Transform Education vs. Teacher of the Year
In one of his latest posts in Transform Education, Peter Campbell takes to task the 2005 Teacher of the Year, Jason Kamras, for comments he made in an interview. This is a classic liberal-conservative disagreement. Kamras doesn't appear to be a right-winger, but he is a proponent of charter schools and a supporter of NCLB. It's safe to say that those positions along with the other views he expressed in the interview put him on the right side of the spectrum when it comes to educational issues. I doubt that anyone who has read a few of Peter Campbell's posts would disagree when I classify him as a liberal. Since being a liberal is no longer in vogue, that term is often used pejoratively, but I don't mean it that way. In fact, anyone who cares about public education and reads what he has to say knows that we can find no better friend. I think that both Kamras and Campbell are good people who care about public education, but since I am a self-proclaimed moderate, no one should be surprised that I don't completely agree with either of them.
This is what Kamras said that Campbell took issue with:
I don’t define [teacher] quality in traditional terms – how many years of experience you have, or if you have a master’s, or if you’ve taken all the right education courses. Rather [I define quality] in terms of your belief in the ability of all children to learn and achieve at high levels, and your ability to bring that to fruition – to effectively help all children learn at high levels....
… We need to face a difficult truth, and that is that not all educators, not all school leaders serving in America, are effectively serving their children. And I’ve really taken this year to challenge my professional unions and in general the status quo to be a lot more progressive about embracing policies that make it easier to transition out people who are consistently ineffective. I think that’s really important. It not only helps to remove those who are not adequately serving children, but it also helps retain really effective people, because really effective, ambitious people want to go to work with other ambitious, effective people. And when they feel they are struggling against a system that doesn’t have that — that’s one of the biggest reasons why people leave education.
Campbell believes that Kamras is, in effect, endorsing union busting, and he responds by saying this: Ironically, it's the unions that help preserve and defend the things that Kamras says that we need to do more of, i.e., retain effective and ambitious people. After all, without basic rights as a worker, without any kind of job security, without the ability to determine what happens in your classroom, and without the ability to try new, unconventional approaches, no one will stay in the teaching profession, especially "ambitious, effective people" who "want to push the envelope."
Despite my great respect for Peter Campbell, I have to say that I agree with the thrust of what Kamras is saying. I believe that our tenure and seniority systems are obstacles in the way of educational progress, but I am certainly not in favor of breaking unions. I know what the teaching profession was like before unions and I know what it's like now. Believe me, I know that owe much of the standard of living that I enjoy to teachers' unions, and I would always want a union negotiating any overall package that I was involved in.
Campbell makes valid arguments in support of the job security that teachers enjoy because of our seniority and tenure systems, and he argues that there are a lot more good teachers than bad ones--an argument that I agree with. But he does concede that there are bad ones, and he doesn't address what to me is the even more disturbing problem of excellent young teachers getting cut from school districts simply because they lack seniority. He also doesn't address the problem of veteran teachers failing to be as good as they could be because their seniority has made them so secure. I'm not saying that they become incompetent; that rarely happens. But I have seen too many teachers with seniority quit working as hard and being as good as they were when they were younger. I wish this never happened, but it does. As much as I appreciate the arguments that Campbell makes, I must respectfully disagree with him. I believe our tenure and seniority systems are doing us more harm than good.
As I indicated earlier, this doesn't mean that I completely agree with Kamras. My problem with him is that he implies that the problems we have in public schools are entirely inside the schools--the school itself, the teachers, and the administrators, and that we can solve all of our problems by making changes there. In my experience as a junior and senior high school teacher, it has been very clear that there are two basic parts that go into the equation of student learning. There is the school with its staff, and there is the student. I firmly believe that if we focus all of our reform efforts and ideas on the school side of the equation--trying to find better teachers, trying to find those magic teaching and discipline methods, trying to find better administrators, trying to give kids more technology to work with and more modern school buildings to work in--any progress we make will be very limited.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: we can't make students learn. They have to make the decision to do that themselves, and then we can help them to get there. The biggest problem we have in public education today is not a lack of good teachers, it is that there are too many students who don't make there own education a priority. Granted, good teaching will motivate more kids to want to learn, but Kamras thinks that's a much larger part of the answer than I do. Kamras indicates that the frustration that good teachers feel is due to working with poor teachers and poor administrators, but that doesn't fit my experience. The good teachers I have known have been most frustrated by the number of students who refused to cooperate in their own education.
Quite frankly, there are some kids who don't try to learn and others who don't behave no matter how great the school and the teacher and no matter what methods are used. That would be bad enough, but those kids have an effect on other kids, and at the middle and high school levels, that effect is profound. Why is it that we consistently ignore this whenever we talk about improving public education? People who want to improve education need to face the fact that sometimes, when there are students who don't try and don't behave, it is not because of the teacher or the school. If we, as a country, ever decide to address that problem, the education for all social classes and all races will improve like it never has before.