Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Tower of Power: A View From The Top

Act 1, Scene 1

(setting: The new millennium has come. A large skyscraper overlooks an unnamed American city. An aging man in a business suit is seated at a large, over-sized wooden desk. He has three full-sized computer monitors in front of him. Surrounding the room are bookcases full of leather bound books. Behind the man is a full-sized glass window that overlooks the man's empire. Smokestacks can be seen in the background. It is dusk, with the sun setting in the window)

Voice from outside the room: Sir, it's your assistant. May I enter?

Boss: You may.

Assistant: Thank you. Sir, I've got some bad news. It seems that the whole internet thing is not a passing fad as we had hoped. In fact, internet usage is not only leveling off as we had hoped but it is actually increasing. Sir with all these people now having access to a wide variety of information, it's only a matter of time before people really begin to find out what is going on. Sir, with all due respect it's time to panic!

Boss: Relax. We all knew this day would come.

Assistant: But sir, you don't seem to understand the severity of the situation. The general populace is only a short time away from becoming the most educated citizenry in history. There's no way to stop them from figuring out the truth!

Boss: (smiles) Ah, my young apprentice. You have much to learn. Come, have a seat and I shall explain exactly how the people shall remain blind to what really goes on.

Assistant: (seats himself at boss' table)

Boss: First off, you must realize that our goal is to maintain the status quo so that people like us may prosper and our progeny will inherit our wealth and thus the cycle will continue. Therefore, it is important that nobody be allowed to somehow, some way rise to prominence out of the blue. The way we will maintain our status is through education.

Assistant: Uh, sir, I don't follow.

Boss: (sighs) It's quite simple. The populace as you mentioned has unlimited access to technology. Children are naturally inquisitive about those kind of things and so for us to maintain our status we must simply quash their curiosity. We must make their lives so difficult that they won't even want to explore the massive amounts of information that exists on the internet.

Assistant: Oh, so we distract them? But sir, how do we do that when they can access the internet at their homes?

Boss: Simple. We offer mindless entertainment for them rather than have them do diligent research. We create video game players with mindless games that they would rather play after school with their buddies than to use their computers for educational purposes. We also put on mindless television at the prime hours when the students get home. Surely, they would much rather watch cartoons than actually go to their computers to actually do meaningful investigation, right?

Assistant: Ah, sir that's brilliant. Make it so they don't even want to learn about what's really going on. Mindless entertainment is always the answer. But sir, what about in schools? Surely, they will be using the internet for education purposes there, right?

Boss: I have thought about this possibility as well. The solution is quite simple actually. Instead of having schools encourage diligent inquiry, we simply make them focus on one or two core areas to test all their students on. Something basic like math and reading, I don't know. We then say that if schools don't reach certain goals then they can lose money or even have to shut down. It will kill children's curiosity because we will test at various grade levels including elementary school. We'll test them to death! (laughs)

Assistant: I like it, sir. But how can we get ALL the school's to buy into this? Surely, some will complain and argue that testing is unnecessary, right?

Boss: Herein lies the beauty. We make it a national initiative. Call it something cheesy about equaling opportunity in schools. We then give them an unobtainable goal of having 100% proficiency. Any idiot knows that 100% proficiency is not even possible! But all these schools will be so blind and so fearful of losing funding that they'll still strive to do this. Even schools that are making progress will have set the bar so low that they'll actually celebrate being proficient when in fact proficiency might mean only getting 60% of the questions right on an end-of-year test. I figure this plan should last for a good 15 years or so.

Assistant: (laughs) Ah, sir this is brilliant. We dumb down the kids so much and test them to the max so they become numb by the time they reach the university level. Amazing. But sir, what about some of the brighter students? You know, the ones who don't mind testing and that excel in the creative arts. Surely they will be able to read through our smoke and mirrors?

Boss: Yes, they are tricky ones. Throughout history, performers have often risen to the forefront of political movements and openly mocked their opponents. However, this shall not be the case with us. You see, schools will be so consumed by testing that they will inevitably place all their resources to those core areas. To do this, they will cut programs they deem unnecessary. If your students are being tested in reading and math, what good do theater and music do you? Absolutely nothing that's what! These brighter students will lose their creative outlet and become drones like their peers. Sure, they'll survive the high-stakes testing portion, but they will lose their creativity and by the time they reach college, they'd rather bong a beer than listen to Bach! (laughs)

Assistant: Sir, that is brilliant! We take care of all the students in one fell swoop with this ridiculous testing program. But sir, what about teachers who don't buy in to this scheme? You know, the ones who think we shouldn't teach to test?

