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.
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.
Now that we’re past the embarrassing Presidential world tour where the headlines seemed most focused on Melania’s brushing off Donald’s attempts to hold her hand, the Pope’s dour facial expressions, handshake duels, bogus arms deals, and GolfCartGate, but before we all become engulfed in memos detailing Trump’s attempts to force high-ranking national security officials to ignore potentially treasonous acts; everyone needs to devote at least a little attention to the budget the White House proposed to Congress right before Trump left the country. As the details of this recommendation become clearer, so does the Republican party’s fundamental priority, philosophy, belief, or however you’d like to label their mantra: If you have resources, you can buy whatever you want; if you don’t, too bad. We all need to recognize just what kind of country the Republican party envisions—at least the Republican party with Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell at its head. While everyone is understandably distracted from this reality with Trump leading a seemingly endless parade of foolish acts and inane tweets, in one area Donald, Paul, and Mitch have been pretty consistent: Rather than proposing anything new or trying to improve current programs, they are dedicated to the “good old days” when wealthy people had an even greater share of this country’s resources and power than they do now. And from health care to withdrawing from the Paris climate accord to huge investments in weapons (all of which, conveniently, can be manipulated by Washington to profit friends and family), every position they stake out screws over those who don’t have very much to begin with.
Naturally, it’s no different with education. The foundation of public schools for many years has been what is basically a socialist construct: We all contribute so that every kid in America can learn the basics every citizen should know. No, that’s hardly an absolute standard since every state legislature or local school board can interpret what those “basics” are in a variety of ways, but at least the cost of however that ideal comes out is shared by all. And yes, the system of paying for education has also been significantly corrupted since it is generally financed through local funding (property taxes here in Illinois) which has created huge differences in how much any one school district spends per pupil. But the Trump administration as led by Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos (a billionaire in her own right), is now proposing an even more dramatic shift in resources which will allow parents more “choice” over the schools that receive their tax dollars. Many rich people already send their children to private schools at their own expense, but DeVos believes they should be able to direct any money they pay in taxes for education to whichever school they wish. In effect, these vouchers would take money originally going to public schools and redirect it to the schools parents select (which would include private and parochial institutions), robbing public schools of crucial revenue when they can ill-afford any decreases whatsoever.
Schools would thus compete with each other to attract parents and their money, with institutions already struggling being left even further behind. And the children whose parents don’t have the resources to get their children out of those impoverished schools? Well, they’re just stuck with an under-funded, second-rate education forever. This is social Darwinism at its worst with those already well-off being subsidized at the expense of the poor who stay trapped and powerless with little hope of their future being any different. That theme plays over and over again in the proposals in Trump’s budget, which is entitled “A New Foundation for American Greatness” (another ready-made lesson in irony). Budgets for health, welfare, education, art, and social service programs are slashed with funding for some sixty-six programs ended entirely.
There are dozens of other sources which can give you more specific details on the ramifications of Trump’s budget, including many which document how directly some of Trump’s staunchest supporters—working class whites—will be hurt by his draconian spending cuts, the better to benefit the wealthy. But it’s crucial for everyone to acknowledge exactly what’s going on here: The gap between the haves and the have-nots in the U.S. has increased significantly in recent years, and Republicans are doing everything they can to encourage, magnify, and accelerate both the gap’s size and the pace at which it widens.
Now, many are pointing out that this budget, like the horrific health care act which came out of the House on May 4, will never be enacted as currently written, that both are “DOA” in the Senate. And let’s all hope that is true. But regardless, this document shows exactly how Trump and his cronies view their constituents. Of course they hide behind the claim that they are cutting ineffective, wasteful programs, but the clear good which comes from things like Planned Parenthood, the National Endowment for the Arts, or Meals on Wheels has been evident for many years. Eliminating or reducing the government’s support for these programs in order to buy more weapons can’t be explained any other way than a preference for getting rid of things which help people so our military can obtain more things which kill them.
