We Should Value Teachers More

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The problem between the District #86 school board and its teachers (see this blog’s archive<a href=”https://jamescrandell.files.wordpress.com/and http://www.hhsta.org/ for more on this) is only one local symptom of how our nation’s attitude is declining when it comes to our educators. Even as that situation remains tense, a petition asking the Chicago Tribune to stop attacking teachers circulates, tenure laws get repealed in California, teacher pension laws in Illinois are in the courts, and Whoopi Goldberg (one of the great educational scholars of our time) feels free to dump all over something about which she knows very little. And we’re only a couple of years removed from the repeal of teachers’ collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin, which has propelled Governor Scott Walker into being hyped as a potential 2016 Republican Presidential nominee. What gives? Sure everybody has complained about teachers’ hours and summers “off” forever (Let’s not get into that today, okay fellow educators? Especially those of you whom I’ve often heard crowing, “It’s great to be a teacher in July!”), but the recent anti-teacher deluge seems especially caustic.

Economics rears its head immediately as the main instigator, from my perspective. The recent financial meltdown was scary as hell. Jobs were lost and the stock market plunged, but what really got us in the middle class worked up was the one investment we had come to believe was immune to the vagaries of the market—our homes. Not only did foreclosure hit many who had never considered that as even a remote possibility, but the value of everybody’s house tanked. For the adult lives of most homeowners, regardless of recessions or stock market plunges, the one investment we could count on going up was our home. Of course, yeah, we can all see now that wasn’t realistic, but beginning in 2006, our complacency about real estate holdings got the shock treatment. The statistics are stark: From the peak in the fourth quarter of 2005 until the nadir at the end of 2011, housing values in the Chicago area lost over 37% (see http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2014/02/us-house-prices for an interactive graph on housing values). Most of us have various investments—from mutual funds to baseball cards—but the one we depended on most to increase lost over one-third of its worth rapidly. Fortunately, housing prices have recovered in the last few years, but we can no longer assume that the money we put into our houses will be returned in total, much less with the huge gains we banked on before 2006.

As homeowners saw their live-in savings accounts plummet, they cast about for blame targets. Wall Street and bankers rightfully bore the brunt of our initial outrage, but what could we do about them? Washington’s response was to throw hundreds of billions their way since they were “too big to fail.” That certainly didn’t make us feel better about these folks, but they hold the mortgages on our homes and run the only banks we have, for the most part. So we’ve pretty much accepted, grudgingly perhaps, that while we don’t necessarily like bankers and investment people, we are willing to deal with them, allowing them to make money from us. But those property tax bills keep right on coming, and what’s the largest chunk on those yearly horrors? That’s right; clearly public school districts are taking way too much of our hard-earned tax dollars. Couple the significant hit on our home values/savings accounts with those taxes and steadily increasing teachers’ salaries, not to mention publicity on how our standardized test scores don’t stack up so well in relation to other countries, and you’ve got a recipe for some serious blowback.

And that’s what’s been happening. What makes teachers especially susceptible to this kind of harping is the “familiarity” factor. I’ve written about this before, but one of the challenging aspects of teaching is how everybody believes himself to be an expert. No, the vast majority of these experts have never taught a single class, but they all attended many. In the more advantaged suburbs of Chicago, almost all the taxpayers attended schools K-12, a full thirteen years of public education, all of which were under the tutelage of teachers. So, having been a student all that time makes many believe that they know a great deal about teachers and feel qualified to evaluate both their worth and their quality.

And that’s partly true, which is why we teachers (and ex-teachers—I was one for thirty-three years before retiring in 2012. We can argue about whether or not I deserve my pension another time, okay?) get so defensive when the public seems to be on the offensive. If you really hate unions as much as some of you claim, you should dial down the attacks a tad; nothing besides a bad board can make teachers more patriotic about their unions than the hue and cry from public “experts” holding forth on how overpaid and crappy teachers are. As a union activist for most of my teaching career, I can assure you that the more negativity teachers read and heard, the easier it was for me to find people willing to help out with the dozens of union tasks we needed done. So given the current state of affairs, at least teacher advocates have some help from the many teachers who typically ignore their unions except (not unlike property tax payers) to complain about dues. You can be sure that with the national “beat up teachers” fest going on and the “interesting” school board in charge right now in Hinsdale #86, attendance at meetings and volunteers to help out the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association (HHSTA, the teachers’ union in the district) are at all-time highs.

But even though you had perfect attendance for all thirteen years of your public education and listened to and remember every word all those teachers said to you, you don’t really understand the job of a teacher. Nor do I have an in-depth knowledge of exactly what you go through to do your job. Yes, I confess to have repeated mean jokes about various professions over the years, but I don’t write impassioned comments on any story related to your job about how you and your co-workers are greedy, incompetent bloodsuckers who should take a huge cut in both your pay and your pension, not to mention doing away with your collective bargaining rights and due process (tenure). Nor do I demand that your pay be based on tests your customers take which are created and scored by third (for profit) parties, or that you adhere to standards created mostly by the corporate world (with a few token school administrators) both of which can change (the tests and the standards) at the whim of, once again, people who don’t even do your job.

