  Anyway we can.  If we can afford to pay professional athletes six-figure salaries for playing games, we can find a way to pay our teachers prestigious salaries.  I have suggested previously that school boards need to explore ways to obtain operating expenses for education; a small  education levy on everyone is one way to do it.  Is that asking too much?  Not if the future of this country rests so clearly on the excellence of our teachers!

--  Recognition of excellent teachers must be part of every district’s operation.  School boards should be in charge of providing that recognition on an on-going basis.  It should include ceremonies, bonuses, awards, plaques, national recognition, every possible way to bring excellence in teaching before the public and to laud our teachers for what they are doing.

--  One form of recognition and the producing of passion for teaching is the on-going development of teaching excellence.  We need teachers exchanging classes with other teachers in their own schools as well as in other schools, we need teacher-to-teacher mentoring programs, we need regional and national institutes for teachers, we need new ways to upgrade skills.    Without this kind of professional development strategy in place, we cannot expect excellent teachers to grow beyond their current skill-level. 

--  We also need established career ladders for teachers and principals who are identified as highly effective.  Too many excellent teachers leave our schools because they can’t see a future beyond where they started.  We need “mentor teachers”, “teacher coaches”, “senior teachers” -- new levels for people who have become experts, specialists, and tutors who can help other teachers be all they can be.  Friedman and Mandelbaum remind us that China has four levels of proficiency in their teaching profession, and in order to move up a level, teachers must demonstrate their excellence to a private review board.   

What about administrators?  Much of what we have said about teachers can also be said about training of principals: prestigious academies, appropriate salaries, professional development, recognition, etc.  After all, it is clear that entire schools can be affected by a good or bad principal.  But one thing I envision is that every principal must have some sort of teaching experience in their background.  It doesn’t necessarily need to be in a public school,  but every principal needs some understanding of the types of challenges which every teacher faces.  If we are going to ask principals to oversee a budget, to develop and supervise teachers, and to deal with the community’s concerns, we must give principals more ability to construct their budgets, to choose (and to un-choose!) their own teachers, and to be supported by their boards of education in their community roles.  According to one expert, great principals attract great teachers, but terrible principals drive out great teachers.

--  In the case of both teachers and principals, there needs to be a fair and unbiased evaluation of their performance. Probably at least 50% of every teacher’s and principal’s performance evaluation should be based on student growth, but “growth” must be evaluated on criteria that include skills and attitudes that go beyond grades alone, as related to criteria mentioned in the above Purpose Statement.  Teachers and principals should also have a say on what is included in evaluation criteria and instruments that are utilized.  Evaluations like this should provide the criteria for reductions in force: based on effectiveness, not tenure.  Anyone rated “ineffective” for 2-3 years should lose their jobs. 

In my opinion, evaluation by students of their teachers and their principals must be included.  Leaving students out of on-going evaluation leaves a gap that cannot be filled by anyone else.  Students know when they are being short-changed.  Students can be fair, especially if the evaluation instrument is well-constructed (with student and teacher input) by a contracted group or by a local board with expert help. 

A final word on evaluation:
According to the President of the AFT, a key question is how teachers are evaluated.  She said: “We need evaluation systems based on multiple measures of both teacher practice and what students are learning.”  I would agree wholeheartedly, but would add that “learning” should be more than grades on tests, as indicated in the above Purpose Statement.  Some of the most important “learnings” never show up on tests, like values learned, social skills acquired, caring attitudes gained, community involvement demonstrated.  If student growth was evaluated based on an Individual Education Plan for each pupil, instead of on criteria imposed by higher authorities, there would open-up a whole new method of performance evaluation related to learning and growth, and a whole new methodology for building and re-formulating curricula, peer mentoring, intervention from parents, community involvement, etc.

There are six items to consider and we have just skimmed the surface of one: the need for better teachers and better principals.  Next time, I hope to say a bit about my Vision for Education in the following five areas also mentioned by Friedman and Mandelbaum:

Parents who are more involved
Politicians who push to raise educational standards
Neighbors ready to invest in schools even though their children are not there
Business leaders committed to raising educational standards in their communities
Students who come to school prepared to learn