As I often peruse articles on education, I am forever baffled by the lack of any meaningful ideas about the direction of education. The only plans that seem to be out there have to do with curtailing collective bargaining rights, evaluating teachers, tenure reform, and Mitt Romney going so far as to say class size doesn’t matter. It is like we are in an endless spin-cycle of nothingness. A washing-machine that doesn’t clean.
We just don’t get it. The only way we are going to make gains in education is if the quality of teachers goes up—an in the capitalist country we live in, that quite simply means we need to pay teachers more. This might be the single-biggest solution no one is talking about.
Let’s take the inane babbling about evaluating teachers. We talk and talk and there seems to be some sort of expectation that if we evaluate teachers more effectively, they will get better. I’ve written about this before, it is as if the problem we have is we just aren’t trying hard enough. But the main question is this: If we get these great evaluations going and get rid of all the dead weight, who is going to replace the bad teachers? It’s not like our public high schools have lines around the corner of highly-qualified, ambitious people trying to get these jobs. At my high school we hire 3-4 new English teachers EVERY YEAR. And that’s just in the English department. Choosing a few applicants from a stagnant pool doesn’t ensure any kind of success. This is why we have such high turnover, the same 3-4 positions are open for the same 3-4 people who couldn’t do the job. And even if we got rid of teachers with tenure who aren’t operating at a high level, we have no one to replace them.
Even if evaluations get done right, there just aren’t enough top-notch people out there who want to be teachers. They want to be hedge-fund managers.
Then we have this idea that everything else but the teacher in the classroom will fix the problem. We say, “we just need to get the right curriculum,” or “we need to institute the right program.” My high school even had scripted curriculum that told the teacher the exact words to say over the course of the entire two hours. That’s right, cue cards that required no deviation. Or we think we just need a great superintendent who will fix all our problems. Or we say, “Our district office is full of idiots and we can’t work with them.” Be that as it may, there hasn’t been a single principal, vice-principal, department head, superintendent, district official, or canned-curriculum that has ever made a difference in the way I teach. I couldn’t even tell you what our superintendent does, but I can tell you in all honesty he has absolutely no effect on what I do in my classroom. I do know a little bit about what our assistant principals do, and to a lesser extent our principal, but I can also tell you their effect in my classroom is so negligible it might be non-existent. I should know, in the last six years my high school has gone through 8 principals and 24 assistant principals. The turnover at administration has been just as bad as the faculty. Those administrators have barely figured out how our school works before they run away. Two years ago, we went through four principals. Think about that for a little minute—four principals in one year.
Oh, and we’re getting a new one next year too.
Let me be real clear, so there’s no mistaking my message here. Nothing matters but the teacher in the room. NOTHING.
Unless you’re talking about the development of new teachers and raising the status and pay of teachers in our society, then you are only talking about fringe issues. Even class size is a fringe issue because good teachers can teach a class of 38 (I’ve done it).
Here’s a crazy idea. What if the teaching job was the highest paid position in your district? What if to be a teacher you needed a PhD and had to have written books, and everyone was fighting over landing the teaching positions? Imagine that. Imagine the district officials and superintendents and principals making less and teachers being at the top. Damn, you could even have a hard-core evaluation system that makes sure that once you reach the peak—teaching—you have to kick ass to stay there.
It is then, and only then, that scores will start going up. Low-income Americans are hard to teach. They are selfish, ghetto, loud, disrespectful, and every single one of them thinks a camera crew is following them around as they star in their very own reality show. We need the best of the best of the best, but when you tell college students that if they go into teaching they will never make six-figures, the really ambitious ones start looking up at the skyscrapers wondering how much they get paid on the top floor of Wells Fargo. Or even the second floor.
Let me give you an example, because I’m a teacher. When I was hired one day before school started for my first year of teaching, they told me I was teaching something called AVID. I had four preps (in a four-block schedule), and AVID was just another edubabble acronym. Within weeks I learned that I was given AVID because no other teacher at the school would touch it. It was a broken program. It didn’t work. So they gave it to the new guy because it had been adopted district-wide and my site had to have a section. They were 9th graders.
Fast-forward six years, and the AVID program is thriving. I’ve brought in 5 other teachers, a counselor, our principal, even people from the local community college to be part of our AVID Site Team. We recruit from our feeder middle schools, we have a Junior Trip to Southern California, end of year banquets, parent nights, field trips, college panels. How do you explain this?
Do you credit the superintendent who decided to sign off on bringing some program called AVID to the high schools? Was it my string of 8 soon to be 9 principals none of whom had any idea what AVID was? Was it the AVID program itself, did it change some policies, or start using some magical AVID curriculum? Did they limit the AVID teachers’ ability to bargain collectively? Did they start evaluating us? Did they take away our tenure? Did they start giving all the AVID students multiple-choice tests all the time? The answer to all of these is no.
Then why does AVID work all of a sudden if none of these things have changed?
The teachers. And a counselor.
I turned the AVID program at our school from a joke nobody was laughing at to an actual program that sends kids to college. But I can’t take full credit because the other teachers involved have also been tearing it up, and our counselor is a powerhouse of caring. Now do you see? None of that other stuff matters. Call it AVID, Puente, MESA, EDGE, AP, Honors. The programs themselves are meaningless unless you have someone in the room who is doing the job right.
I always find it funny when a student says to another student, “AVID is awesome. It is such a great program.” I feel like telling them, “No it isn’t. It’s a program just like all the others, it just has different letters. In fact, it is a program designed to make you take notes, organize your binder, and get into study groups. You hate that kind of shit. The only reason you like AVID is because Ms. Eastwood is your teacher.”
We need to focus, but the things we continue to focus on DON’T MATTER. Tenure reform, teacher evaluations, district policies—DON’T WE GET IT? Nothing will ever change until teachers are valued.
I don’t know the name of our superintendent. I heard the name of our new principal, but I’ve forgotten it because it’s really hard to say. I know very few names of district officials in the office across the city. I know the names of crappy curriculum I am supposed to teach. But the names of the curriculum, like the names of all these people don’t matter, because they will be gone before I learn their names properly anyway, and I will once again be alone in my classroom. The new principal probably won’t ever set foot in my room. It will take him a year to remember who I am among a faculty of 100, but he’ll be gone before that happens. The superintendent definitely won’t set foot in my room. He’ll be let go two years premature of his five year contract, but we’ll continue to pay him $280,000 a year even after the school board has let him go, because that’s what we’ve done with the last 4 superintendents anyway.
$280,000 a year would buy us 5 new teachers, lowering class sizes and making scores go up—true. But more importantly, it could also raise the salaries of 10 teachers to the kind of levels that might attract more people to the field.
Nothing matters but the teacher in the classroom. And in America, that means money. If we are serious about improving education, nothing matters but the teacher in the room. You need to show us the money, or all this talk will continue to be what it always is—fringe babble. And in a presidential election year, we sure don’t need any more of that.