Category: Teaching Issues

Autonomy Does Not Preclude Accountability


One of the key dichotomies for teachers in public schools, especially when you speak of education reform, is autonomy versus accountability.  Many experts and politicians regularly attack the current system as providing too many protections which enable teachers to avoid being held accountable.  Those against teacher tenure, unions, and collective bargaining rights emphasize how those things shield teachers from being called to task for academic outcomes; when employees in business don’t deliver demonstrable results (increased sales, more profits, or work productivity), the reasoning goes, they are subject to being fired with little recourse: Produce or get out.  Teachers, on the other hand, (as claimed over and over by tenure foes) achieve job protection early in their careers and are never again under any pressure to do anything except show up and get a paycheck, regardless of lackluster results, typically as shown by standardized tests.

But people like me will counter that without commitment, dedication, and creativity in our teachers, our kids won’t get a quality education.  Teachers coerced, demeaned, and rated like brands of toothpaste will not be happy in their work, nor will the most talented individuals be attracted to a profession which is not valued in terms of either prestige or monetary reward.  I have always wanted my children to have motivated, energized, happy people teaching them; and the best teachers have always insisted on a certain amount of freedom to conduct their classrooms as they saw fit.  Although we’ll discuss how curricular decisions need to be determined collectively as well as updated frequently, individual teachers need to feel in charge when it comes to their classrooms which can only come through a sense of autonomy, the belief that what you are doing matters and that you have control over how you do your job.

And that’s one reason teacher unions have come to play an important role in getting teachers some freedom.  It would be quite disingenuous of me not to let you know that I was a union activist over my 33-year teaching career:  Not only did I teach junior high and high school English, but I also served in my teachers’ unions in several positions for the bulk of that time, as local president, contract negotiator, and grievance chair for example.  Obviously that experience does color my perceptions on this issue, so you’ll have to keep in mind I am decidedly pro-union when I analyze how public schools can improve.  It will come as no surprise, then, that I support tenure, collective bargaining laws, and independent teachers. I’ve explained all the reasons why many times before:  You can check out other essays on my blog  (or if you’d like even more detail, my book) to get those explanations more specifically.  But like that quick take above, unless teachers are enthusiastic and motivated (aka autonomous), your kids won’t learn as much as they could.  If you want your teachers to give their best and work their hardest, you’d better be sure they like what they do.  Treating them like interchangeable, faceless clerks who need to stock the shelves with material you have forced on them while insisting they handle that material in identical, proscribed ways—which is what some claim as necessary “reform”—will not create the environment or workplace morale which can enhance the education of our country’s children.

But if patronizing standardization isn’t the answer, leaving teachers wholly to their own devices isn’t either.  One persistent issue over the years has been how the quality of instruction varies from teacher to teacher and school to school.  Because teachers have been largely tossed into their classrooms without much day-to-day support, there is no question that some have floundered more than they should.  Don’t get me wrong:  I believe floundering is one of the best learning tools for anyone in a new job, and I heartily endorse a healthy amount.  Learning by doing is the fastest way to become competent, so trying lots of different things in order to figure out what works is one of the best ways for new teachers to grow.  (Be sure to catch my enlightening workshop: “Floundering—Going Down with Style” coming soon to your child’s desperate-to-fill-institute-time school district.  And no, I don’t really explain anything during the three-day workshop; good teachers will flounder around until they figure it out on their own!)  Really, I’m not sure I’d want to keep any teacher on staff who believed he had all the answers after teaching for one year; making mistakes, second-guessing lesson plans, and the Sunday-night “dreads” (becoming uncomfortable as the wonder of your school-free weekend fades into the reality of the approaching Monday morning) all help motivate young teachers to figure things out, to get better.  But like all “good” things, too much struggle can lead to habitual bad techniques, cutting corners, and out-of-control classes.  All of which leads us right back to the original American Enterprise Institute article which has stimulated my last three essays (Numbers one and two are still available if you haven’t read them.)

Those essays and that article review the ambitious goals two schools implemented with teachers providing students with challenging curriculums and pushing the highest standards, while being provided with quality resources in the form of up-to-date facilities and opportunities to collaborate.  But we also discovered that no matter what anyone tells you, no two schools will require exactly the same treatment: Many outside factors (parental support, community educational background, and available resources—to name a few) play a role in how ready students are for the material they are expected to handle.  Forcing all schools to follow the same path to achieving those high-level standards is not only a foolish goal, but logistically impossible.  Classrooms are always inhabited by unique sets of human beings who must cooperate and concentrate to complete purposeful actions in the hopes of attaining something useful (knowledge).  That’s a challenging, complex set of variables which will interact in a myriad of ways.  Results will never be constant because it’s impossible to control all the things which will impact the final outcome.  Not only will each individual and class react in one-of-a-kind ways based on their unique backgrounds, but you also have the wild-card factor of rapidly changing/growing young people.  There’s no question that you will see a large change in both students’ personalities and habits from kindergarteners through seniors in high school.   I certainly did as the school year progressed in the students who made up the bulk of my 33-year teaching career, ninth graders (fourteen going on fifteen)—a first-quarter freshman can be very different from that same human being in the fourth quarter.   Blend all those ingredients together and you can have a significant variance from year to year with a single teacher and the same curriculum.  That’s not speculation; that is a fact, as any teacher will tell you.

But good teachers will focus more on what they can do to “fix” whatever doesn’t work well, rather than fixating on all the other variables.  Understanding those things which impact readiness for and obstacles to learning is one thing; using them as an excuse to give less than maximum effort cannot be acceptable in a teaching staff.  And right there you have the rock and hard place of teaching: Teachers can never stop doing their utmost to provide students with the opportunity to learn, but they have to accept that there are many factors beyond their control which can impede progress.  The challenge for teachers is to ensure a baseline performance which meets the minimum standards which have been collectively worked out by the school’s community.  No, those should not be left entirely up to any one teacher; this is a key issue for accountability:  Teachers have to understand that simply because they disagree with or haven’t signed off on parts of the curriculum doesn’t mean they shouldn’t teach them or work just as hard to help students attain the goals which have been mutually worked out over the years. Because of those non-academic items which affect every child’s capabilities to achieve standards, teachers must recognize that the curriculum which has evolved for any one school is the product of many years’ experience and work from other teachers, administrators, school boards, and community members.  A school’s “culture,” therefore, is much too significant for any individual to ignore, and new teachers have to learn the larger gestalt in which they work. But equally important is that every teacher has a vital role to play in that culture’s progression.

Accountability, then, is based on the way a teacher fits into a school’s process.  All too often, teachers are given little education on the background of their school—what the community expects and how that has been changed over the course of decades.  Instead, they are assigned classes to teach, textbooks to use, and provided no help figuring out how they can use their unique talents to assist their students to achieve established standards.  And those standards might not be very clearly spelled out either; teachers have to learn those mostly on their own, too.  Finally, even less time is spent helping new teachers to understand how they are a crucial part of evaluating and modifying the curriculum from which the standards flow, that their opinion based on their own experiences will now contribute to how the school operates.  No matter how many decades more one teacher has been teaching than another, both the first-year rookie and the thirty-year veteran will have roughly the same number of students to teach; and thus equal responsibility for the school’s success or failure.

But because schools generally do not foster a sense of teacher community, instead leaving that mostly to chance, every school has developed extremely varied identities which will veer positively or negatively, way too dependent on the charisma or quirks of individual teachers, principals, superintendents, and school boards.  Teachers have to fight to be heard, and most never even understand how important they are to the school’s function.  Instead, they have shielded themselves from the capriciousness which regularly seems to flow from their bosses, politicians, and communities, accepting responsibility only for what happens in their classrooms and ignoring their rightful place as an important piece of the larger picture (often using the insulation provided by strong unions to stay out of the fray).

But as we noted last time, the trend in many schools is toward more time for teachers to plan and work together, which could help develop that unified purpose, that feeling of community which allows the sum to be much greater than that of the parts.  And you can rest assured that once a sense of teachers’ belonging, involvement, and being valued as important to the school has been instilled in a school, that school’s teachers will expect all members of their community be accountable for their efforts toward that end goal.  The widely criticized tenure process is supposed to be a trial period for new teachers, a time to evaluate if they have what it takes to join the rest of the teachers as shareholders in “ownership” of the school and its legacy.  Tenure is a significant achievement, not because it guarantees lifetime employment, but rather because it means a teacher is now a full-fledged, accepted member of the staff, a partner in the firm. When you work with kids, you have to feel like what you’re doing is significant, that it matters.  Which of course, teaching does.

Consider the memorable people with whom you have interacted over the years.  The odds are high you will list at least one teacher among the top two or three important non-family influences in helping you to become the person you are.  Granted, teachers do spend a great deal of time with the community’s children and are entrusted to make sure their students are provided with worthwhile learning opportunities.  But that quantity only emphasizes how important quality matters in teachers who are shaping our communities of the future.  I feel a personal disappointment/responsibility that with over 3,000 of my ex-students now eligible voters, Trump could ever come close to being elected President.  I do take some solace on Illinois’s overwhelming support for Hillary, but still… Regardless of my overblowing my own importance in Presidential elections, every person who attended public schools bears the impact of many teachers; they participate in the growth and development of all of us.  We tend to ignore their importance in how our society turns out, but after family, teachers are the most significant influence on our kids.

Accountability, then, can become institutionalized once teachers who actively participate in their schools’ curriculums and cultures work more closely with those new to the profession.  It’s already happened to some extent in virtually every excellent school in the country.  The challenge is figuring out the correct environment which allows that culture to develop so the process is not so haphazard.  The encouraging trends of permitting teachers more time to interact through more student late-arrival days and the increased numbers of teachers working together to team teach are definitely steps toward helping teachers to learn their schools’ cultures more thoroughly.  It will also lead to everyone’s becoming more familiar with each other’s methodology which can only lead to inexperienced teachers learning how to do better and skilled teachers to a clearer understanding which teachers need help or another career.  No, the veterans won’t try to create clones of themselves—that would take way too much time and work, given their normally busy schedules.  But as all teachers get more time to interact with their colleagues, they will instill a sense of mission in each other that accepts nothing less than hard work, dedication to common goals, and a ruthless devotion to finding even better techniques, materials, and/or technologies to increase their effectiveness.  Those who can’t or won’t commit to that level of performance should be obvious to everyone, certainly during the multi-year probationary period currently in place prior to achieving tenure, and politely but firmly shown the door.

And that’s without even getting into my challenge that if the current tenure process is used as it was designed to function (at least here in Illinois, one of the more “liberal” teacher union states), it will effectively police the teaching profession.  Accountability coupled with autonomy in schools already exists; you need only look to those which are successful and you will discover its proliferation.  The question is how to replicate that atmosphere more consistently and systematically: Setting up situations where teachers have the time to cooperate with each other is the single best way to ensure an accountable outcome and a more robust school culture filled with autonomous teachers.


