Sunday, November 26, 2006

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.


Anonymous Chris Lehmann said...

Amazing post.

I'd argue, more than liberal, conservative or moderate, I'd argue you're a pragmatist.

11/26/2006 9:42 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

I'm missing where Kamras says no change should be made to improve student effort.

Typically, the best customer service, and some of the best employee standard of living that exists without unions is found in private industry. Would you suggest privatizing education?

12/01/2006 9:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You cannot, in any intellectually honest way, blame low-achievement on student apathy until you have first reasonably ensured that all students who DO want to learn, DO care, and DO try to succeed, can do so. This is demonstrably and terribly not the cause, and it IS the fault of educators across all levels of the public school system. Attributing low achievement to student apathy is confusing cause and effect. Because we have no means to remove ineffective educators who have not committed a crime, because we have no malpractice standards, teaching is littered with individuals who should be insurance adjusters. Only when we develop as professionals to the point where our continued employment is a function of quality and not contractual language, can we fairly address the issue of student apathy as a cause of low achievement.

But you know what Dennis? By that point, I bet you anything we won't have to.

It won't exist in any meaningful way.

12/03/2006 6:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You mentioned a topic that pretty much rattles my brain daily in arguing both for and against....unions!

I grew up respecting the incredible good that unions did in the past but hating their distructive power in the present. The delema that I now face is that I actually love my local union and they have done a lot of good for me and our district (I am even a union rep for my school to the sheer joy of all of my friends). But it just kills me that a part of my dues goes to the NEA.

On the down side, I think that because of unions, it is now so incredibly hard to fire bad teachers that it is definitely having an impact on the quality of education in I would say most of our schools. We all know of teachers that are just down right horrible and it is practically impossible to get rid of them in less than a 3 year Improvement Plan.

But unions are not the total reason - without a doubt, there is enough blame to go around in the causes of a struggling education system - parents, society, federal/state Dept. of Eds, school districts and definitely the students themselves.


12/03/2006 9:15 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Strausser, it sounds like you and I are on the same page. TMAO, obviously you and I are not. I want to emphasize, though, that we DO agree on the need to be able to keep the best teachers and get rid of the worst ones. Believe me, I'm with you on that one. But when you place the entire blame for student apathy on poor teaching, I completely disagree. What you are saying simply does not fit my experience. You have a different perspective than I do because of where you work, and the kids you work with, and I respect that. Maybe that's part of the reason that we see things so differently.

Have you read any of KDerosa's stuff? Your conclusions about the problems in public education are similar to his. He also believes that any lack of learning is the result of poor teaching, but I suspect that the teaching approach that he thinks we should be taking is a lot different than yours. I think you're both wrong.

Despite the fact that you and I have different philosophies, I really appreciate your comment.

12/04/2006 3:34 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Oh, and Crypticlife, Kamras doesn't say ANYTHING about student effort. When public education is discussed, this factor is consistently ignored, and that's my point.

12/04/2006 3:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

KDR and I agree that bad teaching can screw kids up (almost) permanently, and that teachers are the lever to move the education world. From those agreements, we sometimes head in different directions, however.

My main point was not that 100% of student apathy can find its root cause in poor teaching (although maybe 90% can), but rather, it is unfair and ridiculous to focus on student apathy until you can reasonably guarantee that once apathy is eliminated, there is a quality professional ready to instruct. Since we cannot claim that, why spill ink on student apathy? Seriously, why?

12/07/2006 8:19 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

TMAO, I think the effect of kids on other kids is a much more important factor than you do. At the high school level, I think it is arguably more important than the teacher. That's why I think classroom teachers need more power to deal with truly disruptive and apathetic kids. I have done posts on that subject, and I don't want to turn this comment into a mini-post, but I'm aware that this is an area where you completely disagree with me.

12/08/2006 1:37 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

TMAO, if you are there, I made my last comment in a hurry, so I want to add to it. You think the main cause of student apathy is poor teaching. I think the main cause is that we tolerate it. That's why I think it's essential that we address it. I also think that one of the things that drives good people out of teaching is the frustration of being unable to deal effectively with disruptive behavior and apathy.

Maybe another thing that causes us to disagree is a difference in our ideas about what a good teacher is. I have the feeling that you have a more narrow view of that than I do. I could be wrong, and I honestly don't mean to offend you when I say this, but I get the feeling that in order for you to consider someone a good teacher, he or she has to share your philosophy and be a lot like you.

Although I don't know you, my guess is that you are good at what you do. If that's the case, considering who you work with, you are reaching a lot of kids that a lot of us can't, and you are worth your weight in gold. If you are waiting for a nation full of teachers like that, I'm sorry, but it just ain't gonna happen. As special as that kind of teacher is, I think there are a lot of other teachers with different approaches who are also good. In that sense, I'm might be more hopeful than you are.

12/09/2006 6:43 AM  

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