Thursday, December 9, 2010

Teaching and the moral authority

I've had several discussions with teachers lately about their beliefs on seniority.  And I would just like to say this: there are many, many teachers who do not think seniority is an effective way to compensate what teachers do.   However, many of these same teachers think its not worth the time or battle to change it.   They are busy enough as it is (with good reason).   Many think the current system is broken, but have a natural fear about the unknown.   Some fear the only other option is a test based system that turns the profession into a factory rather than a place where teachers can exercise autonomy and professional discretion to create mastery level lessons that engage all students.   This is, after all, the very serious danger of relying too heavily on student tests to measure teacher effectiveness. 

Our fear and complacency, however, has and continues to have too many unintended consequences.   Not the least among these is that "reformers" have now taken control of the decision making process.   I read continuous admonitions, such as a recent one by blogger and expert teacher David Cohen, regarding our part in the reform movement:

The millions of us who actually do the teaching and provide the education apparently do not need to be won over.  Our buy-in does not matter in debates about the educational policy and leadership.
When we take no active part, it's no surprise that as a professional community we are not enamored with the new evaluation systems that are passed on to us.   In many parts of the country, this has meant student achievement data in the form of value-added modeling becoming as much as 50% of teacher evaluations.   Some of these new systems have had more teacher support than others.

This post, by John Norton, and published in Teacher Magazine, details the many experienced teachers who now seem "tired" with the profession.   While I don't think the "tired" teacher was born with the advent of Value Added Modeling, it's important to realize that teachers and their unions, have the unique power to dampen the calls for outsider reform.  We have the power to reform on our own- to realize the changing time and tide- and to improve our profession and reclaim what we rightfully understand and know how to do better than any other segment in our society:  teach.  We can complain and become disgruntled, tired, veteran teachers, or we can choose to listen to valid criticisms with an eye toward fixing the problem from within.  This begins, in my opinion, with the acknowledgement that a once necessary and valuable seniority system created to ensure fairness for all employees, in particular women, has in the long-run resulted in unintended consequences for our profession. 

In defending a compensation system based solely on seniority, we relinquish the moral authority which teachers have long enjoyed when it comes to discussions about education and compensation.    Teachers have benefited from a long history of improved compensation in many, if not most regions across the country.   Some may credit unionization, but I do so only with an equal tribute to the moral authority that teachers have long held in the argument for more pay: teachers are important to a well functioning society so we must pay them accordingly.   The result, has been the backing from a willing and able public- willing to raise compensation for a public good any market based system will under-value.  While teacher compensation has improved, I do believe there is some way to go on this front.  But our public backing is only as good as the foundation upon which we build it.   And the long-run viablity of our cause has now taken on a second phase: teachers deserve more not because of the job we do, but because we are highly skilled, motivated professionals.  Not only do we do an important job, but we do it well. 

Increased pay and compensation can only continue if we are recognized as a profession with the ability to continue to change our nation.   This means holding ourselves to the same high expectations that we hold the students that we teach.   Therefore, we must demand a highly effective teacher in every classroom.  And the public, through their children, know all too well that this is currently not the case.   A dichotomous evaluation system where 98% of all teachers are rated satisfactory, and 2% are rated unsatisfactory, cannot improve our schools.  A system that pays the effective teacher the same as an ineffective teacher cannot improve our schools.   A system that will fire a strong and nontenured teacher before a tenured ineffective teacher cannot achieve those ends.  Unfortunately, this is exactly the system that has been created by seniority rules.   

Some teachers say our profession is under attack.   They say it's vital for hard-working, misunderstood teachers to defend ourselves from know-nothing reformers who have little, and sometimes no educational experience.  We are victims.   I say we need to fix what is broken, but to defend senioirty is to lose the very moral authority that has brought us to where we are today.    I prefer to see this as an opportunity.

Let's not waste it.


  1. Hi Mike,

    On the broad strokes I agree with you. We need a change in those personnel practices in schools. However, my approach might be different. I'd suggest that the quest for a system that helps us fire bad teachers is the wrong approach. Instead, I'd ask what changes in evaluation practices will improve teaching and learning across the board. My answers are contained in the ACT report on teacher evaluation, which can be found at our website. (Not to suggest that I am the originator of those ideas, but rather that my opinions are reflected in the work that a large team of teachers put into that report). We want an evaluation system that is flexible, ongoing, and growth-oriented, one that helps each teacher identify and address aspects of their practice that need to improve. For schools currently evaluating most of their teachers on the "drive-by" model - an annual observation by an administrator who may or may not know your content area - this would represent an improvement that I submit would improve teaching and learning across the board. So you need to sell that step on its own merits. If you present the new system as the means of finding bad teachers, you inhibit the use of evaluation as an honest tool for improvement for all, because you encourage teachers to cover up or minimize any weakness. Okay - once you have a better evaluation system, then you can open negotiations on a number of matters of hiring and firing. Again, I wouldn't bill it as the new way to fire bad teachers, but rather, open up a spectrum. The teachers who excel in these evaluations and demonstrate other professional accomplishments should be in line for different types of jobs as "master teachers" (coaches, mentors, evaluators, teacher-administrator hybrid positions, curriculum development, training, etc.). Instead of "performance pay" that rests on test results, you'd have a chance to pay more for teachers who have a demonstrable ability to add more genuine educational "value" to the work of their schools or districts. Then, as a last step in the discussion, you're in a reasonable position to say that if we have a system that can do all of this, it should be fair game to negotiate the use of poor evaluation results for personnel decisions.