Two More Public School Ambitions

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Last time, we took a look at an article—in the American Enterprise Institute’s What to Do: Policy Recommendations for 2017 series, included in the K-12 Education section—where AEI researchers summarized three key approaches used in two charter schools sponsored by the University of Chicago.  The first, “Provide an ambitious model of instruction,” led us to many digressions on how we determine what the model should look like:  Since that area includes what’s in the curriculum, what methods are used to impart that curriculum, and to what standards students are held as evidence of meeting those goals, it’s a gnarly topic—and it’s pretty much everything that matters most about education.  So naturally, the debate over how public schools can maintain excellence when that’s what they deliver, improve when it isn’t, and the ways we can tell the differences between the two has been anything but smooth or consensual.

Rather than review that contentious recent past (or rail against the present, given who is now leading our country on educational policy), we need to look at the second two “ambitious” principles good schools need to incorporate, according to the AEI. (I keep referencing this very conservative policy source because it’s relevant that two parties—the AEI and me—typically so far apart in our opinions on…well, almost everything else, can agree on these fundamental premises.)  Those other two ambitions would be as follows:  Schools should “organize teachers’ work to provide ambitious instruction, and (school systems need to) provide broad supports for ambitious instruction.”

Of course, we’re back to debatable abstractions, but there’s really no way to organize and support ambitious instruction without more time for teachers to interact with each other. There is much truth to the assertion in this article that as schools exist right now, teachers are left to their own devices too much.  The AEI sees current practices as teacher-centric, that teachers develop into divas, one-of-a-kind artists who free-lance and expect to be able to do whatever they want since they know everything, almost as though teachers went into education solely to flaunt their individual skills, prima donnas who never have their egos checked.  They also complain that teachers claim no one can question what they do since only teachers understand what is needed.  (Did I mention that AEI and I often diverge in our views?)  No, I wouldn’t phrase it that way, but in the spirit of trying to find educational foundations on which all can agree, I’m overlooking their slight negativity toward my ex-colleagues. (I could never have been accused of arrogance during my 33 years in the classroom—truly, I didn’t consider myself to be half as wonderful as I actually was.) Instead, I would point out that the workloads and schedules of teachers don’t allow for enough time to interact in any significant way on curricular/methodological/evaluative standards.  (That bit about nobody questioning their expertise will be addressed next time.)

Regardless of our disagreement over the evolution of teachers’ isolation in enacting crucial educational issues, we do agree that teachers need to work together to develop approaches to all those important pedagogical questions.

But they can’t be expected to generate methodologies, goals, or standards which are the same as any other school’s.  In the first part of our analysis of these ambitions, we pointed out how any single set of standards applied uniformly to every school will not succeed.  The needs, backgrounds, and abilities of American students simply won’t cooperate with such a limited view.  For proof of that just look to the failure of the Common Core’s evaluative arm, the PARCC tests. which some 63% of the 42 states who are still using the Core’s standards have stopped administering.  It’s especially easy to understand the folly of trying to administer any standards uniformly:  For example, we all agree with the goal that high school graduates should have high levels of critical reading skills.  But we’re likely to part company when it comes to how we measure progress toward that goal, what evaluation instrument we use to assess it, and the grading scale we use for different sets of students—and let’s not even get started in how we would define “critical reading skills!”  Each school has to consider its students’ previous educational experiences, natural ability, family support, economic status, and national/state/local financial investment before tailoring the educational curriculum, winding up with different approaches to that overall objective, different ways to evaluate progress towards it, and different levels of achievement deemed as acceptable.  It just isn’t realistic to demand the same results from wildly varying starting points.  (This is the issue Senator Al Franken tried to get then-nominee, now Secretary of Education DeVos to discuss when he asked for her stance on the proficiency vs. growth debate.  She had no clue what he was talking about, which is another significant problem we currently face.)

The only answer to this challenge, then, is to allow individual schools latitude in determining how to assess where students begin, where they finish, and which approaches work best to aid that growth.  And if we expect harried teachers to do all this in a directed, coordinated way, we’ll have to get them the time to work together and provide them with the resources they need to get the job done.

We’ll talk about accountability, which has become a huge public relations issue (aka: buzzword, smokescreen, distraction) in the future, but the real problem with these two ambitions will be that they cost money.  I worked in two school districts (Itasca Elementary #10 and Hinsdale High School #86) which did an excellent job in providing the resources I needed to do my job: supplies were abundant, technology was good if not cutting edge (I don’t believe you ever want state-of-the-art electronics since it means you’re paying double for something that still has major bugs in it, compared to the duller-but-significantly-more-reliable-and-cheaper versions down the road), and the facilities were well-maintained. (My chief complaint at my first school—which was having to compete with noise from O’Hare’s takeoffs and landings every few minutes on some days—got solved just a couple of years after I left with soundproofing and air-conditioning.  My big complaint at my second school—stifling classrooms for many days each school year—got taken care of the first year after I retired with air-conditioning for the entire building.  Clearly, I was the key obstacle to building improvements where I worked.)

The money problem is definitely tied to the way public education is funded:  Here in Illinois, property taxes dominate, meaning wealthy areas have great schools, including facilities.  Recent legislation has attempted to even out some of the disparities through larger state contributions to poorer districts, but we’re a long way from anything remotely resembling equity when it comes to public education funding.  (And even the modest steps made in Illinois were partially offset by a tax break for those who choose to send their children to parochial schools and the elimination of the crucial requirement that students have physical education every day.)  In other words, fair school financing is one of those huge issues that creates too-large an explanation/digression for my purposes here.  Rest assured, I do have suggestions for better ways to fund public education (see my e-Book for much more on this), but we’ll have to put off getting into that one again, at least for now.  It is an important key, absolutely.

But the time issue is more manageable since there are economical ways to address it that don’t require millions of dollars to be levied by a taxing body (local and/or state); they will, however, mean reassessing the traditional school day as well as how teachers interact.

More time for teachers to work together is clearly a trend in area schools:  My daughter’s Downers Grove High School District #99 has begun late arrival days, for example; most Mondays this school year will begin at 9:20 A.M.  Teachers will report at their usual 7:20, providing two hours each week for more collaboration.  Other school districts in the area have also begun working more staff time into their schedules.  Given how much teachers have to get done as it is, this time will have to be planned carefully to assure quality collaborative opportunities, lest busy teachers circumvent the program’s intent by using the time to do regular class work (grade papers, record scores, contact parents, fill out forms, and the like).  Despite the potential pitfalls, this type of teachers-working-with-teachers space is exactly what the goal of more “organizing teachers for ambitious instruction” is all about.

Another positive sign is that more peer coaches are becoming available.  Many school districts now regularly grant release time (typically one less teaching period) to free up classroom teachers to assist other teachers with tasks with which they might need help.  From using technology to reading techniques to mentoring younger teachers, it is always easier to ask a colleague a question, not to mention your colleague’s expertise is based on actual teaching experience.  You’d be surprised at how high a percentage of the scant time allowed for institutes during my thirty-three-year career was spent with outside experts who didn’t have any first-hand knowledge of my school and students; you’d be even more shocked that a significant percentage of those trying to instruct me didn’t even have any teaching experience or education background at all.  Giving teachers assignments where they can help other teachers is a much better way to spend institute money that is currently used on outside experts, who provide mixed results (and that’s being kind).

Finally and most significantly, more teachers are being allowed to work together.  Right now, this occurs mostly when special education teachers work in regular/average classrooms with the subject area teacher.  The special ed teacher is primarily there to service the students in the class with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) who have had a learning or psychological issue documented.  These students might otherwise be in special education classes.  The unintended upside is that the more integrated the teachers become as they work together, the less any differences are perceived by everyone.  It’s just two teachers in the same class teaching everyone.  This can be beneficial for the non-IEP students in understanding that students with differences are just like them and don’t need segregation or being singled out for those differences; however, it can have an invigorating impact on the teachers as well.  They come to understand each other’s subject matter, learn state regulations/mandates, and help each other to utilize methodology they might not otherwise know about.

That last benefit is a key to helping schools get the most out of their teachers.  Most outside experts come into a school with “all” the answers: some program or approach they insist, if properly applied (which generally means a hefty investment in whatever they’re selling—usually consultation services, software, texts, workbooks, and/or courses), will dramatically improve any school…forever!  That we’re having this discussion at all shows you just how well those promises turn out.  But teachers—who spend their days doing the same things other teachers do AND who have the time to impart to others the special skills/insights they possess—are infinitely more helpful and useful to faculties.  Not only do they know the technology, technique, or methodology better than others, but  even more importantly for making that specialized skill beneficial, they understand what teachers in their buildings need and want.  As was pointed out earlier, teachers are used to going solo in the classroom and can be reluctant to confess weakness or ignorance to others.  But working with a colleague you’ve known for years makes it much easier to ask that awkward question and get an answer which might unleash some beneficial tactic for helping students.

Cooperative teams working together to improve worker productivity has been standard in most large corporations for quite some time now, but schools still tend to operate with dozens of independent entrepreneurs who don’t communicate with each other all that often.  But even more radical (translated: expensive) solutions are possible:  I’ve speculated about some in my eBook, and in another blog entry suggested a way for new teachers to be incorporated into a staff through a cooperative program where new teachers and veterans are assigned the same class for a year.  Assuming the benefits of this idea are as bountiful as I believe they would be, the concept could be expanded to having all teachers work cooperatively with another to teach classes on a regular schedule.  Coupled with the increased collaboration time we’ve already seen many school districts incorporating, we could see increasingly effective schools in no time.

And this cooperative teaching model wouldn’t be limited to teachers—every administrator should be required (although I would prefer the term “granted the privilege”) to teach at least one class every school year as well.  As was shown in the schools the AEI found to be successful, not to mention the countries where school systems have been highly rated for years, when educators have the opportunity to work together, they will find answers to the specific challenges their unique schools face much more effectively than when teachers are left in their current isolation with only outside experts pretending to know what is best.

This ambitious agenda definitely places more control with individual schools and teachers rather than a centralized bureaucracy (like county, state, or federal governments), which inevitably leads to concerns about accountability.  We’ll take on that issue next time.

Ambitious Education I

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The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) is not an organization with which I normally agree, as I have discussed before.  From the environment to taxation to consumer protections, we tend to diverge:  They prefer fewer controls and less government involvement in most things, while I believe the government must play a significant role in order for humans to progress, especially in areas where human greed and self-interest conflict with overall societal well-being .  AEI’s most influential donors, the Koch brother billionaires, rarely support candidates I vote for (although I think we agreed on not voting for Trump), and their push to eliminate regulations and restrictions on their energy projects (coal and natural gas) scares me.  But, this article, in AEI’s What to Do: Policy Recommendations for 2017 series, included in the K-12 Education section, is quite astute in its suggestions for how good schools should be run.  Amid the pro-DeVos (I’m not) and we-need-more-charter-schools (we don’t) articles, they tucked in this one, “To Reform Education, Be Ambitious,” by Nat Malkus (AEI Research Fellow) and Ian Lindquist (AEI’s Program Manager of Education Policy Studies).  Although “ambitious” might be a stretch, the process they outline is what many teachers have been advocating for a long time as really the only way to approach improving (where necessary) and maintaining (where already successful) public education.

