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Closing the Staffing Gap

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In this Education Week Commentary, Antonia Cortese of the American Federation of Teachers and Claus von Zastrow of the Learning First Alliance outline a blueprint for how to get better teachers into hard-to-staff schools.

They propose broad, systemic changes that will simplify bureaucratic hiring processes, improve working conditions and provide more professional support for teachers in high-poverty, low-performing schools.

What do you think is the best way to achieve this goal?

10 Comments

We need to rethink our licensing processes and hire retired military personnel and other obvious authority figures, with a minimum of "methods" training and lots of subject oriented support.

Like all teachers and principals, they should be judged in terms of the measurable student gains that they are able to produce.

Although this is not a guaranteed procedure, it is bound to lead to better results than the failurse which we are producing today.

John Shacter, consultant, teacher, [email protected]

I didn’t see any evidence of proposals of “systemic change” in the article concerning closing the staffing gap. The key here was in one of the sidebars: “If we're serious about attracting the best teachers and leaders to hard-to-staff schools—and keeping them there—we have to offer better financial and professional incentives.” Well, what evidence is there anywhere in America that anyone is really serious about this problem? The problem has been documented over and over for at least 30 years. There is certainly no public support for such changes. Just try changing staffing ratios or propose any kind of differential financing for target schools and see what happens. There is no widespread support among teachers. If there were, you wouldn’t have to create incentives. I was at a ghetto school for 31 years, 6 miles from the Mexican border. I was there by choice. Besides, who wants a staff that’s only in it for the money? Whatever changes you make, systemic or otherwise, leave money out of it.

Administrators, the few who really care, can see how things are stacked against these schools but even the good ones are too gutless or too worried about the bottom line to ever say anything. Go ahead—look across America and try to find 20 administrators anywhere who tell the truth about testing, not just in public, but anywhere—in a staff meeting, at the district office, in memos to the superintendent. Good luck.

And what about the research facilities at major universities and their education departments? We could have used a little help any time during the last 30 or 40 years in dismantling the primary instrument of all inequity in American education. Every dominant measure of achievement in every research project is based on the same corrupt and unproven standard of measure—standardized test scores. Doesn’t anyone remember the classic definition of intelligence in Psych 101 40 years ago— “intelligence is what an intelligence test tests.” These are the same guys who set up the entire testing movement in America. And it’s all based on assumptions that no one believes. Just how many Skinnerians are there, really? So, today the definition has changed slightly: “achievement is what achievement tests test.” It’s absurd, of course. The tests are a joke among psychometricians and anyone who knows anything about tests and measures. But they give us numbers, lots of them, and a stack of self-fulfilling prophecies to go with them. Paraphrasing Hemingway’s response to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s claim that the rich really are different— “Yeah, Scotty, they got higher scores.” And everyone knows if you got more money, you got higher scores.

So, my first systemic change is staff schools only with teachers and administrators who understand test scores and how worthless they are. You can’t have high expectations if you believe those scores and you won’t ever get anything done if you keep looking over your shoulder to see if the scores are going up.

Next, find out if teachers really believe in the kids. Make sure all teachers know that students will give report cards on all teachers at all levels. like they do in almost every college in America. I have 25 years worth of report cards that students filled out on every course I taught. Some were a bit harsh at times, but I probably deserved it. It’s a small thing, but I have found little or no support for this simple idea over the last 25 years. I wonder why? And please spare me simple-minded responses. You must figure I’ve already heard it all. It is a simple matter of power. Teachers have too much and students have virtually none. Make sure the student newspaper has full first amendment rights (as in California—no Hazelwoods) and make sure they know just what that means. After the faculty at my site passed a get-tough, zero tolerance tardy policy, I gave my news staff a list of all teachers who came in late for the first day of school (I was the newspaper advisor). Drop all dress codes that don’t directly involve obscenity or violence.