I understand that some Republicans would respond to my views with the argument that there are better ways to achieve the goals of the cut programs, but merely repeating that endlessly offers little solace to those who need help. What ideas, programs, or approaches do Trump, Ryan, McConnell and the rest of the Republican Party offer as better alternatives? It seems that they have nothing but “glittering generalities” rather than any concrete, workable solutions. For those of you who have forgotten the propaganda techniques you learned about in high school, a glittering generality is something that sounds good, but has no substance or validity behind it. The most glaring example of this comes from Trump as he was campaigning for the Presidency and regularly characterizing Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) as a “disaster” (it isn’t). His alternative was that he would replace it with “something terrific.” Now that we’ve actually seen his replacement, we know what a ridiculous scam his campaign rhetoric was, unless by “terrific” he meant “awful for anyone who isn’t already a millionaire.” Then there are the flat-out lies he told: His terrific plan would cost less, cover everybody in the country, and make no cuts to Medicare. The reality, though, is that the Trump plan would increase rates for low-income seniors by as much as $12,000 per year, lead to over 20,000,000 Americans losing their coverage, and include some $800 billion in Medicare cuts. Ryan has been the cheerleader for this monstrosity, and we’ll see how McConnell handles the Senate revisions of the highly unpopular proposal in the weeks to come.
That’s not to say that the Democrats are perfect or have all the answers to the many problems which our country faces. But no matter how you try to spin it, Democratic proposals have generally tried to improve things for those less well off—Obamacare, environmental legislation, and a host of other programs now under attack all provided benefits for the poor. You can argue about the effectiveness, sincerity, or cost efficiency of these initiatives, of course, but there can be no denying the fundamental humanity on which the intent of the programs is based. That is in sharp contrast to the callous indifference Republican initiatives show toward anyone who is struggling. From immigrants to decaying urban neighborhoods to senior citizens barely scraping by on social security, the Trump/Ryan/McConnell vision for America works to shift resources away from the neediest to those already well off.
Let’s hope the brazenness and crudity of Trump’s approach will finally help everyone to recognize this key difference and vote accordingly. Many of us are praying that the Trump administration will be short-lived, ending in impeachment (my prediction is he will resign long before the Russian investigation proves how corrupt he is so that President Pence—which sounds almost as bad to me as “President Trump”—can immediately pardon him), but wishing for an end to Trump is hardly much of a strategy to minimize the damage Republican leadership could still do.
Instead, we have to recognize that Donald is not the source of this heartless approach to governing, but merely the loudest symptom of that which has taken over the Republican Party. As someone who spent his younger days criticizing the eight years of Ronald Reagan’s Presidency, I can’t believe how wonderfully progressive his policies seem today. Some have argued that this saint of conservatism would never be even seriously considered in today’s Republican party given that he cooperated with liberal Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, approved tax increases (his two bills passed in 1982 and 1984 together constituted the biggest tax increases ever enacted during peacetime), instituted an amnesty program for undocumented workers, and even lobbied on behalf of stricter gun regulation (all these and more can be found here). That the Republican Party leadership has moved so far from what most Americans (and, I think, Republicans) believe is really quite shocking, and I still don’t understand how we Americans allowed them to take over. Regardless, that needs to be changed as quickly as possible.
Although the circus surrounding Trump’s ignorance and self-absorption will continue unabated for as long as he inhabits the White House, we have to recognize that it’s not just him, that Republican leaders are supporting and enabling him every step of the way. Regardless of what happens with His Orangeness, we have to recognize that the Republican Party is being taken to extremes by others as well.
Thus, every election from now on provides us with the opportunity to alter this tilt toward heartlessness. We need reasonable people to run for office who, regardless of party affiliation, will represent the interests of all of us and who will oppose those who would appeal only to our fears and prejudices. That applies to all parties: While many current Republicans will have to answer for backing Trump/Ryan/Mitchell, I would hope that voters will be astute enough to listen to any candidate—Democrat, Republican, or Independent—to assess her/his level of opposition to our current directions. From the air we breathe to the helpless we protect, nothing about the current heads of our executive or legislative branches represents the best humanity has to offer. We are capable of so much more, and through our actions—especially in voting—we must take steps to make sure our leaders are too.
On April 4, 2017, voters will be electing local governmental leaders—village officials, school board members, and the like. Additionally, several communities will have to vote on referendums advanced by their school districts seeking additional funding. Two of those involve districts in which I have an interest: Hinsdale Township High School District 86 (where I worked for twenty-five years), which is seeking $76,000,000 for additional classrooms and swimming pool remodeling; and Center Cass School District 66 (which is the elementary district my two daughters attended), which needs over $12,000,000 for various repairs and safety updates. (You can find the official referendums here–just click “Propositions.) Yet, one aspect of funding a school district for which you will not see any new monetary requests is the single most important factor in any school’s success—its teachers.