Based on a book which analyzed steps taken in two University of Chicago charter schools, The Ambitious Elementary School  (authored by University of Chicago’s Stephen Raudenbush and Lisa Rosen, along with Elizabeth McGhee Hassrick of Drexel University), Malkus and Lindquist cull their AEI presentation into three fundamental approaches all schools should incorporate into the way they operate:  Provide an ambitious model of instruction, organize teachers’ work to provide ambitious instruction, and provide broad supports for ambitious instruction.  In essence, what this means is that teachers need to be provided with appropriate resources so they can collectively cooperate to hold students to mutually developed high standards.  That’s not particularly “ambitious,” especially to those of us familiar with how public education works in suburban areas with the financial means to provide good educational facilities. But it does at least get to the heart of what it takes to have a good school without going off on tangents which demean teachers or attack their unions (which tends to be more typical of the “conservative” approach to education).  In an era of polarization, that a group like the AEI can produce anything with which those in education can use as a basis for discussion, is pretty good, so this ex-union activist will do his level best to meet them halfway.  (I’m no longer a member of the education world, having retired after thirty-three years of teaching.)

Briefly delving into the first Principle of Ambition, providing an ambitious model of instruction simply means each and every student should be pushed, should break an intellectual sweat, should be expected to achieve.  That’s pretty basic, and I would expect it to be a given at any public school.  The challenge, though, is working out the best ways to do that, which is at the heart of a significant portion of the reform movement and its many controversies:  Is tracking (ability grouping) the best way to enhance student outcomes? Can you get the most out of special needs students in main-streamed or separate classes?  How do the answers to those first two issues combine to work in schools with diverse ranges of abilities?  How can we know that students are progressing at acceptable rates?  Does providing school choice enhance or detract from the overall educational outcomes?  Who determines what those outcomes should be?  An ambitious model of instruction has always been the clear mission for public education; our democracy depends upon clear-thinking citizens, and that will only happen if their education is rigorous.  But just what that should look like has been difficult to define or assess (plus, those previous questions are just a few of the dozens confronting public schools), which has led to countless school reform battles.

We need only look at one of the more recent attempts to sort that out to see the challenges:  The Common Core. No one can read the standards set forth in the Core and fault them as unworthy goals.  Problems, however, quickly arose on how best to apply them, how to measure progress towards them, and how well the grade-level objectives matched up with any school’s students.  As of this year, only three of forty-five states which adopted the Core’s standards have totally dropped out, but a whopping twenty-six will no longer use the recommended Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests to determine how students are progressing toward those standards.  And of all the testing being done, only twelve states require passing the required tests in order to graduate from high school.  In other words, standardized testing is still being done, but using a variety of different instruments with few consequences for those who do poorly.  Thus, we’re still seeking an answer to how we can find reliable ways to determine exactly how effective any public school might be.

Yet, there are many school districts in the country which are producing excellent results, if you consider how well their graduates function in society.  So, there must be some things which are working.  We need to look more closely into the reasons these schools succeed.  Clearly (in light of the Common Core’s white hot controversy during its brief existence), a single set of standards universally applied to all students will not be effective; each school has to work towards finding the correct balance of challenging its students at the appropriate levels without overwhelming them to the point where discouragement sets in.  Somewhere between getting an A for showing up and students’ failing despite intense effort is the sweet spot, but that huge range shows how difficult it will be to locate just where it is.  And as is pointed out by Malkus and Lindquist, an excellent way to get there is to have an individualized plan for each and every student, a tough benchmark to reach when teachers deal with 25 kids or more at a time (and for many, 150+ in a single day). That focus on rigorous objective standards, however, still needs to be of paramount importance since success can never be achieved unless everyone is clear on just what that success should look like. But at the same time we can’t forget that each unique student requires his/her own measure of success, that one-size-fits-all instruction can never be effective for all students.  And yet… You can see the challenges which public education will always present classroom teachers when on the one hand, unique students require unique approaches, but high school diplomas need to be based on similar standards.

Therefore, teachers need to focus on finished products (graduates) who meet a high level of achievement, but must adjust their techniques for reaching that standard constantly to match the unique skill set each student has.  And we have seen public education yanked back and forth between those two poles over and over again.  School choice proponents, for example, push toward more individualized needs:  The school to which my kid was assigned doesn’t meet her needs, so I’m going to shop around until I can find a school that does.  Accountability advocates, though, pull back in the other direction, arguing for standardized tests based on objective data which will rank students and schools according to a fixed scale, with little room for any qualifying comments or extenuating circumstances.

The hard thing, then, with any attempts to distill the desired ambitious model of instruction into practical applications is figuring out how to apply those disparate objectives in schools which differ so dramatically in their needs since students come with varying abilities and backgrounds.

My experience in junior high (eight years) and high school (twenty-five years) suggests this needs to be clearly and specifically analyzed much more often than is typical.  Schools are classic examples of institutions which tend not to see the forest for the trees:  The day-to-day tasks of planning for each class period, never-ending paperwork, administrative demands, and state/federal mandates (to name a few non-teaching issues) all too often leave little time for high level, more abstract discussions of what exactly the students need to be able to do, what activities will help them reach those skills, and what means teachers will use to determine how well those skills have been achieved.  Oh…and those discussions need to be supplemented with insights into different learning styles as well as finding myriads of methods to individualize instruction as much as possible given the one-of-a-kind abilities each student possesses.  During my teaching career in two middle-to-upper-middle-class schools, we rarely had the time for those discussions; even our institute time was largely devoted either to administrative “initiatives” typically designed to incorporate some state or federal mandate, or to outside “experts” who would come in and try to convince us that they knew better than we did how to teach our kids.

We won’t get an ambitious model of instruction unless our teachers can work together to resolve—at the building level—how to reconcile those competing goals of all students reaching challenging, important standards coupled with instruction which tailors a school’s curriculum to the idiosyncratic needs of each student.  You can hardly be expected to figure out a plan of action to achieve that during a couple of meetings of entire faculties for a few hours two days before school starts. (Most districts begin the school year with one or two teacher institute days, and those days are often up to 50% of the allotted teacher training time for the year.) And we must accept that how those key issues are resolved will vary from school to school (and even within the departments of specific schools).  Teacher A’s school has a history of academic excellence in an affluent area with students proceeding on to elite colleges as their parents closely monitor every test; Teacher B has many English-deficient, economically disadvantaged students who would be the first in their family to graduate from high school, with little parental participation due to crushing work schedules and single-parent households.  To expect the same ambitious method of instruction in those two schools is more than short-sighted—it is a waste of time and resources.  We need to be able to get to a place where those on site have the means to work through the knotty issues of achievement as contrasted with student needs.

And that’s where the AEI article offers some beneficial ideas on how schools can walk that tightrope.  Next time, we’ll take a look at the other two ambitious goals which, if applied appropriately, could lead to much better balance.

Letters Shouldn’t Make the Grade


Grading was an issue I wrestled with for over thirty years in my job as a junior high and high school English teacher.  At their root, grades are necessary evils, required to motivate students to do that which they ought, but don’t particularly want, to do.  It would be wonderful if we all possessed an innate general curiosity which led us to seek out that which is noble, truthful, and providing the greatest good for the greatest number.  But, after a millennium or two of regularly doing exactly the opposite, resorting to selfishness, greed, and sloth in order to satisfy our creature comforts, it’s logical to assume we humans will always have to fight against our baser tendencies.  Young people, contrary to the way they often seem to older folks, are no different in their approach than previous generations.  The current change they especially grapple with, though, is how fast our ever-evolving technology is being integrated into all aspects of their lives—we’ve all been participating in countless sociological experiments as the electrical revolution showers us with device after device, innovation after innovation, which rapidly alter everything, with an emphasis right now on how we communicate with each other.

As you can tell, we could go off on a lengthy general analysis here, but one communication alteration in particular has significantly impacted those aforementioned grades:  Grading programs and on-line postings of student performance for parental consumption have changed the nature of teachers’ evaluating students to the point where the usefulness of the A-B-C-D-F grading scale has been obliterated.  Using a percentage rather than a letter under the current system would better represent a student’s performance in school and be a fairer way of reporting that student’s achievement to colleges and/or future employers.  Schools need to dump letters and use numbers.

I’ve completely lost the battle against grade programs, and will refrain from reprising all the reasons I believe they have hurt public education.  (You could read how more subjective, non-quantifiable student characteristics need to be factored into grades here, or check out a detailed analysis of why grade programs are awful in my eBook, Snowflake Schools.)  Suffice it to say that I don’t like how all student evaluations now come in the form of points so that they can be used with a grade program which reduces student performance to a percentage.  Maybe I’ll summon the energy to tilt at that particular windmill again some day—because I absolutely believe they don’t serve us well—but for the sake of this essay, I’ll concede their pervasiveness means we must adapt to minimize their negative impacts.  So if grade programs and on-line grades are here to stay, in the name of consistency, we should use those percentages on grade reports and transcripts.  You’ll also note that the report card is rapidly fading out of existence as well—everything is on-line, which eliminates the need for any kind of “card.”  (I’m fine with that change since as a big tree hugger I’m good with anything which reduces paper consumption. And to emphasize I’m not asserting any “alternative facts” [i.e. lies] here as well as refraining from sugar-coating reality from myself, I cannot deny how popular grading programs have become with teachers.  But when you combine the ease of computers crunching percentages when fed points with the public posting of each and every assignment result on-line, you really change the nature of the beast, as we will touch upon later.)

To start, those percentages are all the students and parents see up until their conversion to letters at the ends of semesters.  And here’s where the harm of using letters rather than numbers arises:  Any person with the slightest arithmetic knowledge can tell you there’s a greater difference between an 81% student and one who clocks in at 88%, as compared to that 88% student and your 91% ace.  There can’t be much discussion that 7% is a bigger gap than 3%. (I realize with Trump as President, this kind of objective reality could vanish any day now.)  However, on the grade reports issued for those three students, two will have a B, with only that 91% landing the first-prize A.

My contention has always been that the vagueness of the five-letter-grade system in the hands of teachers is a good thing:  Much of what goes into students’ performance has little to do with how they do on assignments where points are assigned.  Again, I’ve sounded this alarm often in the past, but to review the concept: Things like promptness, reliability, effort, quality of classroom participation, courtesy, temperament (mean vs. kind, for example), and source of motivation (the craven nature of some students who have no interest in subject material unless it will be an aspect of their grade is unacceptable and must not be rewarded) should matter when evaluating a student’s progress in class.  But none of those things translate well or readily into points/grade programs and thus are mostly left out of the grades our kids receive now.  So, grade programs have made a big difference in just how the grades our kids earn are tabulated.

