Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Tide is Turning In Teacher Evaluation

Last week, Teach Plus released its long-awaited national survey of teachers’ opinions on various aspects of education reform. The report focuses on the growing differences in opinion between teachers with fewer than 10 years of experience–“The New Majority”–and teaching veterans. Perhaps the most striking of these differences concerns the use of student growth in evaluating teachers. From the report:

Whereas the notion of standards of effectiveness finds broad support among all teachers, measuring teacher effectiveness sees far less support among veteran teachers. New Majority teachers are far more likely
to agree that growth in student learning should be included as part of  a teacher’s evaluation. When asked about the use of student growth measures in their evaluations, 71 percent of New Majority teachers
agree that student gains should be included in teacher evaluations as compared to 41 percent of veteran teachers.

In other words, younger teachers are more than twice as likely to say that student learning should be used as part of their evaluation. As I’ve written previously, such a system is both common sense and elevates the profession; only inertia and reliance on anachronism have prevented widespread implementation.

But that may soon change. Indeed, the results of the survey show that the days of that status quo in education may be numbered. Since we know that a great teacher is the ultimate difference maker for kids, it is only logical that our system takes student growth into account. Younger teachers understand this. They acknowledge that a contract that rewards longevity and credentials instead of effectiveness, while predictable and stable for employees, is not best for kids. The “New Majority” is ready to redefine and professionalize the teaching profession as respected, accountable deliverers of education. I just hope that veterans join the fight sooner rather than later.

Why Are People Opposed to Investment in Education?

Newark, New Jersey made headlines this past week when its teachers union agreed   to a new system of teacher compensation that would trade certain guaranteed salary increases for merit-based bonuses. The bold plan, backed by union President Joe Del Grosso as well as Governor Chris Christie, is funded by $50 million by the foundation started by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg.

This sort of private investment in education has yielded substantial opposition. According to Diane Ravitch, the education philanthropy of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is “inflicting incalculable damage on our public schools and on the education profession.”  (N.B. The Foundation’s stated  goal on their website is to make “sure high school students graduate ready for success and prepared to earn postsecondary degrees.” Sounds pretty malicious.) Especially at a time when school districts nationwide are forced to scour couches for leftover pennies, this opposition is illogical and unjustified. Even if every idea funded doesn’t work perfectly, private investment in education provides a great opportunity to encourage innovation and help kids. 

Given budget constraints, it isn’t surprising that school districts are reluctant to diverge from the status quo. Most of the billions we spend on education in this country are already allocated to contracts and other mandatory costs, leaving precious little discretionary funding. To put it bluntly, the money just isn’t there.

Private investment changes the equation. Districts such as Newark have the opportunity to experiment and explore to make the changes that their schools sorely need. Who are Ravitch and others to say that under-resourced districts desperately trying to stay afloat shouldn’t take money that is offered to them? It is traditionalist ideology extended to the absurd.

To be honest, I find it puzzling–and somewhat comical–that many of the same people that lament poor education funding are trying to stop private investment into education. Corporate conspiracy theories aside, I have trouble understanding why more money in education is a bad thing. On the contrary, I think it is a great sign that philanthropists and business leaders are finally acknowledging the urgency of creating an educational system that serves all students. I hope that other districts follow Newark’s lead and welcome outside investment as an opportunity for innovation.

The Misplaced Priority of “Save Our Schools”

One of the loudest voices in the current education reform debate–particularly on the Internet and social media– is the group Save Our Schools. Originally founded “to speak out against the attacks on public education and public school teachers,” the group has attracted a substantial following nationwide, including education celebrities such as Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier. They are outspoken in their opposition to many educational reform proposals, including school choice, parent-trigger laws, and school and teacher accountability through testing.

I do not doubt the good intentions of the group and its members. But their stubborn adherence to a single means towards education–“traditional schools”–instead of a quality education in any form shows that the group’s stated desire to improve education for kids in this country is disingenuous. 

As I’ve argued in this space before, the reason that tax dollars fund schools is that our society rightly decided that education is a public responsibility; schools and school systems were established because they were believed to be the best means  to fulfill that responsibility. These “traditional” schools have been and continue to be successful in doing that for many kids.

But “many” kids is not all, as most prominently shown in our cities. It is only logical, then, to modify our means of fulfilling the public responsibility to educate. And that’s where Save Our Schools misses the mark.  Traditional schools exist as a means towards the end of quality of education; they have no inherent societal value, and so are only worth “saving” if they are the most efficient and effective way to educate kids. But if we can educate better by tweaking the model–or even jettisoning it altogether–we have a responsibility to do so. Any group unwilling to do that is not truly committed to fulfilling the public responsibility of education.

It is instructive–and somewhat amusing– that on their website Save Our Schools claims to be committed to goals that are literally opposites:”preserv[ing] and transform[ing] public education.” It reads like a tacit admission of how a priority of saving schools is not actually aligned with improving education in general. The group would be well-served by thinking beyond educational tradition and anachronism and actually consider why we have schools.