Just to be clear with my background, I taught English for thirty-three years, retiring in 2012 after working in both a junior and senior high school as well as being active in my school districts’ unions (President, negotiator, and grievance chair). Thus, I have an extreme bias in favor of teachers and the role they play in public education: No matter what kinds of reforms, programs, or experts you can cite; nothing will impact a school more than the quality of its teachers. And despite myths to the contrary, our public schools are not rife with incompetent teachers hiding behind unions or school codes in order to maintain their “cushy” positions. Of course there are some bad teachers out there, but they are a minuscule number of the millions of dedicated public educators. Most teachers work extremely hard to make a difference in the lives of our children.
But it has become more and more standard for school districts to downplay any and all expenses associated with maintaining their staff. I receive several Google news alerts for a variety of public education issues which provide me with over thirty news stories from around the country every day. But in the last five years, I have yet to see an article covering a school district, national leader, school board member, or any organization (other than those quoting teachers’ unions during contract negotiations) who will argue that school funding should be increased in order to attract and retain the best possible teachers. The referendums shown above make absolutely no mention of needing more money for teachers—whether it be to lower class size or to gain a competitive edge when hiring the best teaching candidates—and I can’t remember hearing those in charge of our schools ever advocate for higher teacher salaries.
Instead, it’s become a standard procedure for many administrators and school board members to claim that teachers cost too much, that things like steps on a salary schedule are no longer “sustainable,” or that ”greedy” teachers are bleeding taxpayers dry. I do understand that resources are not infinite—How many times during contract negotiations did I hear that there were “only so many slices of financial pie”!—but that line of reasoning won’t come up when discussing more funds for school expansion or repair, even when the need for more classrooms isn’t always dire, as is the case in Hinsdale 86 where shifting some students from one school to another is a money-saving option which the district has rejected. Yet, the attacks about “easy” work schedules and “Cadillac” insurance programs arose every time I fought to improve the working conditions for teachers I knew were doing an amazing job.
The most galling argument I ever heard was during one negotiations when, frustrated by the district’s claims of poverty and refusal to agree to a reasonable salary increase, I suggested that if money were so tight, perhaps the board should seek more funding for our salaries. The response was that requesting a referendum for salaries would be like “re-financing a mortgage to buy groceries.” Since teachers are mere transitory expenses, the reasoning went, one should never “waste” a difficult process like promoting unpopular tax increases on raises for them. Needless to say, my reply (that having the necessary money to eat was significantly more important than saving a percent or two on a mortgage interest rate, thus rendering their analogy idiotic) didn’t go over well.
The most essential element by a wide margin in improving and/or maintaining the quality of public education is who is in front of the classroom. No matter what study you look at or how many factors are cited as important, all will have quality teaching near the top of the list of crucial characteristics. Everyone knows this, but it seems we refuse to recognize the relationship between good salaries and good teachers, unlike other professions. As all you baseball fans know, the White Sox recently traded one of the best pitchers in baseball, Chris Sale, and a key aspect of his value in the trade was everyone agreeing on how “reasonable” his contract was at only $38,000,000 for the next three years. Yet, when it comes to the people who are responsible for teaching and looking out for our children every day, we become enraged when they earn over $100,000 a year (which would require teaching for 380 years to earn what Mr. Sale—who is a bargain by baseball standards—will earn in three years). And I believe Chris is worth every penny; I just also happen to believe that teachers deserve a good wage too.
So as we vote this Tuesday on the referendums which are being pursued, we should keep in mind the unspoken reality that any additional money a school system receives at least indirectly might strengthen a district’s faculty. Hinsdale 86 is an excellent example of how a failure to use referendums can create a needless money crunch when it comes to maintaining a quality staff. My old district hasn’t passed a referendum since the 1960s, yet has spent tens of millions of dollars on new building: The district has added many classrooms, field houses, and science labs as well as extensive remodeling projects over the years. The money for all this was obtained through issuing bonds and spending surplus property tax revenues. This time, at least, it is going through the appropriate channel of soliciting taxpayer approval before embarking on significant building sprees. Unfortunately, though, the need for additional classrooms is less clear since much room exists in one of the two schools. (You can read more about this issue here, here, and here.) I would vote for this referendum, were I eligible to vote in Hinsdale Township, but it’s hardly a black/white choice. My rationale would be to support the superior teachers there, not the questionable building. The district will have major problems if this referendum fails, but the issues which failure would raise are important and should be addressed sooner or later. Sadly, though, those most likely to feel the pinch for a rejection financially would be the teachers, come the time for a new contract. (You can find an editorial which rejects this referendum as foolish here in the Chicago Tribune.)
