(This blog follows reading the above article)
For some time now I have been talking and blogging about changing what we do in schools. I have wondered aloud about what do we need to do make Paris High School a better place for our students to be prepared to take on their dreams and the challenges of adulthood. I have always believed that the number one factor in education is a quality teacher. One who genuinely cares for his or her students, believes they all can achieve, and is willing to challenge them on a daily basis. Good teachers engage their students, make them believe in what they are doing, and inspire them to reach upwards to meet their goals. They use a variety of methods to make their subject and skill sets come alive. Some are mastering new technologies and the social networks that their students naturally gravitate towards to make their classroom come alive. Some use a project based approach to have learners experience subject matter while learning and practicing real world and work usable skills. However they do it, they have a student centered approach, not a subject centered one. A good teacher can take the days events, the things students care about the most, and turn them into teachable moments while still covering the content standards.
So, you may ask, what does that have to do with the article? After digesting what it is that Michelle Rhee is trying to do, and thinking about her premises and actions, I have found that I agree with her on several points. As does Chancellor Rhee, I believe that it takes highly talented, effective teachers who care about people to make education work. I also agree with the premise that it does not make sense to pay all teachers that have the same education and experience the same salary. I also agree that giving tenure, which gives very strong job protection, to teachers after two years (in Illinois four) is not practical. (Read more about tenure here) If you are almost guaranteed a job and a raise that is equal to everyone else, where is the motivation to be better? Don’t get me wrong, there are some fine teachers that work well in this system, but it is because they are fine teachers despite the system, not because of the one we have in place. I also believe that education sometimes focuses on a feel good approach. That at times principals accept less than outstanding educators and their practices because the battles they face from staff, parents and other groups. We in education do focus on factors we do not control and lay the blame where it is safe, be that parenting, lack of resources, unfunded mandates…..etc, instead of tackling the problems we can solve and manipulating the factors we do control.
Education did not just become broken in the last decade, if fact, I would argue that the education system has not changed. Society has changed. The skills needed for the post-industrial-information based economy are different. We expect more out of our schools. Gone are the days when a good paying, relatively stable career can be had with a high school education. Today’s careers require a commitment to lifetime learning and constant retooling on the employee’s part. Our school system was put together when information was relatively static compared to today. The system that rewarded teachers with tenure after a few years assumed that a teacher could stay up to date with a little effort and that students could survive with a basic education that did not involve any post secondary studies. Today all students need to have the college preparatory skill set and the ability to consistently keep learning and growing to stay competitive in today’s job market. Our 20th Century, assembly line based school model is outdated. The world has flattened and we can no longer assume that our children will be competitive because we offer universal education. The rest of the world has caught up. We must change the system to match the times.
Where I disagree with Chancellor Rhee, or at least the way she is portrayed in the article, is that it will take a more humanist approach to changing the system. Yes, the good teachers need to be rewarded and the people that would be good at something else need to be persuaded to leave the teaching profession, but to simply refuse to talk, act rudely, and otherwise alienate the very professionals you need to work with is bound to undermine her efforts. I think there are very few teachers anywhere that wake up in the morning a decide I am going to do as little as I possibly can to help kids today. School districts need to do more to help teachers be excellent in their classrooms. Less time needs to be spent on how to do well on tests (no thanks to NCLB!) and preparing teachers to prepare students to take achievement tests. What job requires achievement test skills anyway? We need to give teachers more time to improve and work with new methodologies and technologies. They need to be given support in integrating 21st Century technology and methodologies into their curriculum. Every district needs to have curriculum/technology integration specialist that designs staff development, models excellent teaching, and observes classroom activities and provides feedback to teachers. Those teachers that fail to make improvements with proper support do need to be removed from the profession, but those teachers that are making their classrooms engaging and are challenging their students must be valued and allowed to have input in the improvement process. If they are rewarded and treated like valued professionals, teachers will work with districts to improve teaching. I believe that if properly supported and given input into process, teachers will work to police their own and help root out those teachers that bring the profession bad publicity. If education is really one of the most important pillars that holds up our American system, then we need to treat it as such. Education needs to be 240 day a year job! Teachers need more time with students and they need more time for proper professional development. We are no longer an agrarian society….we are not even a industrial society….we are post industrial and our schools must catch up now!
Chancellor Rhee is working on the right factors. Teaching must be excellent. Every student must have an excellent teacher. The system that employs tenure and a salary schedule that gives job protection and guaranteed pay rates despite performance is no longer capable of giving our children what they need. There are thousands of ways to do education right, and only one way to do it wrong. Doing it wrong is putting anything but our children as the top priority. The system we have now does not always do that.