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.
Several weeks ago, a referendum was put before the residents of Hinsdale High School Township District 86 (which is composed of Hinsdale South and Central High Schools). The referendum outlined plans to raise property taxes by $76,000,000 in order to upgrade aquatic areas at both schools and to add more classrooms at Hinsdale Central to accommodate its increasing enrollment. The communities of District 86 (Darien, Hinsdale, Willowbrook, Oakbrook, Burr Ridge, and Clarendon Hills) voted down the tax increase by three to one—75.1% against and 24.85% in favor in DuPage County. This will leave the District 86 school board (four of whom were elected as new members on the same ballot with the ill-fated referendum) with significant challenges immediately as this board takes charge.
My knowledge of this excellent school district comes from its astute hiring practices: I taught English in Hinsdale South for twenty-five years, and became familiar with the district’s workings (at least somewhat) in my roles for the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association (HHSTA—the union which represents all District 86 teachers): president, contract negotiator, and grievance chair at different times for much of my career. So I followed with interest this particular referendum since it was the first one attempted in District 86 since the 1960s. There has also been much controversy about the two high schools and how they are perceived in their communities through the years, most recently over the expansion of District 86’s “buffer zone,” an area in the district where some residents can select either high school for their children to attend (almost all currently in the zone have selected Central). That, coupled with a declining enrollment at South while Central’s attendance sky-rocketed, led to the referendum’s being not just about adding on to Central, but instead a forum on the two high schools. Why, many asked, should homeowners vote to increase their property taxes so that Central can add classrooms when there is significant space available right in the district, just a couple of miles away at Hinsdale South? To some, though, the answer was obvious—addition was necessary, so no one currently eligible to attend Central would have to go to South.
I’ve written about this issue several times. You can find the essays (along with links to various news stories which motivated them) on my blog, with this one and this being two which ought to give you the highlights. I’ve never tried to hide my bias in favor of Hinsdale South as an excellent high school and that the opportunities provided by its amazing staff (I can say that now since I’ve retired) compare favorably to every high school in the country, including and (what school board members and administrators need to keep reminding everyone) especially Hinsdale Central.
And now that distinction needs more emphasis than ever: For the past decade or so, as the enrollment has gone up at Central, several additions and upgrades have been made to the facilities there. From library remodeling to new science labs to air conditioning, tens of millions have been spent to improve the physical plant at Central. And yes, most of those upgrades were also made at South as well. But in the last few years, South’s enrollment has declined from over 2000 students at its peak to less than 1600 on its most recent 2016 school report card. With Central still growing (not to mention the expansion of the aforementioned “buffer zone” last year), this meant any new building was only going to take place at Central, unless the board shifted attendance areas for the two schools in order to send more students to South.
The discussion of the transfer/redistricting solution to Central’s overcrowding lasted about two board meetings last year, as parents from the Central attendance areas turned out in droves to protest the possibility. That board (of whom three members are still on the current board) quickly backed away from the idea, pledging not to broach the subject again when determining whether or not to seek a referendum and even apologizing to parents for “stressing” them with speculation about their children being made to attend South. That led to the proposal for a $76 million tax increase, and we know how that turned out.
So now the whole South/Central issue comes into play once more. The overcrowding at Central is not going to go away; facilities are limited, and there is only so much room available (especially in specialized areas like science labs). Increasing class sizes is never an appealing solution (nor should it be), and the growth in Central with South shrinking has already led to the reallocation of the most valuable resource any school district has: its teachers. Many have been transferred from South to Central, which leads to some uncertainty and tension, especially when department chairs have to agree on which teachers should be moved and younger teachers need stability in order to polish their craft. Any involuntary transfer will create some negativity; the goal should be to minimize that kind of disruption of the staff.
But that leads right back to the much more unpopular and difficult disruption of students who were supposed to go to Central being told they have to attend South. And with the referendum’s being soundly defeated, there aren’t many alternatives. Temporary classrooms could be used at Central as a stopgap, depending on how long the enrollment bulge lasts, but that is hardly a palatable solution, especially in one of the more prestigious high schools in the country. Other than that or a population shift to South, the board could try for another referendum or use its excellent credit rating to issue some bonds which could finance Central’s expansion.