In Center Cass 66, I would strongly encourage fellow residents to vote “Yes” on this tax increase (which I will also pay). Elementary teachers unfairly earn significantly less than their secondary counterparts, and the relatively small tax increase for repairs should allow Center Cass to compensate teachers more equitably. Of course, the teachers in the district will have to fight for their fair share, but assuming the referendum is approved, at least they won’t be competing as much with facilities expenses. (It was also a nice touch that over Spring Break, repairs to one of the schools’ roofs ( at Prairieview Elementary), have been on display for anyone driving by on Plainfield Road, right before the voting.)
One day, perhaps, we will see a school board courageous and far-sighted enough to push a referendum because teachers are cherished and valued more highly than the thrill of construction. There should be no question as to what is the most important resource in any school district, but we have a long way to go to acknowledge that teachers matter most and should be compensated accordingly. Approving referendums (even as they are currently constructed) is at least one small, indirect way to show some support for teachers.
For more outlier views on what goes on in the world of public education and ways we can strengthen this institution, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools.
When we last left Hinsdale Township High School District 86, home to Hinsdale South and Central High Schools, the school board had voted (4-3, barely) to scrap plans for a referendum this November to seek many millions in new tax revenues (estimates ranged from the mid-70s to the low 90s, but it varied from meeting to meeting and from board member to board member). At the time, we suggested that this would only lead to more unrest—the decision to cancel the referendum vote came after loud protests from South residents who felt seeking new money for building additions at Central (where increasing enrollment has led to overcrowded facilities) was exercising poor fiduciary judgement when South had room for at least 350 students. (This year’s attendance numbers show 2840 students in Central and 1570 at South, a gap of 1270.). “Fill South First” became their rallying cry, and the board acquiesced, at least on the referendum proposal, which they tabled. Then, residents who lived in the buffer zone came out in droves to lobby the board not to touch the area in the middle of the district where parents can choose which of the two schools their children attend; the majority of whom have selected Central over the years. Another meeting or two and the board decided it would not form an attendance advisory committee to look at the issue as well as tabling all discussions of any attendance boundary changes, instead preferring to address the problem as a full board updating the 2008 Strategic Plan. And during the discussions about this vote, the five board members present all declared that they were voting this way with the understanding that nothing would be done to eliminate or modify the buffer zone, which had been expanded in June.
Finally, and most recently, the board has been discussing the possibility of an April referendum for a smaller, proportionately distributed increase, mainly to solve the Central overcrowding issue. (No one has been all that specific about what needs to be done at South, which was why the original referendum was skewed so significantly toward Central projects.) Again, amounts have been fluid, but now the range seems to have shrunk to up to $40,000,000 or less than $60,000,000. There has also been talk at a couple of school board meetings about creating an “international baccalaureate program,” a sort of school-within-a-school of advanced studies which would be housed in South and be able to “attract” students from the Central attendance area.
So, what does it all mean? First, and quite clearly, it indicates a board trying to please all of its constituents, but ultimately recognizing that the Central attendance area’s size and influence will prevent the most logical and cheapest solution—changing boundaries so students originally slated to attend Central or allowed to choose between the schools would now be required to go to South—from even being considered, much less taking place. Several people, including board members, have stated the buffer zone where families have a choice of schools is a bad idea, that it never should have been created in the first place. Yet, since it exists and the board will not antagonize its proponents by discussing any changes, it appears to be a permanent facet of District 86. And that also means that ALL current borders are inviolate and not subject to any modification—except, of course, when people seek an expansion of the buffer zone so those previously in the South area can now pick Central, which happened just a couple of months ago.
Therefore, the concept of altering school boundaries for the best allocation of resources and the least amount of building additions for short-term attendance fluctuations—as is the practice in some school districts (see this and this for two local instances)—is not going to be discussed, debated, or considered beyond the recent South parent outburst which never got beyond citizens reading prepared statements at board meetings. To give you an example of how different it can be other places, a colleague of mine lived a block away from an elementary school where he planned to send his daughter. Attendance growth spiked in other areas, however, and the new boundary for his nearby school was modified so that it ended on the other side of his colleague’s street; his daughter wound up being bussed over two miles away. And this took place between school years, with little notification. An extreme example, perhaps, but that’s appropriate in comparison to the extreme opposite that is starving South of students while revenues are raised to add on to Central.