Okay, so far no one wants to come to my school, right? Let’s rewrite some contract language (I was on bargaining teams for 15 years). All substantive decisions at the site have to be “mutually agreeable.” No one gets to pull rank, not the administrator, not the union. Sit there until you reach consensus. No zero-sum games. Eventually, we’ll all be forced to be reasonable because we will not be able to force anyone to do anything. That goes for students as well as the adults on campus.

Hm. Still not much of a line waiting to get into this school. Okay, now let’s pour in lots of money, none of it in salaries. You shouldn’t need more money because you’re going to be in the best schools in the district. Maintenance staffs should be doubled or tripled—everything has to work and work well. It’s easy. You ust treat the ghetto schools as if they were rich schools, as if you really cared about the students there and as if you didn’t believe anything you had heard about them. Repaint everything, fix everything, redesign everything. Put trees everywhere. It’s too bad you can’t do this for every school, but you are trying to make a difference in these target schools.

Give teachers lots of money to spend on equipment and on their classrooms. If they want 90 inch movie screens instead of those 60-inch standard screens, get them. Never got mine. Spoil teachers as if you really liked and respected them and the kids they teach. You want a metaphor for American education in a single piece of classroom equipment—the student desk. Take a good look at any student desk and tell me if anyone cares about the kids sitting in them. Let’s spend more than $20/desk, okay? They don’t have to be designed quite like a BMW’s car seat, but some kind of adjustments for comfort ought to be minimal, no?

Now, leave the teachers alone and let them work on any special projects they want. Use the high-tech companies as models where creativity is valued over everything else. And what measure of achievement should we use? How about attendance? If kids want to come to school, you’ll know in a hurry. If they don’t, find out why and fix it. We need to think long-term here. You may not think certain projects are effective. Don’t rush to judgment. A teacher wants a 90-inch screen, an lcd projector and a surround sound system so he can show major motion pictures instead of reading anthology selections, well, cut him some slack and see what happens. Maybe he already has everything else and only needs the large screen. And maybe he’s showing all films with the subtitles on in English so the kids have to read every movie they watch. He might even have an interesting film list. Maybe that’s the kind of ninth grade English class kids need at first so they don’t hate high school. Of course, you don’t want 80 of those kinds of courses—or do you?

I’m not sure how many systemic changes I have suggested but here are some more to think about. Stop grading and use a portfolio system with credit/no credit marks. Teacher grading systems are only marginally better than standardized test scores. How many teachers do you know who have ever tested the reliability or the validity of any test they have ever given students? How many even know what those terms mean? The easiest way to end a war is to stop fighting. Take a clue.

This probably can’t be done legally, but in high schools at least, attendance ought to be taken as usual but without any student names—only the number of kids absent. Every bribe and threat mechanism in our schools ought to be eliminated. You shouldn’t be able to make any student do anything. And you shouldn’t be able to make any teacher do anything they don’t want to do, either. We will have lots to work out, but with all those cool classrooms and high-tech gear and big screens, I’d sign up in a heartbeat. Geez, the open supply room would almost be worth it all by itself (did I mention that earlier?)

Hope these suggestions help. I’m retired now—fishing and watching my daughter play basketball...I loved teaching—didn’t care much for schools, though.

The proposals in the article were a good start. I would focus on training of teachers, new and experienced. Included in the idea of training would be the need to mentor and have such things as apprentice's and master's. The new teachers should not get the most difficult classes.

I find it amazing that teachers are able to teach with little training. An accountant cannot even get licensed until they are practicing for several years under an experienced licensed accountant. Teaching is a much more critical profession and as such should have a more rigorous training program.