That last option is basically how past additions and building modifications have been funded, so it would hardly be surprising should the board take that direction. But as I’ve also previously pointed out, the intent of property tax laws is for residents to have a say in approving funds for building projects, among other things. A referendum is the more letter-of-the-law method to get necessary money for projects, but the key point opponents of the recently defeated District 86 proposal made was that much of this building wasn’t necessary, that needed classroom space was already in place. With that kind of controversy at the heart of this spending proposal, then, a referendum is by far the best method to determine the will of the people. And that just happened, without much doubt as to what community members feel about increasing taxes. So, guess what—we’re right back where we started with one question each before both sides in this issue. For the No Transfer people: How will the district provide adequate facilities for so many students without changing any attendance boundaries or increasing property taxes? For the “Fill South First” advocates: Why is attending South so unpalatable for parents in the Central attendance area?
I no longer work in District 86, and I only lived in district for a few years a long time ago (a rental unit, of course. I could definitely digress on the irony of teachers’ being entrusted with the education of children in whose neighborhoods they can’t afford to live), so I will refrain from analyzing or judging the reasons so many strongly oppose redistricting so that more students wind up at South. I’m sure some of those reasons are based solely on a positive perception of Central, of familiarity and experience. But as someone who worked at South and dealt with many from Central-land, I do believe there is a strong streak of irrational horror at the idea of having to slum it by going to South. No one in any of the towns which feed into Central would ever accept that racism, class-snobbery, or “white trash” stereotyping has anything to do with not wanting to attend South; yet that vibe is impossible to avoid if you listen to some of the rhetoric when South is discussed.
And that’s what will have to be confronted by the new board. Regardless of what happens with the overcrowding at Central, the divided district needs to move toward more unity, toward more respect for each school, and toward a celebration of the equity of opportunity provided for all students in District 86. And there is some positive news to report in that direction. #WeAreHinsdaleSouth is a new organization created by parents of Hinsdale South students (both past and present) which has formed to promote South since “South’s reputation took some unwarranted hits in the past few years, including from a member of the school board,” according to one member of the group. #WeAreHinsdaleSouth has plans to make sure that everyone in the District 86 attendance area is aware of that which makes South such a good school, publicizing accomplishments, opportunities, events, and people which show the school in its best light. You can read more about them here, as well as finding out about attending their next meeting on Monday, May 8.
I certainly wish this group well and hope they finally help South to be better recognized for the stellar school it is. I also hope that #WeAreHinsdaleSouth is in this for the long haul—it will not be an easy task to enhance South’s image on the Central side of town; patience, creativity, and diligence need to be the key strategies since reputations are quick to form but hard to change. And regardless of #WeAreHinsdaleSouth’s efforts, the school board must accept the challenge of fostering a more unified approach to the district. Although wanting to change the South vs. Central dynamic for the better might not have been the key reason voters rejected District 86’s proposed referendum, a potentially beneficial unintended consequence of that vote could lead to a stronger, less divided community. This is definitely not the easiest path, but it is the right direction for the district and something everyone should be rooting for.
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.
As our new year starts and the in-coming administration gears up to assume office, it is time to move away from general analyses of how Trump came to office, the problems with his approach to the Presidency, or the general suggestions for what we who doubt his ability to govern effectively or fairly should do. Now, we need to get more specific in understanding those who will assist him in governing; and given my experience in education (thirty-three years as a secondary English teacher), Betsy Devos, soon-to-be Education Secretary, is the most suited for a more detailed look from me.
What everybody notices right away about Devos’s résumé is how little experience she has with public education of any sort. She did not attend public schools growing up, she did not major in education or have a job in the field, and she did not send her kids to public schools. She has, however, devoted much her time as an adult (who can pretty much pick whatever field she wants to dabble in, given her status as a billionaire) to education reform. So as we unravel her qualifications, work, and beliefs prior to her taking over as the highest ranking education figure at the federal level, we have to understand that she has spent much of her time and millions of her dollars to modify an institution with which she has no direct experience. Certainly, several previous Education Secretaries have not been totally steeped in a public education background, but it is reasonable to note that none of them has been as free of any real familiarity with how our schools work while having strident, documented opinions about their weaknesses. If that sounds a lot like her boss in the White House, well…
So the logical place to start—absent an historical walk through her biography—is what does she believe strongly enough to be able to devote so much time and money to changing, despite no first-hand experiences? When you take a look at the areas of her focus over the years, it becomes clear she’s very strong on individual families having as much flexibility as possible in making their educational choices. Naturally, it’s possible to see her educational work as either negative or positive, depending on the political lens through which you view it. What is apparent, however, is that whether it is charter schools operating outside traditional public educational administrative structures, vouchers for parents to use in directing their tax dollars to specific schools, or public funds being made available to private/parochial schools; Devos has consistently sided with positions which empowered individuals rather than the public education. And that seems reasonable when you view our educational system as a competitive one. If you have the means to find and get into a good school, Devos’s plans will work very well for you. You’re probably already making a sizable financial contribution to your local school districts which are, by and large, very good. If Devos has her way, you’ll have the additional leverage of transferring both your children and your tax dollars to whichever school system you like best—thus insuring that school districts will have to work harder to meet your needs lest they lose your funding. You will have more power in both influencing how your schools operate and whether some can even remain open. Those with money could be okay with Devos’s initiatives.