Unfortunately, the solutions to most of the problems in education lie in changing the attitudes of people who seem completely set in their views. No, it’s not a coincidence that the countries whose students are doing the best job on those pesky tests are the ones that esteem teachers the most. South Korea and Finland have very little in common in their approaches to education (South Korea demands rigid conformity and much rote learning while Finland disdains a testing culture in favor of small classes and a more nurturing approach), but the main thing they do share is respect for their teachers. While some will immediately focus on teacher salaries as the only way to do this, the truth is that “value” encompasses a great deal more than money.

Value begins with teacher recruitment, and continues into many other areas: allowing autonomy, showing respect, and encouraging initiative would be three main areas where America lacks in comparison to other countries. Canada has made great strides in its educational system, and one of the keys to that progress was how all reforms were dominated by teacher input and ideas. It’s unfortunate how many different times and in how many different industries we have to keep learning the same lessons over and over again: Improvement, creativity, productivity, enthusiasm, dedication, and results will come when (and only when) workers are listened to and when all reforms are based on what those doing the work recommend.

The Common Core is a great example of well-intended programs that ignored this basic tenet. The standards found in the Common Core are excellent, and few would dispute that it would be great if every student could achieve the goals set out in them. However, you can’t create all these benchmarks for the students to reach at very specific grade levels without understanding the students in any unique school. A high school in a community of highly educated people who expect their children to go to college will differ greatly from the students in a low-income neighborhood where many see high school graduation as unattainable. The standards in those two places have to be different, not in the sense of abandoning any standards at all, but in creating goals that will push students in realistic ways relative to their abilities and backgrounds.

The Common Core also demands concrete measurements of highly abstract concepts. How do you objectively determine if a student can, “Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently”? (You can check out all the standards at http://www.corestandards.org/read-the-standards/.) Nobody I know would argue against this as a laudable goal for all students, but how will you determine if this has been achieved and what level of success will you accept as proof? Given that highly educated, intelligent people regularly forward me various bogus emails and websites that warn me about cockroach eggs on envelopes, apps that will allow me to know who viewed my Facebook page, or Nigerian fortunes awaiting me; this goal seems elusive for many adults at a 100% standard, so what can we hope for from elementary school children? And should we try to measure this when students are in sixth, tenth, or second grade? Every year? And how much instructional time do we sacrifice to testing? Again, it depends on the school, and only the teachers of that school have the skills to make that determination, not to mention creating the assessment to measure it.

So when the Common Core came out, most states leaped on the bandwagon, dumped a huge amount of work on teachers, and expected them to make something they’d had no input on or experience with work perfectly immediately. And then teachers were told that their performance evaluations would now be based on how students did on Common Core tests. So, you have standards created by politicians and business people, tests to assess those standards made by for-profit corporations, and teachers who had nothing to do with any of this being held responsible for how well their students perform on these tests. We don’t need a Common Core, people; we just need a large dose of Common Sense.

And nobody (here, anyway) is arguing to exclude parental, political, or corporate voices from discussions on what our students should be able to do upon graduation from high school. Conversations about those standards should happen much more frequently than they do—at least every year, in my opinion—and are crucial to helping our experts (I’ll give you three guesses to whom I’m referring here) to figure out modifications that would help the students learn more, better, more efficiently, and differently. But that interaction needs to happen with everyone’s believing that teachers are the most important people in making whatever is agreed upon work, so their voices need to be, if not loudest, at least on a par with all the others at the table. And the teachers’ table mates need to recognize that if they can’t convince the teachers a modification is superior, then it won’t be. Some won’t like the sound of that, but it is true. Belief in what you’re doing is the single most important criterion for any reforms’ succeeding. If we don’t get teachers on board, then nothing much else can happen (as recent history has shown over and over).

When we value teachers, when we make them the driving force in any school reforms, when we recognize that a one-size-fits-all curriculum won’t ever succeed in every school, when we demand collaboration with teachers as standard practice, when we stop treating teachers as servants to order about, and when we recognize that we all have to work together to help teachers to improve public education; that’s when progress will be made. If Finland, South Korea, and Canada (to name a few places where education works this way) can do that, surely the United States can, too. Until we come to that collective realization, however, we will continue to have local (like District #86) and national (like Common Core) educational missteps that hurt students, denigrate the important profession of teaching, and ultimately make our country a little less ready for the future. Valuing teachers is the single most important and simplest way to improve every public school in America.

Check out James Crandell’s eBook on education at http://www.snowflake-schools.com/.

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