Training of teachers is paramount. Getting into the profession should only be permitted after rigorous competencies. We should have only the brightest top graduates in the classroom. And we need to give them incentives to go there and stay there. Time during the day for reflection and collaboration and implementing improvements need to be a mandatory part of the job description. National standards need to be implemented. I KNOW this is conroversial. . But the question begs to be asked, shouldn't the same knowledge be provided whether the student lives in an affuent school as a poor one or in one state verses another? In today's world, many students move, shouldn't there be a national database for student records? Often students move and the new school wastes time and is not able to service the child because records often arrive months, no kidding, later. We can access a national database for drivers licences, yet I find it incredulous that we do not have one for students. And I know there has been a lot of discussion about money. Why do teachers in union and more affluent states retire on substantial paychecks and medical coverage, why other teachers subsist, take second and third jobs, and often don't have basic medical coverage? Why do schools in affluent areas have much more rich learning envronments? Are we really a democratic society? There has been "studies" that claim that pouring money into schools hasn't improved education. Have we "poured" into in to the right area? Are teachers compensated any differently if they are poor, adequate, or superior? If they are superior, and want to advance, where do they go? They LEAVE the classroom. Unless they possibly live in a state with a great union and benefits and they decide to just coast on the tide of time payraises.
And what about student choice? There has been a lot of discussion about parents right to their child in any school , public, private or parochial, that they choose by using a voucher( tax dollars). Students do need options. But all students need the advantage of choice. Here's a possible scenerio" If an involved parent in a poor district pulls their child from a drug and gang infested school that may help that student, but what happens to the many an unfortunately often majority of other unfortunate students who do not have parents that are involved? Are we really addressing improvement for the poor by suggesting vouchers and neglecting to address the real social and educational deficiencies in many areas of our country?

What's wrong with this article? The points I make below are not in relation to specifics of the article or proposals by Learning First Alliance. The response from the retired teacher addresses those issues. What I am concerned about is a broader issue regarding what kind of argument this article makes and how it contributes to a larger movement towards equity in education.

First, the author links the need to close the gap to the nation's prosperity. I agree it's important to appeal to people's economic concerns and that schools serving the nation's poor students do need more resources and support, but what kind of a relationship does it set up between groups of people? I venture to guess that poor people are not very concerned about the nation's prosperity at the moment, only their daily survivial and local issues. This means that such a statement regarding boosting the nation's propserity can only be addressed to the nation's rich and possibily some middle class folks with stock investments. As an introductory sentence, this sets the tone for who the author is inviting to engage in this discussion of how to "close the staffing gap." It sets up a relationship in which the rich are told they need to give more to the poor: the poor need help. It does not reach out to poor communities to join in this fight or have their voice heard.
Second, race is not mentioned at all and yet is undeniably mixed in with poverty in this country. By not recognizing this, the author continues to leave out of the discussion any responsibility the "nation" has for the current state of poverty. This is further supported by the relationship as currently arranged in which the rich help the poor. And why should the majority white folks help? White guilt maybe? To better the economy? Or simply a desire to do the "right" thing (ie: it's fair and just)? But is it really fair and just if one's motives are shallow and not taking in the larger picture of how and why we got here in the first place? Can we really change society without changing the way we ARE in society and the relationships we set up?
Third, my guess is, so long as the reasons to teach in high poverty schools are to help the poor, only the truly saintly will stay. Aside from that, I believe that it's the teachers who have a firm social justice conviction that will decide to stay, and that is the conviction we need to call on in order to address the "staffing gap."

Not many responses to this "urgent" topic, huh? Three of the five responses are grad students. I find Valerie Farnsworth's comments really interesting. I don;t know how "saintly" she's feeling, but I wish she would give teaching a try. I was no saint (I did have a friend who called me saint Bill). Valerie's "guess" about the truly saintly is probbaly true to some extent, but we are overlooking a large population of potential teachers for ghetto schools. Ghetto kids who go to college, like me. I was about as white and about as poor as you get. I found the ghetto school where I taught were comfortable for me. I felt at home. My classrooms looked like the kids in my neighborhood growing up. Forget the phony incentives and recruit from a target group that might actually care about the kids. And I'd keep looking for the grad students with heart and soul. I know one teacher who quit his six-figure high-tech job after he went to his mom's funeral. His mom had been a teacher and the eulogies from her former students convinced him that teaching was more valuable than cell phone research. He has a yacht (his wife kept her high-tech job), but he teaches in one of the poorest neighborhoods in San Diego.