    I won't speak for John Norton individually, but as a member of Teacher Leaders Network, I feel comfortable stating as generality that many of us would agree with your long term goals, so I hope no one reads your blog as having posited us as your foils in this debate. I just don't think I'd open the conversation with "let's get rid of seniority" because a fair alternative must be in place. If the alternative is using state test scores in any way, no thank you. I welcome scrutiny of my teaching effectiveness by other means; they must address a more complete spectrum of my teaching, and do so in a way that effectively identifies my unique contributions to student learning. State tests earn an F on both of those criteria.

  2. Mike,

    David is free to speak for me in this regard -- in fact, I am only the messenger in article Mike referenced, which originally appeared at Teacher Magazine. Our Teacher Leaders Network has a partnership with TM where we regularly contributed articles by our members, and on occasion, excerpts from our very long running conversation about teaching and learning, which will soon mark its 8th anniversary.

    It falls to me as the TLN moderator to put these "dialogue" articles together, and since TM insists that somebody have a byline... well, there you are.

    I do want to note that the article asking "how much more can we take?" which was posted by Valerie Strauss in the WaPo Answer Sheet, was the first of TWO, as she pointed out. The second article, which appeared about 30 minutes after the first, is another TM piece... this one by Larry Ferlazzo. He highlights a report by a TLN "TeacherSolutions" team that contains very specific remedies for some of the problems that are dragging teachers down and were highlighted in the first piece.

    All to say that TLN folks aren't whiners -- in fact, since 2006, they've put out more ideas about fixing things than any other teacher group I know of. But like all humans, they do get weary...

    Here's the link to Larry's article, which in turn links to the TLN report "Transforming School Conditions."

    John Norton
    TLN co-founder and moderator

  3. Thanks for the reply, John. I'm sorry if I didn't give fair service to the TLN in the post above. I have a great deal of respect for the work that you do and know that your organization is one that is truly interested in reform. I have written about the "Teachers Solutions" team a few other times on my blog. It was brought to my attention by David on his blog... and I have tried to stay up to date on their work since then. Thanks again for the comment- and the work you're doing.

  4. Mike,

    I'm an education reformer and vocal critic of teacher unions. Your post is thoughtful and accurate but may understates the problem of having schools already filled with manifestly mediocre teachers and the chances of reforms to be embraced by locals today.

    What we see today follows logically from industrial union policies implemented by teacher unions over the past 50 years.

    As you know, teacher unions have implemented a hiring, firing, and compensation scheme that is systematically prejudice against capable people. It values solidarity, class-warfare goals, instead of excellence. Consider the fight against TFA today to see that still today, teacher unions see their "profession" as a local hiring program. Their political agenda ignores excellence in the classroom.

    The results speak for themselves. Data on teacher quality is loud and clear: the "profession" is not worth its name.

    This is where the rubber hits the road with status-quo defenders and those of us who want to elevate teaching. Are you willing to self-police? Are you willing to sacrifice solidarity for excellence?

    But if the answer is "no," the moral authority of teachers is truly gone and public schools have lost their right to the public purse. We've already squandered some $20 trillion in additional education spending (around $6 trillion + interest) since 1960 without improving the quality of the teaching force one iota. Enough is enough.

    The public has been sold teacher piety for 50 years but organized teachers have been demonstrably outed as wolves masquerading as grand-mothers. They have eaten Little Red Riding Hood and all of our poor children who need a great education the most.

    Unfortunately, because of the democratic nature of teacher unions, years and years of socialist indocrination starting in ed schools, and very real threats to job security posted by widespread unemployment of college graduates (the TFA crowd), local associations cannot be expected to voluntarily end seniority-based evaluation. Look at what happened to George Parker in DC.

    Doctors faced the same challenges at the turn of the century. They fought the quacks and they won. Have you read about the AMA? It will not be so easy for the minority of excellent teachers who want off the union boat.

    Thus, it is our moral obligation as reformers to disinvite teacher unions from the bargaining table. Good teachers and the teaching profession stand to benefit.