And as we pointed out previously, the key problem is how poorly South is perceived by those in the Central attendance area. Why else would people be so aghast about the prospect of having to go there? Even the “international baccalaureate program” seems insulting to South: The only way that Central students could ever be enticed to enroll in South would be to create an honors school; one that has as little as possible to do with those currently there. You don’t have to stretch your imagination too far to see this school-within-a-school having a different name, parking lot, entrance, mascot, cafeteria, and even extra-curricular activities so that its students wouldn’t ever have to interact with “those” South people. You should know that I worked in District 86 at South for twenty-five years, often in leadership positions in my role as teacher union president and contract negotiator, not to mention teaching English honors classes, and not once did the international baccalaureate idea come up. The only reason it’s arisen now, I believe, is because the board is desperately seeking a way to make both sides of town happy. I’m pretty sure, though, South siders will see through a plan based on selling a separate-but-not-equal plan to Central residents (as well as the few South kids who qualify) to isolate them from the rest of the “ordinary” kids already in the school.
But I’d bet even a separate honors school wouldn’t be enough to get three or four hundred Central kids to transfer to South voluntarily. Plus, the logistics—specific applications and curriculum requirements have to be accepted by the licensing organization before a program can be labeled “international baccalaureate” which could entail years of planning and preparation—mean that it’s implementation is a ways off. So the April referendum proposal is much more likely to be the key solution to Central’s space issues; bids could be put out for additions to be completed in time for the 2017-18 school year. And there would be some remodeling and updating at South, probably using what could soon become standard operating procedure in District 86—proportional funding. With 64% of District 86 students now going to Central, according to the Chicago Tribune, “The board members said the spending in any new plan for facility improvements should be allocated between the two schools in a ratio that reflects their enrollment.” Does that mean District 86’s overriding policy of past years—“Whatever it takes to meet the needs of students”—will now mutate to a “$0.64 of every tax dollar needs to be budgeted for Central” approach?
Look, I understand how difficult this situation is for everyone: South people have felt overshadowed and overlooked for decades; Central residents (and buffer zone folks) believe the district has promised them the right to attend Central regardless of their opinions of South; and school board members are caught right in the middle between competing interests and conflicts that began many years ago. But this vacillating back and forth as they have will do nothing but exacerbate the problems, leaving everyone dissatisfied and angry. One board member even apologized to the buffer zone audience for creating undue “anxiety” with the board’s even mentioning changes. So having to think about maybe attending Hinsdale South has now become a stress disorder? The property value issue is another “factoid” seemingly designed to irk people who live in Darien (which has always been advertised as “A Nice Place to Live,” by the way). Homeowners’ beliefs that the selling price of their homes would plummet if South were their high school really should not be something a school board considers, much less endorses, but much of what has occurred at recent board meetings has indicated exactly that: The school board understands one of its two high schools is perceived as inferior by members of its communities, and it is not going to anything to alter that perception. In fact, through several of its actions, it has implied that it agrees with that assessment.
I suppose it wouldn’t be so bad if there were evidence to support that belief, besides test scores. On safety, opportunity, rigor, course offerings, quality of teaching, facilities, and on and on; South is every bit as good as Central. If anything, due to the size differential, there are many MORE opportunities at South for extra-curricular activities and sports teams. Yes, there are differences as we’ve noted before, but none of them make Central quantitatively better for any student than South. The entering freshmen at Central have higher academic scores than those who go to South which accounts for differences on later achievement tests, but that has nothing to do with how far any one kid can go at either school. However, nobody is pointing this out except this ex-South teacher, who can easily be dismissed as biased. I would argue, however, that boosting the schools is a school board’s job as well. This board’s actions, I regret to point out, have not sent that message clearly, certainly not clearly enough.
It remains to be seen how the perception problem will ever go away, unless it is confronted directly, but at least this board is not taking the route past boards have with building projects—using surplus tax collections and issuing bonds rather than polling residents. Instead, it understands the intent of property tax laws and is seeking permission, through a referendum, to increase those taxes. The District 86 communities, then, will have the final say on whether to preserve the current dichotomy by spending more money to make Central bigger so that no one outside of South’s current attendance area has to go to South. And if voters reject increased taxes and the referendum…well, that would definitely put everyone in a more interesting and challenging position: What would be done to change the perceptions (which are either grossly exaggerated or false) that South is much worse than Central and that property values would crater in areas switched from Central to South? Would the board revert to old tricks by “finding” other ways to get the funds for a Central expansion? Either way, it looks like the April election—which will also feature four District 86 board positions on the ballot—should be quite interesting. I’m pretty sure we have not heard the last of the Attendance Wars in Hinsdale Township High School District 86.
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.