Before on-line grade postings took away the more human kind of evaluations, that 88% student might have deserved to rank lower than the 91% student for deficits in some of the above characteristics.  Yep, that would have been the teacher’s judgement based on observations taking place in the classroom over many months.  Uh-huh, those would be subjective evaluations which parents would have to trust were being meted out fairly.  Nope, that wouldn’t always be the case; personalities can conflict which might lead to different reactions in ways far too subtle to be clearly seen as discrimination or conscious bias. (And, by the way, grade programs can’t do much to end this by-product of human interactions.)  But there have been many more cases where teachers used their positions to give students lower grades than they might have earned in points because their performance had been poor in other ways.  Being a “good” person isn’t something that is documented specifically with an objective rubric, but we all know how important it is.  I’m admitting—not to mention advocating and encouraging—that non-scientific stuff can/does/should influence a student’s grade, and there are cases where a teacher should use subjective criteria to help a student see the need for improvement.  I also understand some people would rather have a grade reflect nothing but how a kid scored on tests—which is what grade programs have moved us closer to.  But keep in mind that throughout the history of public education, there have been many, many more instances of students benefitting from a teacher’s subjectivity:  Bumping up a student’s grade because the teacher had observed the stellar quality of that 81% student’s character, work ethic, and effort—even though the “objective” point total for that kid might have topped out at 77%.  So that’s the huge scandal of the pre-grade program/posting era:  Teachers tended to shade grades in ways designed to reward positive non-point behavior or to punish those who demonstrated negative traits which were not included in point totals; that definitely happened more than it happens now.

Instead, we have the harsh reality of points, which leaves little room for a teacher’s opinion on the student’s overall performance.  The only evaluation calculated is a percentage of points assigned on specific assignments, with a significant proportion being determined based on tests and quizzes.  And that’s where the conversion to letter grades really comes up short.  A 79% might qualify as a C+ in most people’s eyes, but in many schools, on the permanent records, the + will be eliminated; that almost B-student will wind up with a C on his transcript and grade point average (GPA).  So, instead of a 79% to be averaged in with other percentages, this student will have a 2 (on a four-point GPA system) instead of a 3.  To illustrate how this can impact that kid’s class rank or college attractiveness, if another of his grades had been 86%, let’s say, the overall average of those two percentages would have been in the solid B range—82.5%.  But, using the cruder letter system, that B coupled with the C, would result in a 2.5 GPA, a middle C (which translates to roughly 75%).   And it doesn’t take mathematical prowess to recognize all the other misleading, bad results this can lead to:  a student who ekes out low B’s in her classes (with an average of 80.5%) is recorded identically to the student with an 88.4% under the letter-to-GPA system—both would have a 3.0 GPA.

So until we de-emphasize grade programs (by at least stopping their on-line posting, which hardens what should be a more nebulous, evolving rating), we should use percentages rather than letter grades on permanent records—transcripts and the like—in order to represent student performance more accurately and fairly.  The wide-spread (and also problematic, in my view) practice of weighted grades (giving grades earned in honors classes an extra point on GPAs, an honors B being figured in as an A or 4 instead of 3, for example, on the GPA average), would also have to be adjusted.  Probably, honor classes’ percentages could be increased by 10% on final averages.  Yes, that would lead to the somewhat absurd outcome of some very academically talented students having a final average above 100%, but that’s already happening regularly with those same students having a GPA of something like 4.35 on a 4-point GPA scale (weighted A’s are worth 5).  I could renew my anti-weighted-grade tirade, but I won’t push my luck any further for now.

To sum it all up, using letter grades in the era of grade programs is unfair to students.  It wouldn’t be hard or costly to shift to percentages over the A-B-C-D-F system most schools currently have; and it would better represent student achievement, at least until we revise the “only points matter” nature of how schools evaluate student performance and allow for teacher judgement of important subjective traits to resume its place as a key ingredient for determining how students are progressing.

For more detailed analysis of how both grade programs and weighted grades are detrimental to public education, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools, excerpts of which can be found here.

What Makes a Good Teacher, Part III


Previously, we looked at studies which showed how difficult it was to determine exactly what to look for in teaching candidates and methodology for helping teachers to improve.  Despite the billions of tax dollars invested in hiring decisions and improvement programs that would enhance our public schools, nothing has been proven to work to any significant degree of statistical correlation.  There are many reasons for this failure in one of our most important professions, but the chief problem is most approaches are based on one key teaching strategy that may or may not be of particular importance to any one teacher.  The multitude of skills needed for effective teaching and how a teacher’s personality interacts with those skills belie any narrow approach; we simply have to accept that teaching is an art and that every artist brings unique talents to her/his classroom.

Instead, I posited that we should be seeking people with certain core characteristics which lead to good teaching, regardless of the various other skills any one teacher might inherently possess.  To begin our list, I suggested that all good teachers have an exceptional willingness to work and a commitment to teaching their subject matter in order to foster student growth.  These traits don’t always mesh with administrative goals of smooth, uniform, conflict-free staffs; but they lead to quality education for our kids.  Show me a group of hard-working, standard-bearing teachers, and I’m certain you will have the foundation of a strong school.

But there are a couple more traits that teachers need to cross the threshold from promising to good.  It’s not enough just to show up, put your nose to the grindstone, and insist that students meet high standards.  I’ve known many teachers who had long careers with just those traits, and in a pinch, you can get by with those alone.  But for the exceptional teacher, you should also be looking for people with creative flair who genuinely like their students.

We’ve all had teachers who were nice enough, but had absolutely zero sense of adventure, who were wheeling out lesson plans and dittoes decades old with references to match. (If you’re old enough to remember dittoes, I’ll automatically apologize for the small font size of this essay and try to speak louder.)  I’ve explained how difficult teaching is several times before, so I’m hoping you might be able to generate a gram of empathy for somebody who sticks to something that worked one time, given the challenges of trying to update it.  That fear of failure, however, is exactly the characteristic good teachers don’t have.  Yes, you will bomb many times when you try things, but every new teaching implement you find which works enhances your teaching arsenal and makes you that much more effective down the road.  No matter how many class periods my students endured where my “brilliant” idea lay there like a dead bird, that desire to go for something which had the potential to be helpful motivated me to keep slogging away.  I often took my students to task for being afraid to take intellectual risks, that no subjective idea could be rejected if you provided clear, logical evidence in support—so it would have been the height of hypocrisy for me to have played it “safe” year after year. Good teachers never accept the status quo; they will constantly seek new things to try to get better.

I believe that creativity comes from an individual’s never-ending quest to be perfect.  No, you won’t get there, but existential joy comes from seeking the ideal.  The teachers I would want at my school would not be content to sit on yesterday’s success, knowing that next year’s class probably won’t come close to replicating that experience.  Sure, it’s worth a try, and I’m certainly not saying teachers have to create new and stunningly engaging material every single day of their teaching careers.  But you do have to push to see that the desire to keep experimenting is part of a teaching staff’s standard operating procedure.  Which brings us to the final characteristic every teacher should possess, and it ties in to the afore mentioned creativity and currency; like anybody who cares about his audience, quality teachers want their kids to be successful and engaged in their classrooms because they like their kids.

It does seem odd that we have to single out this as a trait to look for, but I’ve know many, many teachers who were hard-working and had high standards but lapsed into boring, tired teaching primarily because they didn’t really care about their students all that much.  No, I’m not pretending good teachers like every single kid who passes through their doors over the course of thirty-five years.  Having that many students ensures that there will be a few with whom you just can’t connect.  But, quality teachers will find ways around the issues of the vast majority of their students and create a bond.  That does require patience from teachers since young people can discover anyone’s pressure points in a flash, and some seem to delight in pushing them as often as possible.

Ultimately, though, good teachers get along with their kids because they tend to see them as “their kids.”  Once you’ve spent fifty minutes a day (or longer for elementary teachers) for some 180 days with somebody, you should have a good idea what that person is like; quality teachers will be familiar with every student assigned to them.  Some will know all about their families, others can list all their likes and dislikes, and there will be those who simply enjoy them as people.  Yes, you have to be able to relate to the issues of people much younger than you for that to happen, so I will plead guilty to a huge streak of immaturity that helped me to connect with my kids.  Again, that might not number among the pristine qualities many administrators seek.  But show me a freshman teacher who appreciates a good fart joke (and yes, you can number me among those who see “good” coupled with “fart joke” as superfluous), and I will show you someone who could be an awesome ninth-grade teacher. Find me teachers that have empathy for their students and can even enjoy them, and you’ll have some quality instruction going on, I guarantee.

So it becomes clear why all those programs and experts don’t do very well when it comes to figuring out who the best teachers will be or in helping teachers to improve their skills to become even better:  None of the traits that every good teacher should have can be molded by one-day institutes or taught through on-line courses.  Hard work, a commitment to students and standards, creativity, and liking the people you teach aren’t really things you can measure or improve through some PowerPoint presentation.  Yet we keep trying, spending large sums for our futile efforts.

Better would be to conduct extensive interviews with prospective teachers’ cooperating teachers and/or college professors who had worked closely with them.  No prospective teachers are going to admit that the best word that describes them is “lazy,” that holding students to high standards is a bad thing, that they have little interest in varying the slightest from whatever curriculum is handed to them, or that they really don’t like people the age their students will be.  And we have to understand the limitations of the opinions of others who worked with them.  Instead, we have to gauge those qualities as best we can through our interviews of the candidates and their mentors, but most critically, we need to have empathic, supportive people in their classrooms as often as possible the first few years of their teaching careers who can observe all those things in action.

Administrators, of course, are paid to do this, but you should also be using your good teachers for some observations as well.  I’ve mentioned before how I had superior ratings throughout my teaching career but never had my opinions solicited on how younger teachers were doing.  No, I was not “schooled” in administrative duties, but I did see how my colleagues conducted themselves both in and out of the classroom.  I could have offered some valuable insight, especially on those teachers I felt didn’t possess enough of those four characteristics before they were granted tenure.  I concede that it’s very difficult to determine if a bright, shiny college graduate will be able to teach a bunch of squirrely eighth graders expertly from day one, but there’s no reason not to recognize within a four non-tenure-years period (when dismissal is easiest) that someone just doesn’t have the right mix for long-term teaching success.  We need to use our best teachers more often and more intensely in evaluating who does or does not have good teaching potential.