While many of the suggestions in "Closing the Staffing Gap" sound good, the authors never address the fact that many of the symptoms of the gap are caused by the contracts for the unions these folks represent. More specifically, in many urban districts (for example, Philadelphia), the contract allows the most senior teachers to move to any school they desire before less senior teachers can be given assignments. This policy, in practice, universally condemns lower income neighborhoods to being served by the least experience teachers.

In addition, because that same contract allows for such a late date for teachers to decide if they are returning and for senior teachers to make choices, hiring begins at a very late date. In Philadelphia, it has not been unusual for teachers to receive their assignments within a week before school starts. Therefore, they cannot possibly create lesson plans, learn the curriculum or set up their classrooms. They may not even know what grade they will teach until a day or two before school begins.

This is only a problem of the administration because they have not had the backbone to tell the union that enough is enough!

So let's stop blaming test procedures. It is time for the union to take some responsibility.

Right on, Bill X., as we used to say in the good old days. I would apply to teach at your dream school in a hot minute--mostly because I have taught at such a school, from 1988 - 1992. Naturally, the school board shut us down because, and I quote, "we can't tell if the kids are in Algegra One or Algebra Two with these portfolios." Never mind that we graduated one hundred students who had previously dropped out of school.

Teachers working with the poorest kids need the most autonomy, flexibility, and material support--but we get the least. One item I would add to Bill's list concerns professional development, formerly known as staff development, formerly known as in-servicing. In all schools, but especially in ghetto schools, administrators should ASK TEACHERS WHAT KIND OF HELP THEY WANT AND NEED! Don't assume that a mandatory half-day on riveting topics such as phonemic awareness for high school kids is just the ticket--I may already know all about this topic, or better yet, I may have read the research on this topic and may not agree with the premise of the professional development. I seem to recall attending college somewhere along the line! Let me put my academic skills to use.

I loathe high-stakes standardized tests--but what I loathe even more is the "help" that is shoved down my throat in terms of professional development which 1)takes me out of my classroom, 2)may or may not apply to some or all of my students, and 3)due to its inappropriateness, actually works against raising test scores.

Like many urban districts, mine is having a heck of a time attracting and retaining teachers in its poorest schools. Our experience with teacher candidates illustrates the problem: they enjoy the challenge of working with our students, they profess to enjoy working with us--but they are dismayed by the lack of professional respect afforded them, and they take jobs elsewhere once their student teaching has been completed. In short, they want to develop engaging curricula geared to the specific needs of low-performing kids, but realize that in my district they will be handed a scripted program and sent to hours of mind-numbing professional development wherein a trainer will read said script to them. Simply put, they do not wish to be treated as morons. And me--I'm a moron a few years from retirement with a smidgen of hope, so I guess I'll stick it out in the ghetto. I wouldn't recommend it, though.

I have worked with students who are primarily poor and who attend "low-achieving" schools for about 8 years. I refuse to accept that these schools are low achieving. I can attest to the fact that the staff at these schools work extremely hard and face unsurmountable odds at helping their students achieve academic growth. There are always going to be "slackers" and they exist at our highest performing schools too! The problem with the majority of these students that come from these backgrounds is that they have a lot of problems that sometimes prevents them from learning. Motivation is a huge factor in learning and when you are "down" and overcome with "issues", it is hard to feel good about learning. For example, as an adult, if you are going through a nasty divorce, are you going to be in the mood to all of a sudden start a master's program? or publish a book? I am by no means making excuses for these children and do firmly believe that all students can learn, but their issues are a reality and it does affect their motivation which in turn affects their progress. These schools need more staff members and counselors to help these children with their problems.

What if the low performing schools have teachers that are only trying to better their students so they wont get fired when the time comes for most lazy teachers to be fired. What if they turn back to their original selves and dont give a hoot. I call them, careless neck under the axe teachers because they know there job is at risk but they still dont care. Low performing schools need daily administration of the teachers in the classrooms even if it means having someone judge every coare teacher in the school. That is what it will take to shape these teachers up.

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