Sunday, February 13, 2011

Give Teachers a Voice

Ed Burns, a long time teacher in Baltimore schools and current producer and writer for the HBO series The Wire, was interviewed on National Public Radio. In that interview, he said he doubted people “could handle going in to an inner city school.” Even “seeing it” would be more than they would believe.

I find these comments telling. Teachers I talk to lately feel that parents, lawmakers, and media have no idea what life is like inside our schools. One teacher told me she felt like she was “in a bubble” and that the rest of the world had no clue about what goes on behind school gates. They feel nobody sees the struggles, the joys, the sorrows, the challenges to teaching, nor does the society at large listen to what it is that teachers have to say.

Policy makers keep loading it on, increasing class size, mandating curricula, decreasing financial and professional support, and making it more difficult to teach in the schools that need it most by sanctioning schools with low test scores. Teachers have to play the role of coach, judge, counselor, cop, sometimes parent, and full time role model. Still, they are held accountable for student achievement on high stakes tests, student behavior, reporting abuse -- and all this while trying to teach.

Teachers in under-performing schools, in particular, have stated that they plan to transfer within three years. The places that NEED the best teachers are driving them away by punishing them for low student performance.

Here’s how it works right now. A good teacher with high standards teaches in a school that has low test scores, very little parental involvement, serious behavior problems, overcrowded classes, few resources, and an increasing list of responsibilities. School X then receives a score of “underperforming,” or “needs improvement.” Little thought is given as to WHY it is underperforming, nor are resources – such as supplemental instruction, time for teacher collaboration, or smaller class size – provided to address causes behind low achievement. The validity of the test is never seriously questioned, nor is it based on research, but that is another issue. The teacher, school, and principal are sanctioned with the underperforming label and told to teach more to the test. Morale drops. The school is stigmatized in the media. The teacher, who knows best what children need, likely transfers.

Every teacher knows that socio-economic level, family involvement, and planning time, as well as good teaching, contribute to success. Teachers know that current policies that focus solely on instructional fixes and narrow, punitive assessments will never work by themselves. We need to commit to improving working conditions, especially in the most difficult schools. Those schools are tied to their communities, and out-of-school issues such as economic opportunity and social welfare are prerequisites for raising achievement. . If we really want to improve education, we need to reward teachers who stick it out in the toughest schools, look beyond the test scores, and give teachers a chance to work with each other to shape thinking, feeling, creative, generous human beings.