"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, April 09, 2007

Hearing Teachers

From teacher, Andy Shapiro, in the Santa Cruz Sentinel:

A misguided suggestion about how to reform our schools recently found its way onto the front page of this and other publications.

A few weeks ago, a report based on 22 separate education studies was released. While the report contained many constructive recommendations including giving schools and school districts more say over how they spend their money, the recommendation that received the most media attention advised that we make it easier to fire "bad" teachers.

While most agree that teacher quality is of paramount importance, making it easier to fire teachers would do little to resolve the underlying challenges confronting our schools. Instead of creating the false impression that poor teacher quality is at the root of the difficulties some of our schools face, I'd like to see lawmakers and the media focus on other urgently needed reforms.

For example, there is general consensus that we need highly skilled, knowledgeable, caring and compassionate teachers capable of supporting students with a wide variety of learning styles, backgrounds and interests. In short, we need excellent teachers in every classroom.

So, how do we move toward achieving such a goal? Should we begin by focusing on removing those few teachers who are ineffective? How will we determine who is ineffective? Will principals be given sole authority to make such decisions? Will we resort to the lowest common denominator of test scores? Will even more emphasis be put on preparing students to take tests rather than providing a rich, diverse education? Will such a climate diminish risk-taking, collaboration and constructive communication? These questions and many others require us to thoroughly analyze the potential impact of making it easier to fire teachers.

For the same reasons I argued against merit pay in my Aug. 27, 2006, column, I'm opposed to teachers giving up hard-fought due-process rights in response to those who exaggerate the pervasiveness of incompetent teachers.

Rather, I suggest we begin by acknowledging and supporting the tremendously talented teachers who already fill the overwhelming majority of our classrooms. Next, let's remove some of the obstacles that take teachers' time and attention away from their primary mission of educating students. Let's focus on what is most essential rather than requiring of teachers an ever-increasing number of tasks not directly related to their students' education.

If we want to attract and retain excellent teachers, we need to change this unhealthy climate. There are many actions that would dramatically improve our schools.

Imagine an education system in which: teachers were treated as valued professionals; teachers, students and parents were regularly consulted about important decisions and challenges confronting our schools; teachers' input was solicited and utilized to inform policy decisions such as crafting developmentally appropriate standards in which depth of understanding is valued as highly as breadth of knowledge; and teachers' knowledge and expertise about the craft of teaching was utilized to its fullest potential.

Other reforms and actions that would be helpful include: ensuring that those who establish academic standards, most notably members of the California Board of Education and the California Legislature, were well-versed with the developmental psychology research of Piaget and others; recognizing that students of the same grade level can be at different places along the educational continuum; dedicating time for educators to reflect and collaborate; providing counselors, librarians, nurses, teachers' aides and support for English learners in all of our schools; strengthening the partnership between students, parents, teachers, administrators and community members to achieve the best possible outcome for each child; minimizing interruptions during instructional time; valuing and encouraging risk-taking; fostering creative, critical and divergent thinking; incorporating students' cultures, native languages and prior knowledge into their learning; honoring and celebrating diversity; nurturing each student's gifts and supporting each student's growth; demonstrating greater trust in students and teachers; bringing sanity back to standardized testing; providing greater opportunities for students to explore beyond the four walls of a classroom through field trips, field studies and other such endeavors; valuing art, music, physical education, science, social studies, writing, vocational learning and cooperative learning as highly as reading, math and independent learning; helping students differentiate between publicly funded scientific research and corporate sponsored research in our teaching of science; providing the necessary support for those with special needs; ensuring that the federal government fully funds its share of special education costs; valuing adequate education funding more than tax cuts for the wealthy; paying teachers and other school personnel enough to afford to live in the area in which they work; and reducing class sizes.

In order to significantly improve the education our students receive, we must respect and support those doing the educating. Teachers' extensive professional training, firsthand knowledge, ideas, opinions and intelligence remain a largely untapped resource. By including teachers in the dialogue and the decision-making process surrounding education, we can significantly upgrade our schools.

Andy Shapiro is a fourth-grade teacher at Main Street Elementary School in Soquel. E-mail him at andys@suesd.org.

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