The problem, of course, is that not everyone has that win-win of quality public and private options close to their homes or within family budgetary limits. Instead, the only schools these families have access to will be those deemed as the worst, the ones losing additional funding necessary to improve since any family with the means to do so will find another option (or home school—if you home school, will Devos propose that you get to keep the portion of your tax bill devoted to education?). These schools could become so impoverished that only for-profit, non-union corporations will be willing to take them on, slashing programs and increasing class sizes to foster greater financial returns. The stratification of the privileged from lower-income groups can only increase with this model in place.
Additionally, the obvious question becomes who should be making the decisions on the best educational directions for our kids. Devos seems to believe that parents should be the ones with the most power, and she has a point that nobody is more invested in any one particular child than his/her parents. But that begs the question as to how objective parents can be about their children. (Not very, this parent would argue.) There’s also the problem of the greatest good for the greatest number. Left to their own interests, how many parents would choose less luxury for their children in order to benefit the masses? Parents should be included more significantly than they are now, but that doesn’t mean they should be the ultimate authorities on all things related to their children’s schools and their programs. Devos’s goal seems to be a total shift of decision-making power away from school administrators and teachers to parents.
It’s important to point out that this process is already in place to a certain extent. Although the Obama administration has done extremely well in many areas (in my opinion), one of its weakest areas has been education. Arne Duncan largely embraced the “Corporate Reform” model that Devos seems to favor, just to a lesser degree. Race to the Top did little to improve No Child Left Behind (the signature legislation of the Bush years), and the Common Core had a laudable beginning (trying to establish high standards for all students to achieve), but quickly degenerated into way too much federal interference in the teacher/student relationship which is at the heart of good education. Unless teachers are free to utilize methods they believe will best help their students to learn, progress is impossible. The Common Core tied federal dollars to forcing teachers to teach a certain way and school districts to required procedures that went far beyond the quality standards upon which Common Core should have based entirely. Also, charter school initiatives increased significantly during Obama’s terms, with for-profit companies taking over many schools. At least Duncan never tried to initiate vouchers or advocate public tax money being given to private institutions.
I was no fan of Duncan, the Education Secretary from 2009-2015, as I explained when he left Washington. And I’m mildly hopeful that the lack of direct experience with public education might mean Devos hasn’t totally hardened all of her beliefs, and she might be open to recognizing how central teachers are to any changes in public education; that top-down directives from Washington, state capitols, or even local school boards will have no positive impact unless teachers support them. We’ve been over and over this, but it seems that each new “leader” operates under the delusion that his/her vision is so compelling that teachers with decades of classroom experience will radically alter their approaches simply because someone who’s never been in their classrooms tells them she/he knows better. Culled down to its essence like that last sentence, most would recognize how idiotic an approach that is.
Unfortunately, Devos’s background seems to indicate she won’t understand this any better than Duncan did. Billionaires can operate as if no rules or restrictions should matter to them (This observation is based solely on anecdotal evidence—I have no first-hand experience with any billionaires nor can I come within 1% of their net worth. But watching Trump over the past couple of years, it seems like a reasonable assumption). So I have very low expectations for Devos seeing the light and changing her course to help schools understand their individual and unique situations which only those on site best know how to address. Instead, she’ll probably try to steer as much funding from traditional public school systems to alternatives in her belief that choice is more important than providing everyone with an equal opportunity for a quality education.
