Julia Steiny: Teacher Quality Matters, But There’s More

Julia Steiny writes that although teacher quality is incredibly important and deserves attention, other reforms must be implemented together to spur change.

Julia Steiny

On the first day of each school year, the long-term principal at my kids’ elementary school assembled the school community for what was to us his famous new-shoes speech.  “Think of all the new shoes in this room,” he’d marvel.  Then he’d follow with announcements about what else would be new that year – new teachers, new programs, new floors in the bathrooms.

Those were calmer, nicer times.

These days principals really should include some marveling about how the latest obsession of the education industry will affect the school this year.  Such honesty might feel less welcoming, but it would be a favor to parents.  Education has always done a stunningly bad job of explaining itself to lay people.  And it’s particularly crazy-making to parents not to have hard information about the forces behind education’s latest obsession – school choice, accountability, curriculum alignment, integrated technology, new tests.  What do they mean?  Why that?  Education officials settle on one big idea and seemingly forget all the big ideas that came before.  Not unfairly, teachers call the ideas “fads.”

Currently, America is obsessing and compulsing about teacher quality.

And yes, of course teacher quality matters hugely.  No dispute whatever.

But the thing to remember is that teacher quality is by no means the ONLY thing that matters.  The myopia of these obsessions is what keeps steering us wrong.

Dr. Robert Balfanz, one of my personal heroes, says “Everything that you think matters, matters.  But only a little bit.  You have to do it all, and do it all at once.”

“But only a little bit.”  Radical thinking.

Balfanz is a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, and the Co-Operator of the Baltimore Talent Development High School.  I admire a man with his head in the academic stratosphere and feet planted firmly on the hallway floor of an urban high school.  He knows whereof he speaks.

Remember the “math wars” and the “whole language” fight?  Remember social-and-emotional learning?  Remember how the Gates Foundation invested gajillions to help big schools cut themselves into “smaller learning units?” When these Big Ideas didn’t get quick results, everyone just moved on.  Did they build their next Big Idea on their prior one?  Rarely.  Mostly, they just pulled the plug.

But Balfanz and his colleagues can tell you that working on one or two initiatives piecemeal will not produce a cumulative effect.  Schools need all the good stuff, all the time.

Back in the late 1980′s, the seminal reports “Turning Points” and “Breaking Ranks” pushed educators to go bananas over “personalization,” which is to say, getting to know the kids.  Some schools made real progress, but the anonymity of the student experience remains a major issue.  The drop-out crisis continues nearly unabated.

But we moved on.

In the early 1990s, the myopia focused on school governance and organization.  Parents were furious about bureaucratic policies that wrecked their kids’ education, like letting teachers who lost their jobs “bump” less senior, and often younger teachers out of theirs.  Back then The Solution was to re-shape governance structures.  This panacea started as a full-court press for site-based management, and when that stalled, became the charter-school movement.

These concerns are just as valid today, but have moved into the nether reaches of the education landscape.  They are not Big Ideas any more.  And their effects, by themselves, were negligible.  The drop-out rate stubbornly persists at about a third of the student population.  National tests show some improvements at the lower grades that taper off to little or no gains by high school.

We’re looking at the trees and not seeing kids leaving the forest.

Alas, it’s now the poor teachers’ turn to live under the stiletto heel of ed pressure.  Mind you, I deplore hiring by seniority, bad teacher preparation, worthless evaluations and protecting incompetence.  The time has arrived to work unflinchingly on teacher quality.

But a myopic focus on teachers is particularly worrisome because angry or unhappy teachers can have truly harsh and direct effects on kids.  Honestly, we owe it to the kids to cultivate empathy for what teachers are experiencing.

Consider: the teaching force is already demoralized.  Overwhelmingly, the feds have used their accountability system to label schools as failures, and by association the teachers.  Driven in part by the recession, labor-management fights are now highly public and butt ugly.  This time self-serving unions will not be able to prevent teachers from having to give up protections, entitlements and perks they’ve taken for granted.  They will join the rest of us by contributing to their healthcare, allowing their pensions to be modernized, and needing to demonstrate competence to keep their jobs.  This is a very scary step for them, however necessary.  Emotions are roiling.  We need to be understanding and kind.

Because we still need to educate the kids.  Teacher quality is only part of the whole.  Teachers will be tossed from their comfort zones.  But their distress can be mitigated if we focus with equal fervor, this time, on improving curriculum, leadership, school climate and in short, everything that supports the work of teachers.

For a sense of what Balfanz thinks matters in a larger landscape, see his and his colleagues’ work at every1graduates.org.

And if it’s not on Balfanz’  list, he believes that what you think also matters.  But only a little bit.

So everyone needs to keep one eye on the big picture.

Julia Steiny wrote the education column for the Providence Journal for 16 years. She is a freelance writer and consultant on education and data projects. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative. She blogs and can be reached for questions or comments at www.juliasteiny.com or juliasteiny@gmail.com.

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Wednesday

September 7th, 2011

Julia Steiny Columnist EducationNews.org

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