The same holds true for helping veteran teachers to improve.  Bringing in outside experts with lots of degrees, foundations, books, and methodologies was how the vast majority of time I was allowed to work on myself was spent.  Ironically, the best experiences I had throughout my career, though, came from other teachers who were working in situations similar to mine.  Yes, occasionally an expert or method rang true and even got me excited to try something different, but well over 90% of these presentations served no purpose other than to give the illusion that my school districts had done due diligence in providing teacher training.  But on those few days when teachers were allowed to interact, I never came away without at least one idea that made a positive difference in my teaching—immediately.  One of the worst aspects of the “reform movement” of the last three decades (essentially,1983 began the whole mythology that our schools were horrible when the most influential report came out—A Nation at Risk —and many came to the conclusion that all of the blame for weak schools could be assigned to teachers) is nobody believes teachers’ views on education matter.  Think about that for a second:  Has that kind of distrust ever so universally been applied to doctors, lawyers, plumbers, engineers, scientists, or virtually any other profession?  Not likely, but we’ve come to accept the lie that teachers are unqualified to make decisions about what and how they should teach.  The truth, however, is every teacher is a fount of knowledge, ideas, and skills which could be utilized for the common good, well beyond that teacher’s specific students.

Of course, given those unique personalities and abilities we all possess, my fount might not be productive for what you’re growing in your garden, but nobody should expect that every teacher can be magically transformed by every other one.  The problem is that few believe any benefit whatsoever could come from teacher collaboration; yet one of the most vaunted educational systems in the world—Finland’s—has teacher collaboration time as a focal point for developing its educators over the long haul.  And not only would teachers talking to teachers be more cost-effective than expensive programs and self-promoters, but teachers would be much more willing to listen and give credence to the ideas coming from someone else who had been in a classroom too. There are so many positives to the whole concept of learning from others who do what you do that it seems downright negligent for more schools districts not to incorporate more collaboration.  All those “late arrival” or “early dismissal” days many districts have these days are steps in the right direction; better would be to utilize some form of one-on-one work every day.  Co-taught classes, observations of other teachers (in a variety of subject areas), and guided discussions (yes, still one-on-one but partners changed for each discussion with new topics every time based on input from…well, who else? Teachers!) are just a few ideas that might enable teachers to learn from one another.  And couched that way—“learning from each other”—we could do away with much of the fear of being judged or *gasp* evaluated by the other person.  It would just be colleagues working together to share their varied abilities and experiences.  With all those positive possibilities and so little risk in the way of expense, it’s certainly worth a try.

Figuring out who will be a good teacher and assisting the ones already working to improve has been a sinkhole for much public revenue for many years, yet we still have little understanding of how to “manufacture” the kinds of amazing educators we all claim to desire.  “Accountability” in teaching has become code for “everyone else knows better than you how to do what you’re not doing well,” which has led to our current frustration in seemingly all quarters; students, teachers, parents, administrators, school board members, politicians, community members, and billionaires all complain about the state of education in America with little to show for all their issues.  The good news is that we can provide a better environment for our teachers to grow, provided we recognize those traits that go into the artistry of education.  You can’t quantify or objectify a good teacher’s classroom, but it’s pretty obvious when you experience it.  We just need to get better at allowing our teachers to work together to assist each other toward that goal.

For more on helping teachers to achieve great educational outcomes, check out my E-book, Snowflake Schools.

What Makes a Good Teacher, Part II

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Last time, we reviewed a study which had looked at eleven different states’ efforts to screen for the best teaching candidates as well as the ways they attempted to provide for growth in teachers already employed.  The results showed that despite taxpayer billions spent each year, there were no pre-employment hiring techniques or in-service, evaluation, or training that could be significantly correlated to that elusive “good” teacher label.  Actually, the only way found to figure out which teachers will excel in any given year was to see who had success the year before.  As anyone in education can tell you (I retired after thirty-three years in 2012, having spent the majority of my career teaching English at Hinsdale South High School), especially right now as districts gear up for the school year’s start, teachers are subjected to a lot of in-service and workshops each term, apparently with little positive return.  And my experience would suggest that most teachers would heartily agree that most in-service experiences are not worth whatever is paid for them.

Before we go any further, we have to address the 800-pound piece of chalk in the room:  How is teaching excellence defined?  Unfortunately, many consider standardized testing as the best way to assess a teacher’s quality; I do not.  However, for the sake of this piece, plus the fact that other measures are rarely studied thoroughly and my belief (based on anecdotal experience, I will be the first to admit) that teachers who teach their subject matter well will have students who do fine on those stupid tests; I won’t reject standardized testing as a way to determine teacher quality, at least for this essay.  I despise standardized tests, however, and feel they have done much damage to public education, especially in the last ten years.  But to continue this discussion and only for this brief interlude, I won’t attack their being used as a measure of teaching effectiveness for the next thousand words or so.  I do have to insist, though, that there are many, many, many other better ways to assess quality teaching.  My hope is that the characteristics analyzed in this series of essays could be the basis for tailoring methods that would look at how teachers do their jobs.  Yes, we ex-teachers are not shy about claiming to know better than those who have never taught or sought to “escape” classrooms by moving up the administrative ladder or left them entirely.

The challenge, then, is to determine the essential qualities every good teacher should possess so we can get those gems in front of our children.  Again, for the sake of this essay, I will not challenge the grossly exaggerated estimates of how many bad teachers are working in our schools.  Even though I would argue (and have) that things like tenure and unions are beneficial for public education overall, I will cop to the charge that there are some teachers out there who shouldn’t be working with kids.  So, how do we figure out who those people are?  The easiest way is to look at the things that make some people really good at teaching.

At the top of my list is a solid work ethic in accepting the never-ending responsibilities teaching requires coupled with educational conviction and a personal passion for educating kids.  As to the first, teaching is one of those professions where you never feel like you’ve finished all that needs to be done.  One of the most awesome parts of retirement for me is that I no longer have a little cloud of responsibility hanging over me all the time. There was always something I could have or should have or HAD to be doing.  As an English teacher, I dreaded the towering stack of student essays or (*shudder*) research papers that I would have to spend hours and hours of my “free” time reading, marking, and commenting on in order to get the 30-125 grades back to my students in two weeks.  Two questions immediately occurred to many people when they would hear me complain about having to get all those papers graded in that time frame:  “If you hate it so much, why do assign them in the first place?  And why do you have to get them back in two weeks?”  Fair questions both—nobody really ever forced me to assign the number of written assignments I did nor was there any departmental edicts on how long to take in grading them.  But I was convinced writing was the best way for my kids to demonstrate the gamut of skills English requires, and I believed that waiting for more than two weeks would be too long for the results to have any hope of reinforcing those lessons.

And that leads to the second necessary teacher quality listed above and one of the best ways to find good ones:  The best teachers have personal standards that have been internalized and will be pursued, regardless of organizational expectations or pressure.  Of course, you can get a certain level of performance through pushing; we’ve all seen the movies where the baseball-wielding principal (played by Morgan Freeman, of course) single-handedly turns a hellscape into an educational utopia with sheer force of personality.  But that’s mostly Hollywood exaggeration which had no parallel in my reality. (Well, there was the one time I killed a bee that wouldn’t leave my classroom with an extremely allergic freshman cowering at his desk…um, it was a pretty big bee.)  Regardless, we have found over and over that forcing others to do things a specific way doesn’t lead to good results; the best employees are those encouraged to pursue standards in ways that enable them to express their views, to use methodology which plays to their strengths, and to have outlets for their creativity.  Good teachers are just as driven as that whacky principal and just as insistent on the best paths to good results as salmon on their way home to mate before dying.  I kid you not; I witnessed countless obsessive behaviors in my decades in the classroom, in myself own as well as many of my colleagues.  That level of commitment and certainty—properly directed, of course—are exactly what make for classrooms that make differences in our children’s lives.

Every teacher can’t obsess over each and every detail in his subject area, but if I were an administrator seeking the best instructors for my students, I would watch for intense determination in my teachers.  Do they push themselves to grade papers even when nobody else seems to care?  Do they chase students down to hector them into getting extra help?  Do they get red-faced and glassy eyed when lecturing on their passions?  My key areas of focus were grammar and writing which led me into many “discussions” with other teachers who weren’t quite as keen on the logical precision of correct usage or the joys of grading written expression.  After haranguing my honors students about the wrongness of a concept the social studies department had begun—the “Thesis Paragraph” (instead of having the kids write an entire essay, they would have them write these “paragraphs” consisting basically of all the topic sentences that would start the paragraphs of hypothetical essays)—the social studies department chair (who later went on to become assistant superintendent and principal at two highly respected high school districts in the Chicago suburbs) and two other social studies teachers asked me to a meeting to try to get me to ease off challenging their new brain-child.  Needless to say, the three of them were completely out-gunned by one zealot who would never accept that taking short-cuts to essay writing could be a positive thing.  The Thesis Paragraph died that day, and they began assigning Sentence Outlines, which is what they’d been doing all along.  No, they weren’t all that happy about my fixation on not trying to claim an organizational technique was actual “writing.”

But good teachers don’t give a damn about other views when it comes to the things in which they believe.  You can probably tell that teachers I consider “good” won’t necessarily make for the easiest people to work with.  Cooperation with administrative directives and watering down deeply held beliefs—while traits most principals and superintendents find attractive—will not spur on the classroom dynamos I want in my school.  So, yeah, the first trait we should be cultivating in our teachers is the passionate conviction that what they are doing is important and shouldn’t be messed with for expediency’s sake.  It is going to be hard to ferret this out in new teachers who fear that not smiling enough at the superintendent’s lame jokes might cost them their jobs, but let’s be clear:  The climate of the school is extremely important for teacher success.  Instead of being distracted by all the silly “initiatives” administrators bring in to show how they’re leading the charge, we should focus on how teachers are overseen and how much freedom and creativity they are encouraged to pursue.  Spine is a huge positive in a teacher, yet most school districts hate it when teachers stand up for what they believe to be in their students’ best interests.

If we want good teachers, we have to understand what they’re trying to do before we leap in with supposed “fixes” that do not mesh well with that teacher’s goals or personality.  While that latitude cannot be total or last forever, supervisors should first and foremost check that the teachers have standards they are pursuing and that they are working hard to get there.  Obviously, if the standard being pursued is as little work as possible, then that teacher has to go.  Too often, administrators view complaints from parents about tough grading scales and stressed children as signs of bad teaching, rather than a potentially great teacher who merely needs a little seasoning and better communication skills.  Conversely, teachers popular with students who seem to lack control of their kids’ learning and whose standards are too lenient can often evolve into gentle bastions of safety for kids who really despise school, turning student affection for that teacher into serious educational accomplishment, simply to please the one person they feel understands them.  Good teachers develop over several years in millions of different ways, and good schools will nurture individual talent rather than general compliance.

The evaluation of work ethic and commitment, therefore, will take time and frequent observation.  The current systems in place in most schools don’t make use of either.  I’ll have to save my suggestions for how bosses in schools need to work with their teachers in order to stimulate idiosyncratic excellence for another time—there is no one way or one type that will succeed, as we saw in those studies with which we began this series.  But, everyone should work hard and care, to cull what I’m talking about to its essence.

So if you have teachers who accept their never-ending responsibilities and are personally committed to high standards, you have teachers who can be stars.  The final characteristics that all teachers should have are creativity and compassion.  And we’ll soon take a look at how those manifest themselves.