But as her boss will probably soon understand, bureaucracies move at glacial speed. (Um, glacial speed prior to the warming of the poles, which has greatly increased their melting in recent years, unfortunately. Yes, as you can tell, I’ve been completely brain-washed by the Chinese hoax on climate change. So sad.) What’s really sad, though, is that our best hope that Devos and Trump’s administration won’t damage public education too much is how resistant to any changes systems as large and complicated as school districts are. My best guess is they will try to help rich and middle class families to exert more influence over public schools while abandoning those who have no opportunity to choose at all to for-profit corporations. And the entrenched powers (administrations and—where they still exist—unions) will fight them every step of the way. Meanwhile, all the problems that each side rails against will continue as the battle grinds to a standstill. And that will leave us right where we are now, with the privileged getting a pretty good education and the poor being left far behind.
We can hope that Devos will surprise everybody and recognize that our society is based on the need for a literate populous, and one which provides all its citizens with the opportunity for a good education. The pessimistic view that Devos will lead the charge to further stratification seems most likely, but given the strange political events of 2016, it seems nobody has a clear idea on what will happen next. If nothing else, maybe it will take Devos so long to figure out the ins and outs of her huge department’s workings, that a new administration elected in 2020 will be taking over before she has time to do much damage. I do hope that she will come to the conclusion that empowering teachers to do their jobs well is the only way to improve schools, and she will move away from the sideshows of vouchers, for-profit charter schools, and public funds being directed into private institutions not subject to federal rules and regulations. Like most things about the Trump Presidency, we have little knowledge of what is going to be done and every reason to expect the worst without much concrete upon which to base our dread. But, dread is the most realistic feeling to have for now. Here’s to Devos’s proving me wrong.
If Secretary Devos needs a manual for how best to guide our schools, perhaps she could read Snowflake Schools, available for a very reasonable price, especially for a billionaire. Excerpts of the e-book can be found here.
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.
Recently, by a 4-3 vote, the Hinsdale Township High School District 86 school board decided, despite months of planning and deliberation, not to go forward with a referendum vote to authorize new revenues (tax increases) for making additions and renovations to Hinsdale South and Hinsdale Central. This comes on the heels of another controversial vote to expand the district’s buffer zone, in effect allowing more students originally slated to attend South to choose between the two schools. The issues may seem unrelated to the uninitiated, but they are linked to one another and point to challenging times ahead for the district.
I had argued that it was a bad idea to expand the buffer zone, and it appears many in the South attendance area agreed. “Fill South First” (a phrase coined by those in the community) has become a movement for those who believe that it’s wrong to increase property taxes with a multi-million-dollar plan to enlarge Central when South has room for more students. The buffer zone expansion only called attention to what many perceive to be inequity in how the board treats the two schools. After allowing an already overcrowded school increase its enrollment, the board was going to follow that up by asking property owners to increase their taxes, with most of that new money (70%) going to add on to the overcrowded school, which the board had just allowed to get even fuller. At the very least, it seemed tone-deaf on the part of the school board. And many South residents made their displeasure known, showing up in force to lobby the board with their opposition to the referendum. Many expressed their views at the August 15 school board meeting, and after those comments, the board voted not to go forward with the planned November vote.
Unfortunately, this solves nothing. First, and most importantly, Central is overcrowded, with some 350 students more than what school officials deem appropriate. The end result will be larger classes, cramped facilities, and fewer course offerings. When you have too many kids picking classes, the less mainstream courses often get axed as it becomes necessary to increase both the number of kids in each class as well as how many sections there are, especially classes which are requirements. Those bigger class sizes mean less opportunity for students to interact with their teachers and can result in teachers having to cut back on the assignments they make—there is only so much out-of-class work teachers can do, after all. Plus, in a school district with high expectations and standards like District 86 (Bias Alert: I worked at Hinsdale South for twenty-five years), the vast majority of teachers go all out all the time. Increase their pupil load, and they have to decrease the amount of work generated by each student in order to keep their heads above water. So those larger classes write less, do fewer projects, and take more objective tests (true/false/multiple choice rather than essay, for example). Given the high quality of teaching at Central and the terrific kids who go there, it is unlikely that the drop-off in academics will be readily noticeable to most, at least for a while, but any drop should be avoided if at all possible.
And that equity issue will now be at the forefront of every decision the board makes from now on. Don’t get me wrong: Fairness is a huge issue, especially when it comes to District 86 where many on the South side have felt like Cinderella compared to what they see as Central’s favored status. Some of that feeling, in my opinion, has come from Central’s highly publicized successes, from a record-setting eight IHSA state championships just two years ago to its lofty scores on standardized tests. So envy has played a part in South’s inferiority complex, but board moves—like the buffer zone expansion—certainly haven’t helped. Keep in mind that a parent stated to reporters one of the reasons which motivated him to push for his child to attend Central rather than South were “the opportunities there.” And the board did little to counter this perception—that Central provides better opportunities than South. That is simply an unacceptable attitude, even if only implied. Now that South residents have been sensitized to the issue, every expenditure or program will be scrutinized to make sure that no favoritism is involved. With subjective decisions the board has to make, often based on what’s “best” for the district, this need to avoid the slightest tinge of bias can hamstring its ability to make necessary improvements to Central, which is much larger and possessing some facilities much older than those at South.
