Saturday, October 14, 2006


(News-Herald, October 12) So how should schools improve their teaching staffs?
Yes, there are some people who believe in a world where there are no bad teachers. Presumably this world is flat and balances on the back of a giant turtle. The world the rest of us live in includes bad teachers.
Fixing teachers and education is a growth industry lately. Any shlubb with an email address and a dream can hire himself out as an education consultant with solutions to peddle.
Some solutions aren’t going to happen. My dream solution is to have college teacher programs completely gutted, taken away from college professors, and run entirely by working classroom teachers. I’ve proposed teaching schools for educators modeled after teaching hospitals for doctors. And I would love to see bureaucrats, politicians, and armchair theoreticians have their fingers pried off the neck of the teaching profession. It’s never going to happen.
But hey—let’s set fantasy aside, and let me propose some steps that real school districts could actually take to improve the quality of their teaching staffs.
First, we could fire really bad teachers.
This is not impossible. It is difficult to fire ugly or obnoxious teachers. But flat-out bad ones—not impossible. Within the first few years, a new untenured teacher can be shown the door pretty easily. It is not in a district’s best interest to cut loose someone who has potential, but there are some people who make it abundantly clear early on that they have no business anywhere inside a school.
As for tenured teachers—well, I don’t want to get sidetracked on the whole tenure thing. But tenure protects teachers from arbitrary firing for any random complaint. Tenure doesn’t have to save a bad teacher’s job—it just forces administrators to do their homework. If someone’s doing an awful job, do your homework and can him.
But cutting the deadest wood is not a complete answer. There are people who salivate over the prospect of firing teachers, as if they can easily fill the jobs with one of the many Really Great Teachers just waiting to be hired.
But the fact is, there isn’t a school district in the region making any kind of concerted effort to recruit the best available teachers for their schools. Cranberry, for example, could use its newfound commercial tax base to make itself so attractive that the other districts would have to make do with hiring from among the leftovers. But they aren’t.
Currently, the biggest factor that decides the quality of a school’s teaching staff is simple dumb luck. We hope that a good candidate happens to be among the people who happen to apply for a job and that whoever does the hiring happens to spot that best person. Then we toss the new hire into a classroom and hope that she happens to fall in with some people who help her get off to a good start professionally. If our luck (and hers) holds out, somewhere down the road we end up with a pretty good teacher.
We can fix some of this. First, we need a job description. Everybody has a picture of a good teacher, but everybody’s picture is different. It will take time, but at some point, a selected group of administrators, teachers, parents, students, and citizens should sit down and come up with a job description, so that every teacher can be told, clearly, “This what we expect from you.”
Then, beyond the usual vague official evaluation form that all teachers get, teachers could also be measured against what the district says it wants. This could provide the information that a good job evaluation is supposed to provide, namely an answer to the question “How am I doing?”
But you don’t just provide the information. You provide help meeting the expectations. The state requires districts to provide mentors, but only for the first year of a teacher’s career. Mentoring needs to be longer, and the type of mentoring needs to be tied to how well the teacher is doing. Some will need assistance; some will need remediation. If the remedial attempt to meet the district’s expectations fails, well, there’s now a well-documented reason to replace that teacher.
Yes, there are wonderful teachers and horrible teachers. But, particularly in the first five-to-seven years of a career, there’s mostly lots of pretty good teachers trying to find their way. Districts need to provide fledgling teachers with the tools to become really good, and not just cast them loose and hope for good luck. The bonus to the district is a better teaching staff; the bonus to teachers is a better career.
I can show you how to do it. I have a dream. Just contact me at the email below.

No comments:

From my Flickr