For more on how good teachers can be supported as well as the mechanics of excellent public schools, check out my eBook, Snowflake Schools.

What Makes a Good Teacher


For as long as humans have been able to communicate with each other, we have had teachers, those attempting to help others to increase their knowledge more rapidly than relying totally on first-hand experience.  Yet despite our millenniums of practice, we have yet to figure out what makes one person better than someone else at this ancient practice.  It seems counterintuitive that given the billions and billions we spend educating our children that we still don’t understand how to detect and evaluate so crucial a skill.  These two reports, “Peering Around the Corner”  and “No Guarantees,”  published this past winter by Bellwether Education Partners, however, come to exactly that conclusion.

In these papers, the authors looked at eleven different states in order to assess how well the various hoops that prospective and current teachers have to leap through in order to begin or continue teaching classes work.  The goal (and probably assumption) was that a careful study of the various ways we attempt to make sure that our teachers teach effectively would yield the key components of that which makes teachers better.  Their conclusion (a summary of which can be found in this article based on the reports as well as this newspaper account) was that, “We don’t yet know how to identify or train good teachers.”  Despite licensure, teacher education programs, evaluation systems, in-service institutes, and hundreds of experts touting various different paths to teaching excellence (all of which generate heaps of revenue for the providers, often at taxpayer expense), the only useful predictor on how good teachers are going to be this year is how good they were last year.  And for those new to teaching, there isn’t any difference-making training that would accurately ensure a first-year teacher would be successful.  Yep, we spend billions and billions on standardized tests and training programs that don’t improve current teachers or predict who will be any good.

This comes as no surprise to those of us who have been claiming “artist” status for teachers for many years.  Teaching requires such an intense combination of contradictory traits—obsessive organization has to co-exist with the necessary flexibility to adapt to current conditions. (If that makes no sense to you, then you’ve never had the joy of trying to conduct a lesson that needed careful concentration during a period when the first significant snowfall occurs.  And no, I never taught below eighth grade, with the last twenty-five years spent in a high school—teenagers are just as distracted by crystalized water falling from the sky as kindergarteners.)  You need to have a passion for your subject matter as well as being able to relate to the things that matter to your students, which is generally anything but your subject matter.  Every day, you face from twenty-five to one hundred fifty kids with the goal of having unique, individual interactions with as many of them as you can as well as meeting educational standards often imposed by those who know nothing about your students.  No day or class period will be anywhere close to the same as the day before, no matter how diligently you try to replicate previous successes.  Most importantly, every day, your kids come to you expecting consistent professionalism, enthusiasm, and talent, despite their being all over the place in their emotions, motivation, and willingness to cooperate.

Of course nobody could find a system that could address all those skills, much less provide readily digested steps that would guarantee improvement in those expected to possess them.  In my eBook, Snowflake Schools, I argue that the key traits any aspiring teacher should have are a good work ethic, creativity, self-discipline, communication skills, and a “Golden Rule” morality.  Those qualities can only be assessed over the long haul; you can’t determine if people will consistently behave in those ways unless you observe them for months and years.  And we all know those qualities don’t come easily—we have to fight to maintain them and will have periods where we are more successful in their execution than others.  It’s a fool’s errand to try to in-service teachers on a good work ethic, for example.  Yes, you could definitely provide expert help on some techniques your teachers might not have considered—especially for those new to the profession—but you couldn’t “make” them work harder if they weren’t driven to do so.

We also have to recognize that we can’t expect artists to conform to one set pattern of behavior.  The quest for uniform teacher performance ignores the unique abilities and personalities every human has.  Some teachers are very orderly, controlled, and matter-of-fact; some will be more spontaneous, funny, and wacky; and some will scare the living snot out of students without saying a word.  All those types can be excellent instructors who might have a positive impact on your child.  Teaching is not a popularity contest, and many kids need that tough task-master to push them harder while others flourish with a caring, supportive soul who remembers everybody’s birthday and always gives out treats around holidays.  Like any relationship, some of our characteristics will mesh and others clash with our friends, family, and workmates.  Teachers exist in a nebulous area somewhere between and part of all three of those categories, and you children will see them at various times as “buddy,” “boss,” and “relative,” with all the connotations those labels bring.  No, teachers don’t exist completely in any of those realms and the Venn diagram for any individual teacher will tilt more toward one than the other two, but once you recognize how complex that dynamic is, you can begin to understand how impossible it is to provide step-by-step instruction for teachers to improve.  Maybe one teacher needs some work on his empathy while another could get better at using her free time to plan for future classes while a third has troubles with classroom discipline while the next is way behind in the technology necessary to make the material much more interesting and accessible but the next…

Just as students with learning disabilities or behavioral disorders must have “Individualized Education Plans” (IEPs) crafted and evaluated every year by their special education teachers/case managers, every teacher’s improvement plan is unique to that particular teacher.  That certainly doesn’t mean there’s no place for teacher institutes and opportunities for teachers to be exposed to new ideas.  It does mean, however, that the school climate needs to recognize how many different ways there are to be an effective teacher so that those new ideas/techniques/insights are presented as concepts to be considered, not THE way things now need to be done.  No matter how many PowerPoint slides are shown, how many catchy acronyms are coined, or how much administrative arm-twisting is used; teachers will assimilate other ideas into their systems much the way we all take in food.  Some will be delicious and immediately incorporated into our regular diets, some will revolt us and be rejected forever, and some will have a few interesting flavors that we will revisit only after altering the recipe and/or preparation methods.

But the overall approach should flow from the foundation that only the individual teacher will be able to figure out if the basic ingredients show any promise at all.  A teacher’s rejecting suggested methodology should not just be tolerated, but encouraged.  Only when teachers are trusted to know that which will be most effective for their classrooms can outsiders have the slightest chance of helping them with modifications and changes that could help them improve.  It should come as no surprise that most experts have no clue on training good teachers.  It’s an idiotic question in the first place.  Good teaching comes from good teachers and there are countless ways to be one.

I recognize that this seems a totally self-serving and ridiculously convenient view, especially coming from someone who used to be a teacher.  “Yeah, right, Jim—no matter what a teacher does, as you’ve outlined it here, you will find a glib way to make it seem okay.  That’s precisely the lack of accountability which has led to teachers and their unions being perceived as status quo guardians who couldn’t care less about how well our kids learn as long as everyone accepts that they know best.  There has to be a way to determine if a teacher is capable of performing your so-called ‘art’ well enough to justify the huge salaries you believe they should earn.  You’ve already praised tenure laws and unions despite their protecting the incompetent, and you have ceaselessly denigrated the only objective means of assessing teacher quality—standardized tests—as poor measures of student learning.  With that kind of impenetrable protection, incompetent teachers can continue to be horrible their entire careers, leading to the mediocrity we’ve endured ever since collective bargaining laws gave teachers and unions preferential treatment.  And don’t get me started on your obscene pension plans, of which you are currently benefitting!  C’mon!”

Okay, that’s quite a lot for me to cover, despite its being a self-created rhetorical barrage which should normally consist of a lot more softball questions.  Believe it or not, I do have responses to all of that, but there’s no way I could adequately discuss them in a single blog entry.  (And I have countered those criticisms before in other blog entries—many of which you could find on this site.)  However, in the near future, I will try to deal with the key issue analyzed in this particular essay—how can you differentiate between a good teacher and a bad one.  There are unmistakable characteristics that, despite all my emphasis on different teaching styles being valuable, should be absolute necessities and which are observable, thus capable of being assessed in order to rid the teaching profession of those who shouldn’t be in it.  Of course there are bad teachers; and to address another of the points my hypothetical critic made previously, school districts have four years (in Illinois, and multiple years in most states) to determine if a new hire has what it takes to be a good teacher.

Be that as it may, we’ll take a look at some characteristics we should expect from all teachers next time.

The Parts of Speech


For those of you unaware of the momentous goings on a couple of weeks ago, the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) state championships in Speech were determined on February 19 and 20 in Peoria.  Individual winners were crowned in fourteen events, with the Mt. Prospect Knights winning the overall state championship.  I know all this because my senior daughter was there and has participated on her high school’s speech team for the past four years.

Speech is one of the more arcane high school activities as it is based on competition, as raw and unvarnished as any football game or volleyball match, coupled with intellectual prowess and acting skills.  In a typical speech competition, competitors in each individual event are divided into groups of six to present before a single judge in a high school classroom. Each speaker performs his/her/their (in the case of two-person events like dramatic or humorous duets) piece within a proscribed time limit.  The judge scrawls comments on a score sheet and tallies various criteria before, finally and most importantly after all six have presented, ranking them one through six based on the judge’s experience and opinions.  This happens three times at most tournaments, after which the top performers, based on the judges’ rankings (those with the lowest scores—if you’ve been ranked first in all your preliminary rounds, you have a score of 3, which is as good as it gets), “break” or move to the finals.  (The two-day, larger events will result in your breaking into the semi-finals where more competitors will be culled out before the finals.)  After each finals performer has done one last speech, the tournament then culminates with an awards ceremony in front of the assembled teams where medals are presented and an overall team winner is announced.  One slight difference for the state meet is that it is held in the Peoria Civic Center, rather than at a high school.

The competitions themselves are unusual by most high school standards:  All the teams gather at the host school so that the speeches can begin by 8:00 A.M., typically on a Saturday.  In order to get there in time to warm up and establish your home base in the host school’s cafeteria, most teams try to arrive well before eight, which means they must be at their home schools ridiculously early—my daughter had to arrive by 6:00 A.M. for most of her tournaments.  But you also should understand that the uniforms for speech events—business formal with blazers and skirts for the girls and vested suits for the boys—aren’t something kids just jump into when they stumble out of bed.  Basically, my daughter had to be up by 4:45 A.M. to get her outfit, make-up, and hair (she had to curl it for her first two years) together after which I would drive her to school at 5:45 A.M. so she could give speeches at least three and, if all went well, four times (or double, even triple that when she was entered in multiple events) before she would get back to her school, usually by six or seven that evening.

Then there’s the stress of the competition itself.  If you’ve never attended one, they are fascinating and bizarre.  All these teenagers dressed like Gordon Gekko or Hillary Clinton are running up and down the halls, clacking away in their dress shoes and heels, pacing back and forth in front of rows of lockers as they quietly go over the rockiest bits of their speech in one last desperate attempt to get it down before they’re in front of a judge.  In the competition rooms, everyone sits politely, attentively, and applauds quietly (my daughter was fit to be tied one time when I had the temerity to whistle after her speech).  There aren’t usually many, if any observers besides the person evaluating your performance—looking for flaws that will help to make it easier to rank you lower—and the other people competing with you who have a vested interest in your doing poorly.  I went to a few of my daughter’s individual event performances, and my wife and I were generally the only “audience” in attendance.  Essentially, you perform your speech for a hostile crowd with only the judge being neutral (but extremely judgmental).