The insistence on equity also ignores a key fact—the schools are different. Obviously, Central (for whatever reasons) is way bigger. According to the 2015 Illinois School Report Card for Central, enrollment was 2813 compared to South’s 1594. When one school has 1219 more students than the other, it’s impossible for things to be totally equal. From supplies to teachers, Central will consume more resources. There are also demographic differences shown on those Report Cards which have to be taken into account. Most significantly, the percentage of students from low income families is 32.2% at South compared with Central’s 8.1%. That is a very important statistic: Little is correlated more closely with academic success than family income; kids from wealthier families do better in school. The reasons for that can be debated endlessly, but the facts can’t be denied. (You can check out many different sources for this— here are a couple to get you started: a well-documented blog post, The School News Network, a Stanford study which was used as the basis for the book, Whither Opportunity, and a series of links put out from the American Psychological Association–there are hundreds more.) With a third of South’s students coming from low-income families, there will be more challenges in getting these students to the high standards District 86 communities have come to expect. This low-income population was one reason it was proposed that South should house a food pantry. Again with pressure from the community, this was also rejected by the school board. Regardless, students behind in their scholastic achievement typically require extra help, smaller classes, and more special education teachers—all of which are expensive and beg the equity question.
So now what? Central is over-crowded, South has a growing low-income population, many South residents are hyper-sensitive to board action which could be perceived as favoring Central or portraying South as more economically disadvantaged (which is a fact), and the board has tabled a plan to address building needs which had been worked on for some time by administrators, community members, and paid advisors.
The most obvious solutions are also the least likely: Redistricting could be used by the board to balance attendance at the two schools. Or, the two high schools could be unified with all freshmen and sophomores in one building, and juniors and seniors in the other (the “LT” approach). The first solution would be the simplest: 400 or so students who were supposed to attend Central would be required to go to South instead. You’d probably have to phase this in over four years, starting one year with freshman, followed by freshmen and sophomores, etc. Voila! Each school would be filled, South’s low-income population percentage would be decreased, and Central would have some room to breathe. (Not all agree with this view: The superintendent of District 86, Bruce Law, has stated moving 400 students out of Central would not address many of its issues. Maybe not, but there could be little doubt that it would ease some of Central’s space problems.) In the second scenario, combining the schools would achieve total balance as South and Central kids would be united to form a new district. Hinsdale High School would be born—although I’m guessing there would be some debate about that name, but it is “Hinsdale Township High School District 86” after all. (I told you the South people had been sensitized, didn’t I?)
But naming a unified school would be the easy part. Loyalties to traditions and places would lead to a huge uproar over the idea of transforming the two high schools in either of the ways listed above. The political fallout from that kind of change would be swift, significant, and loud. In short, it is probably unrealistic, at least for the foreseeable future, to consider either of those ideas as the answer to current problems. Not because they aren’t possible, workable, and the cheapest answers around, but for more emotional reasons. Some will suggest that racism plays a role in Central residents’ reluctance to send their kids to South or to combine the two schools (South’s black and Hispanic population totals almost 31% compared to Central’s 7%), some might argue income inequity is the root of the issue, and many would claim the “but it’s always been this way!” privilege. No matter how you look at it, a solid majority at both schools would probably be against combining the schools, and the families of the four hundred students who would be transferred to South would be justifiably upset, particularly if one of their key reasons for moving to Hinsdale, Oakbrook, or Clarendon Hills—being in Hinsdale Central’s attendance area (with its expensive real estate and property taxes)—was now suddenly being switched to the school many (unfairly, in my opinion) see as the lesser of the two.
Given the political hailstorm from either of these logical and economically sensible solutions, they both seem long shots, especially after the buffer zone expansion, which some of us did point out at the time sent the clear message that many District 86 residents considered Central the superior school, and by voting to allow the expansion, the school board was tacitly endorsing that view. With the need for additions to Central as well as repairs necessary for both buildings, the board will have to find other ways to get additional funds. So it will probably resort to tactics which have been employed many times in the past.