Then, there are all the rituals and customs which have evolved over the eons.  Despite all the creativity required for the speeches themselves, many aspects of the performances must rigidly conform to standards or established traditions.  In one of my daughter’s events, Prose, where the speakers would read famous pieces from a notebook; how one introduces the piece, turns the page, and carefully closes the binder to clasp it to one’s breast all have to be done exactly the same way by each competitor.  Her other main event over the years was Original Oratory, where the kids research a topic of their choice and give a persuasive, documented presentation.  Again, much originality and individual effort go into the construction of the speech, but its five basic parts—introduction, explanation of problem, causes, solutions, and conclusion—must be delivered from different places in the room:  You start in the middle for your intro, move stage right four or five steps for the problem, back to the middle for causes, move four or five steps stage left for the solutions, and then come back to center for the big finish.  And, no, you can’t reverse the directions or stand in the same place for two parts of your speech.  Or you can, but then you probably won’t break.

And should you be “double entered” (performing in two events), you have to ask permission to leave the room after you have given your speech, and you’d better be sure you say, “Good luck, everybody!” in the properly cheerful (if generally hypocritical) tone of voice.

And like figure skating or gymnastics, the evaluation of your performance is in the hands of a human and is based largely on a subjective opinion of how you did.  Yes, anyone can see that you closed your binder correctly or hit the right five spots in the room for the five parts of your speech, but how can you make sure scientifically or objectively that your Original Comedy was the funniest?  You can’t cross the finish line first or score the most points in Poetry Reading or Oratorical Declamation.  And since each team competing has to supply a certain number of judges for each competition, the expertise and experience of those judges can vary widely, not to mention their attention to detail.  One time, my daughter barely missed breaking into the finals in one of her events.  On Monday when she got to look at the judges’ sheets, she was shocked to see that on one of her sheets her ranking was sixth, four or five places lower than her other rankings, despite no negative comments or suggestions for improvement.  A closer examination of the paper showed that the “6” written in the ranking box on her sheet was in black ink, compared to blue for the comments, and the “6” seemed to be different handwriting from everything else on the page.  We’ll never know for sure, but it’s entirely possible that this judge lost track of my daughter’s sheet, ranked the other five kids, turned in the sheets, and when somebody else realized the judge’s oversight, that person just put the only rank left on my daughter’s sheet.

So after reading all of this, you would be forgiven if you thought it absolutely idiotic for any kid to spend hours and hours participating in a highly competitive activity where you get little positive feedback, your efforts are judged by those who sometimes have little understanding of what you do, and you work tirelessly only to have a subjective evaluation dash your hopes of success.  But that’s where you’d be wrong.  Speech is an amazing learning opportunity for high school kids.

Every extra-curricular activity in high school will provide its participants with some beneficial skills.  Teamwork, cooperation, dedication, and responsibility are required for just about anything you might join.  That’s why it’s so important and life-altering for all high school students to have at least one or two outside-of-class activities if at all possible.  Additionally, extra-curriculars will provide participants with other avenues for specific talents which often have few other outlets and are incredibly meaningful to many kids.  Most people understand the physical dedication and athletic skills required of sports, not to mention the renown and even college scholarships sometimes granted to the most talented. In sports, you can also learn about physical fitness and become proficient in a game you can play for the rest of your life (golf and tennis being two like that).  Musical, artistic, journalistic, and business interests can be followed in band, chorus, photography, art, newspaper, yearbook, and DECA, to name just a few.  And there are more than enough other clubs, activities, and teams to join in most suburban high schools, with all providing participants many positive opportunities.  But I believe speech is in a class by itself in the training it provides in dozens of incredibly useful ways that can pay off forever in all facets of a person’s life.

Since “Speech” is its name, you automatically get experience in one of the most difficult activities for the vast majority of people: Public speaking.  Whenever surveys are done on the things people fear most, giving a speech ranks near the top every time.  Normally rational, intelligent, lucid people often fall to pieces at the prospect of making a presentation to an audience of more than one.  Yet, these teenagers are required to memorize seven-minute speeches (When was the last time you had to memorize anything?), knowing that they will be penalized for every slip, stumble, or failure to move in the correct direction at the appropriate time.  You think that kid’s gonna have any trouble dazzling a business meeting with the help of notes, PowerPoints, laptops, and projectors?  Speech team veterans will understand how to present themselves physically (good posture and eye contact), speak loudly enough for all to hear (to “dominate the room with your voice without yelling” as I would instruct my English class students), have no annoying body movements or gestures, be free of grating vocalized pauses habits (“like,” “ya know,” “okay,” or –my personal demon– “all right?” [For all my projected confidence, my vocalized pause kept betraying my need for understanding and approval.  And you didn’t know how psychologically revealing your vocal patterns can be, did you?]), and exude a quiet confidence that will make all believe that in the event of some catastrophe, they would easily be able to rescue everyone, without mussing a single hair.

Speech kids also have to learn how to find good stuff on the internet.  For that Original Oratory speech my daughter would write each year, she was required to take a researchable subject; stake a position out with which others could disagree; find support for her position with data, credible experts, and examples; insert an exact quotation or two from those experts into her speech; and organize the essay/speech which would include an introduction that needed to be riveting to a captive audience, clear explanations of all that might be unfamiliar to someone not well-versed in the topic, and end with a rousing call-to-action on whatever issue she had chosen.  She would then commit it to memory, practice her movements as she was speaking it, and then rehearse it until she could do it all within the seven-minute time limit, which translates into a speech of three-to-four thousand words.  Yeah, that’s a lot to be able to do well, all of which will be useful in college and beyond.

There are many other valuable lessons that speech taught her:  Working extremely hard for not much credit or even attention, accepting the unfairness of being ranked on subjective criteria, learning that hard work would often have to be its own reward since the fruits of her labors wouldn’t always result in any immediate pay-offs, and generally having to deal with all those “adult” kinds of issues that competing in a subjective universe teach all grown-ups once they enter the working world.  No, that’s not as much fun as hoisting a basketball state championship trophy over your head or getting a standing ovation at the end of a play or recital, but speech kids are primed for success in many ways that are more important, and all of which promote maturity.

So although her season didn’t end the way she wanted, she did get to participate in the only group activity at the state speech tournament (the only time this event is run), Performance in the Round, where a group of kids perform a fifteen minute play.  And her group did a phenomenal job, finishing sixth overall after competing in the regional, sectional, and state meets.  But long after the excitement over doing so well that Saturday in Peoria has faded—it already pretty much has for her—and for the rest of her life, she will be using the skills she developed during her four years of speech team participation.  It is definitely one of the tougher activities for a high school kid, but I know of no other extra-curricular that gives its participants more.  And you all will appreciate what speech has done for her as she is brilliantly delivering her seventh State of the Union address, sometime later this century.  No, it’s not as glamorous or exciting as many other extra-curricular activities, but every high school freshman should consider going out for speech.

Not the End of Unions


Soon, the Supreme Court will hand down its ruling in the case of Freidrichs v. California Teachers Association in what many in the press are terming a case that could be “the end of public employees unions” (see The Atlantic for a news analysis with that headline).  As someone experienced with the issue in question, I tend to be much less pessimistic about how this case could harm organized labor in general and teachers’ unions specifically.

The particulars are as follows:  In an important case from 1977 (Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, hereafter referenced as “Abood”), the court ruled that non-union members in workplaces with unions had to pay what has become known as their “fair share” of the costs of the union’s representing them.  You see, a union which is the “exclusive representative” for a group of employees has to provide services for all of them, whether or not they are union members.  Should a school board try to fire a teacher or if someone feels the contract is being violated and wants to file a grievance, the union must provide legal assistance, regardless of their membership status.  Similarly, the effort and expense of negotiating a new contract is borne by the union as well, with the resulting deal benefitting all employees, again including those who haven’t joined.  So the Abood ruling determined that non-members should contribute to the expenses of negotiating, grievances, and legal representation to which all employees were entitled.  “Fee payers,” as non-members forced to contribute became known, were NOT required to contribute to the political activities which unions fund, however.  It was the same basic principle that mandates you pay your taxes despite your objections to some of the activities in which our government engages.  Just because you opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq didn’t mean you got to withhold your April 15th responsibilities.

But that comparison is not exactly the same as unions are hardly identical to governments, bargaining a contract is not really like police protection, nor is defending someone from unfair job discipline totally similar to going to war.  Hence the controversy which has surrounded Abood ever since it was in place.  Keep in mind another dissimilarity, at least here in Illinois:  Public unions had to negotiate “fair share” language in each individual contract before it would be in effect for any one employee group.  The first school district in which I worked did not have any fair share language in its contract while I worked there from 1979-1987, and my second district (Hinsdale Township High School District 86) did not have fair share when I started there in 1987, but did bargain it into the 1993-1996 agreement. (Yes, I was a part of the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association [HHSTA] bargaining team which negotiated that contract.)  In other words, the only school districts in Illinois where fair share exists are the ones in which employee groups have negotiated it into their contracts.  As the Illinois Labor Relations Board defines it on their web page, a fair share clause is, “An agreement between the employer and an employee organization under which the employees in a collective bargaining unit are required to pay their proportionate share of the costs of the collective bargaining process, contract administration, and pursuing matters affecting wages, hours, and other conditions of employment. Fair share fees may not exceed the amount of dues required of members.” Nobody forced Hinsdale 86 to put fair share language in its contract; the majority of employees felt it was…well, fair, and the school board agreed to the language in the contract, where it exists to this day.

But conservatives have always seen the Abood ruling as an infringement on others’ right to work; that “closed shop” (the term some have used in reference to Abood applications) was a classic illustration of unions bullying their way to what they wanted at the expense of workers’ freedoms.  And so now its merits have once again been debated (the ruling has been upheld by the court at least four other times, according to legal scholars much more informed than I), with a ruling to be announced in a few months.

But whether or not fair share violates workers’ first amendment rights or if Abood should be overturned is not the key point I would make on this court case.  (You can read much more, as I have, in the Washington Post, USA Today, The Center for Education Reform, American Enterprise Institute, The San Diego Union Tribune, and many more if you do a Google news search for Freidrichs v. California Teachers Association.)  I believe that reports of the demise of public sector union’s death, while worthy of note—especially by those who benefit from public sector unions—have been greatly exaggerated.

In Chicagoland suburban school districts, teachers unions have done quite well for their members over the last thirty years.  A high school teacher with advanced degrees in Darien, Highland Park, Downers Grove, Glenbrook,  Schaumburg, Des Plaines, Hinsdale, and many other towns can look forward to a salary in excess of $100,000 per 185-day work year (after twenty years and an advanced degree or two), good insurance benefits, and an excellent (if under constant attack recently) pension plan.  For them, the few hundred dollars union membership costs is hardly a financial burden, and they’re the ones acclimating the new kids into the field, generally encouraging them to join their schools’ unions.  And since it’s unlikely the fair share ruling (assuming it overturns Abood) will automatically apply or trigger mass membership exodus.  Peer pressure is still powerful in all workplaces, and most experienced teachers will strongly endorse their unions and use their influence with those who don’t understand the unions’ value to do the same.