When District 86 felt the need for field houses, banks of new science labs, or entire annexes over the years—to say nothing of expensive library/auditorium renovations or air conditioning for both campuses—it has simply gone ahead with the projects, using either accumulated surpluses (in the Working Cash fund) or issuing bonds. The combined cost of all those projects over the past thirty years has easily (adjusted for inflation) exceeded the dollar amount of the rejected referendum, even using the higher $92.4 million figure. So there are ways for the board to get Central more space without seeking approval from District 86 community members.
However, that is neither ideal nor really in the spirit of the property tax laws, which generally require the financing for new building projects to be put to a public vote. But there are several methods that can be used to get the money. District 86 is currently in excellent financial shape, with only 5.6% of its allowable debt limit used (compared to Hinsdale 181 which had used 45.2% of its debt limit—both figures are as of 2015 and can be found here). Additionally, should District 86 be able to get its plans classified as “Life/Safety” work, it would have a great deal more latitude in levying new taxes (through bond issuances, typically) without needing the public’s authorization. Yes, that might be a bit of a stretch, but it’s not hard to envision some claiming that Central’s overcrowding is a safety problem. (For more on the various regulations on Illinois school boards’ taxing authority, this article, created by a law firm which specializes in giving financial advice to school districts, provides an overview.)
Finessing a solution without dealing with flawed beliefs about the two schools, though, seems to be merely kicking the problem down the road, which has been done many times before. And to its credit, the school board is already considering changing boundaries or eliminating the buffer zone. The core issue, however, is how the two schools are perceived by the community. Having worked for twenty-five years in South, I completely reject the notion of Central’s being better than South, but I do know it’s true that many—probably a majority—in the community believe it to be so. A key task the school board must begin, therefore, is to combat that perception. As we all know, reputations get established quickly, but stubbornly hang on long after they no longer apply, if they ever did. Changing the “Central good, South bad” view in the Central attendance area will be just as hard as altering the “South short-changed, Central favored” opinion of South siders. Sometime in the future, I’ll offer a few suggestions on how that might be done, but for now, the District 86 school board needs to figure out some solutions to the concerns it faces, both in its physical plants and community relations. Let’s hope that at least it now understands just how inexorably the two are tied together.
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.
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.
Here’s a quick follow-up to an article written back in November: McDonald’s hired ex-science teacher, John Cisna, as a “brand ambassador” after he lost weight by limiting his calories to 2,000 a day, exercised significantly more than he had been, and ate nothing but items from the McDonald’s menu for ninety days. He continued for an additional ninety days and created a video entitled 540 Meals (based on his three daily trips to McDonald’s over the 180 days). Of course, there was a book as well. None of this would have been all that noteworthy since any diet expert could tell you that if you consume fewer calories than you use, you are going to lose weight (and a 2,000 limit for a man who weighed 280 pounds at the start of this process was a significant reduction), even if those calories have little nutritional value. Cisna used this as a school project, so he had his students calibrate his dietary needs and select his meals to maximize nutrition, at least as far as a McDonald’s menu could. But there were definitely weaknesses in that diet, which was pointed out by many nutritionists at the time this first came to light.
And it came to light because after hiring Cisna, McDonald’s used its networks to arrange appearances for him at public schools across the country. Cisna claimed that his message was all about making good choices, but many (including myself) saw this a thinly veiled attempt to insert fast-food advertising into schools, where it has no place. A Change.org petition was started to try to stop these appearances this past October; and after collecting 90,000 signatures (and mine), it worked. McDonald’s announced this past week officially that Cisna was no longer appearing in schools (his last school visit occurred on November 13), and that he is instead speaking with community groups and employees (adults) about his experiences. (You can read articles about this most recent development here and here). I’m not sure how many points to give McDonald’s for this—they never should have started running “infomercials” in public schools in the first place, but school officials never should have allowed them to. And Mickey D’s did end the campaign, but waited some five months to acknowledge that fact, and it took 90,000 protests as well as negative publicity to get them to do so.
The good news is that our public schools are no longer at risk for some shady presentation masking as “science” sneaking ads into our kids’ classrooms. But we should all be on alert for the various shades of propaganda which often weasel their ways into places they don’t belong. Now, about those multi-media events staged in schools all over the country with three screens; popular movie, television, sports, and music clips; and a vaguely positive message about being true to yourself—and, oh yeah, don’t forget the frequent “placement” of various junk food brands.