Because union membership is a great benefit at an extremely reasonable price.  For your dues, you get legal representation for job-related issues should you need it, you have people to help you should your boss refuse to honor certain terms of your contract or harass you without just cause (See “Know the Law”  for more on that), you have paid lobbyists and legislative experts to watch out for your interests in Springfield and Washington, and you can even get discounts and deals on various consumer products (auto insurance and travel, for example) from marketers.  Mostly, however, you develop a sense, in this era of experts and politicians taking cheap shots at teachers while laying many of America’s problems at their feet, that somebody’s got your back.  A subjective, not provable feeling, perhaps, but in the time of people ignoring all of the obvious glaring flaws in political candidates because they seem “authentic,” you cannot discount how people feel.

Should Abood be overturned, you could also expect national and state teachers’ unions to refocus more of their resources on the rank and file, rather than political machinations.  Some would argue that as unions have gotten more influential and powerful, there has been less attention paid to members’ needs and too many forays into issues that have little to do with education and more to do with political alliances.  Even endorsing candidates can be perceived more as a necessary evil than a key function for public sector unions.  The conflicts of interest that occur when an employee organization is helping to fund the campaigns of its potential bosses—as is the case when a local teachers union endorses school board candidates, for example—has always made some union advocates uncomfortable.  I’ve always felt it would be better for unions to educate their members on the candidates’ various positions without making any recommendations, allowing members to make up their own minds.  Let teachers see just where Sanders, Cruz, Trump, Clinton, and Rubio stand on public school issues; it will be perfectly clear which candidates support teachers more emphatically, without the union then being perceived as an enemy of the unendorsed winner, with whom the union is expected to work regardless.  Would that strategy have made Governor Rauner less adamant about wiping unions out?  We’ll never know because the Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers were quite clear in their support of Pat Quinn, the incumbent Rauner defeated.  In case you didn’t know, both national teachers unions have already endorsed Hillary Clinton for 2016.  And where will that leave them should America choose to feel the Bern?

Then too, school boards have a way of making unions seem much more valuable to teachers.  My old union, the HHSTA, has constantly struggled to get teachers more involved, but participation soared during the fall of 2014 when a quartet of school board members (which is a majority) tried to take away many of the rights and benefits which the teachers had achieved over the decades in a single power grab.  Increased attendance at meetings, more willingness to help out, and a surge in HHSTA pride all led not only to a reasonable contract settlement, but motivated both the teachers and the public to work to rid themselves of this more extreme element.  And in the April 2015 school board elections, the three candidates who vowed to continue the war on the union were routed, getting less than half the votes of the three more moderate candidates, and another of the “gang of four” resigned shortly after the election.  Should Abood be overturned and public school governance see that as a sign to go after unions, you can bet that union membership and, even more importantly, active participation would increase significantly.  When I was HHSTA president, I used to tell my fellow advocates that our best membership organizer was a bad school board.  Although I meant that as a joke, there is a solid foundation of truth in the idea that dissatisfaction is one of the best ways to push people into action.  Instead of devastating unions, Freidrichs v. California Teachers Association could lead to a backlash of teacher advocacy.

So although there are some who see the possible end of the Abood ruling’s allowance of fair share language in contracts as a death knell for effective public sector unions, I believe it could actually have the opposite effect.  Good unions function to protect and serve their members, which most teachers associations have done well over the years.  And as the cliché goes, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger;” so too some stress to the ease with which public sector unions have been able to garner dues from teachers whether or not they were members could lead to more effective, stronger on-site organizations.  Like much in our convoluted world, Freidrichs v. California Teachers Association might have the opposite effect of weakening or destroying teachers unions; it could actually lead to their renaissance.

For much more on the importance and limitations of teachers’ unions, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools, excerpts of which can be found here.

The Opportunity to Learn


“I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”

Albert Einstein

Leave it to Albert to characterize in two sentences the key tenet of education which has been ignored for decades.  (No, I didn’t know him at all, so it is presumptuous of me to address him by his first name.  But like most bloggers, I’m just assuming that one day—perhaps eons and eons in the future—the shining brilliance of my observations will make everyone equate the two of us as intellectual peers.  It could happen…maybe.)  With each passing educational reform and political election we seem to move further away from the correct model for public schools in general and teachers in particular:  Teaching really isn’t about a teacher’s skill in dumping knowledge into students’ heads; it’s about how well they provide students with opportunities to learn.

Inherent in Einstein’s comment is a shared responsibility.  Both parties have duties to perform if the desired end result—educated people—is to come about.  Teachers must understand the material they are presenting, create activities which will lead students to understanding the concepts being presented, organize/sequence those activities well so the students can grasp the parts as they build to the whole, assess student understanding of what they were supposed to learn, review key concepts  that seemed to elude the majority of the students the first time through (should the results of the assessment show review is necessary), and self-assess the way the lesson went so as to improve both delivery method and learning activities in the future.  That’s an immense undertaking in and of itself.

But there’s even more:  Teachers also have to motivate, discipline, and to a certain extent, entertain—or at least be interesting.  And don’t forget organizational skills, book-keeping ability (Lord help you if you screw up in entering grades!), or political sensitivity—you’d better not make a mistake in how you address anybody or slip and let a joke out that some might find offensive.  I still think it’s funny to wonder aloud why there’s a national holiday to honor the pain of giving birth (Labor Day), but while I’ll probably drop that one annually on my poor family, I never risked making someone angry by saying it to any of my classes.  (However, I never failed in the first week of November to make a big show of writing sixteen slash marks on the board; to congratulate my freshmen that they had achieved a huge milestone; then to erase one of the sixteen lines; and finally to explain that now that their first quarter had ended, they only had those fifteen slash marks to go to graduation.)  Regardless of what I thought was funny, teachers have more than enough to do without having the unwarranted task of accepting responsibility for their students having done what they needed to do to digest everything that had been presented.

That’s impossible for teachers to achieve, by the way.  Outsiders often decry the ability of teachers based on student behavior or test results, but every parent should understand the unfairness of assuming poor teaching/parenting based on the “impetuous” actions of students/children. Just because a student demonstrates some gap in his knowledge of subject/verb agreement in no way proves that the teacher didn’t explain the concept, provide worksheets to practice, review the material, and then test the student’s knowledge.  Yet, often as soon as the test is over, that very student will loudly remark to his peers, “This don’t matter cuz each of us have mad skillz.”  (And be careful about pshawing that “This don’t” is too obvious a mistake to be more than conversational carelessness; there are two agreement errors in that sentence:  “Each” is singular, so even if the object of the preposition [“us”] is plural, it doesn’t matter.  It should be “each of us has mad skillz.”)  As one who spent many hours trying to eliminate “who/whom” confusion over the years, I can attest to students being drilled endlessly on various concepts but never accepting the knowledge which was so generously being offered to them.

And standardized tests are even less useful in showing how much impact a teacher has had on students.  Often, students couldn’t care less. (Remember:  If you say “could care less,” what you’re actually saying is that it is possible for your concern to be lower than it currently is.  You need the “not” adverb there to indicate that it’s not feasible for you to have less care about whatever’s being discussed.  You know, like your interest in having me point out all the grammar traps that lurk in the rest of this essay.) No matter how many times authority figures explain that these tests could impact students’ futures or reflect on their schools, if the score isn’t going to affect their report card grades (Yes, you generally use “affect” when you need a verb not the noun form, “effect”…okay, I’ll shut up about the grammar now.), then the tests don’t matter to a good percentage of them.

Which brings us to the students’ duties in the educational process:  Effort would be number one.  If teachers have done their part—understood the material, presented it clearly, provided appropriate practice, and assessed wisely—really all the students have to do is try their best and results should follow.  Nobody’s saying effort is easy, of course.  Motivating yourself to do the things you don’t want to do but would be in your best interests is probably the key to success in our world, and we all know how often we fail in our quests.  From weight control to investing wisely to household chores to physical fitness to…well, just about anything, it’s tough to make yourself do what you know will be unexciting and challenging regardless of how clearly you understand how much you will benefit should you complete those tasks.  With kids, that motivation is even harder since they rarely comprehend the slightest benefit in reading Shakespeare or solving quadratic equations until many years after their public school days are over.  That said, however, effort is a student responsibility everyone seems to ignore when assessing how public education is doing.

As we shift more responsibility for student outcomes away from students onto teachers, the goal of educated students recedes even further into the distance.  Of course, individual parents can and do instill a wonderful work ethic into their kids, but modern America seems to place little onus on our youth for poor educational results.  It’s much easier and more satisfying to blame the schools when our kids don’t learn, even though students regularly don’t succeed because they won’t put forth enough effort to do so.  It should hardly surprise us that we’re not getting the results we want if we won’t recognize how important it is for students to care about their education and give it their all.

Hand in hand with that effort is acceptance of responsibility.  Again, our modern lives seem to have aided us in shirking this as well.  Nobody seems willing to admit to the slightest flaw and face failing; it’s always somebody else’s fault.  Our courts are full of people who did idiotic things and then blame someone else:  Of course, McDonald’s should be held liable for its hot coffee, not the woman who placed a cup between her legs as she was driving and wound up scalded.  No, Donald Trump need never concede that he could be wrong about anything; only “losers” do that.  Tom Brady had no clue the footballs had been deflated, Hilary shouldn’t be expected to use the email server everybody else is supposed to use, and obviously it was Obama’s fault that Sarah Palin’s son beat up his girlfriend.  Again and again, we see public figures dodge responsibility, so it should come as no surprise that our children mimic that behavior.  Yes, historically we have all used excuses to avoid blame, but it does seem like blame evaders used to feel much guiltier about their tactics.  (Sorry about sermonizing there, but you true Colbert fans will recognize there’s more truthiness than truth in that statement and treat it accordingly.  And terrifyingly to me, this paragraph also reeks of the “back when I was young” nonsense we all roll our eyes over when our grandparents bore us with it.)

But don’t let my nostalgia for a past that I can’t be sure existed distract you from the fundamental truth of Einstein’s comment on teaching; he is absolutely right that it takes two to learn.  The accountability movement which began in the 1980s rightfully pointed out that perhaps the schools had been given too much latitude while all of the responsibility for learning was placed on the students and that teachers needed to be called to task for not accepting their fair share of the educational load.  But the pendulum has swung way too far in the opposite direction today, creating the belief that only teachers are at fault for any and all poor outcomes.  And that has led to the proliferation of outside interferers who attack teachers in order to take over their classrooms, which has in turn led to more standardization which has NOT educated our children.  Everybody has a stake in public schools creating educated students, so we should never forget which tasks fall on which parties.  Teachers have the duty to ensure that each and every student has the opportunity to learn, but students must accept their responsibility to do the actual learning.