Boss: Luckily for us we already have a built-in system to deal with them. Our education unions have an antiquated system of tenure in place that keeps our people in the schools. This way, it becomes very difficult for new blood to enter and to begin to undermine our scheme. Odds are, these new teachers will get so frustrated so fast they'll leave the profession. I bet we can even get half the teachers to leave the profession within 5 years! Even those that somehow manage to stick around, why we'll come up with someway to get rid of them. (pauses) I've got it! When state government need to cut programs, we'll go directly to education. We'll make teachers expendable! (laughs) We'll even come up with some kind of policy that fires new teachers first. This way, there will be no new blood and our old guard shall reign supreme!

Assistant: Oh, sir this plan is simply brilliant. First student motivation and now the teachers. But sir, I have to ask, what about these charter schools? You know, the ones who are independent who aren't under the same strict regulations as their public school peers. Surely they are a threat to us, are they not?

Boss: Ah yes, I have heard about these schools. Founded by educators. Using established best practices. Open to all students within a district. Yes, they are tricky. However, in order to stymie them, we simply pit them against the public schools. We make public schools aware of how charter schools are taking their students as thus the funding that goes with these students. We evaluate these charters harshly when their provisional charters are up and if they don't make similar progress to their public school counterparts then we simply shut them down. We also hark on any kind of negative publicity we can for them and we make the public aware that these schools aren't any better than their public counterparts. These charter schools are simply a flash in the pan.

Assistant: I love it, sir. Pitting schools against each other and there all so involved in their own struggles that they can't see how the system we control is actually at fault. It's beautiful in its simplicity. But sir, there is one last thing that concerns me. What if, somehow some way, people still see through everything. What if, an idealistic teacher is able to see what exactly is going on? What if this teacher uses the internet to tell this story? How can we stop such a person?

Boss: (smiles) Simple. We open the internet up so that every whack job and weirdo can have just as much say as our teacher friend. We load up the internet so that racists, hate groups, prisoners, conspirators, frauds, junkies, prostitutes, and any other non-reputable person you can name has just as much ability to post their own thoughts and musings to the internet. This way, people have to shift through millions of web pages and our teacher friend's page gets lost in the shuffle. (laughs) Why, I bet at the end of the day there is only a handful of people who actually follow the work of our teacher friend while athletes, actors, and celebrities will have millions of followers. The educated citizenry that you feared will be so dumbed down from their schooling experience that they would much rather watch and listen to mindless thoughts and musing of celebrities rather than an educated teacher. And that, my good friend, is the beauty of everything we are doing.

Assistant: (laughs) Ah, sir I love it! (pauses) But sir, do you really think this will work? I mean, can such an intricate and involved plan merely to maintain the status quo actually be played out in the way in which you have described?

Boss: (turns to audience) You tell me.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Yer Out: Analyzing the Last-Hired, First-Fired Policy Debate

"Teaching huh? Why, that's a great choice! That's one of those recession-proof jobs..."

The above statement is one I heard time and time again when I first entered the teaching profession. For some reason or another my extended family seemed to offer me more advice than Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. Whereas the clear choice for Benjamin was "plastics" the clear choice for me was public education. I came from a top-tier university and I was willing to teach in urban areas with those populations considered to be "at-risk" for the same amount of pay as my colleagues who opted to teach in more affluent areas. No matter how bad the economy got, society would always need people to teach its children. Right?

Fast forward four years. I personally have had three jobs in four years. The first job lasted two years and I removed myself from that situation due to professional disagreements over where the school was headed. I then long-term subbed for a year but that position was cut at the end of the academic year. I now am at a first-year charter school and I hope (knock on wood) that this position will finally give me some longevity that I have been desperately seeking. As rough as my initial introduction to public education has been, I am forced to remind myself how fortunate I have been. Because, due to current economic situations it could be much, much worse.

Currently, the state of California is faced with the largest deficit in the state's history. Previous economic policies have finally caught up with the state and not even The Governator himself could rescue the state from the impending financial crisis. Thanks to a current $20 billion deficit, all sectors are being forced to deal with layoffs and the education sector is no exception. Having been in San Diego for the previous two years I have seen a moratorium on new hiring last year and that moratorium will continue this year as well as having additional teacher layoffs. Here we are, in the nation's eighth largest school district where a third of the schools are already failing and instead of giving additional support to these schools we are taking away valuable teachers from them. Again, another prime example of this country's bass ackwards attitude toward public education.

The problem them becomes which teachers get the ax. Measuring teacher performance has been one of the hot-button issues in education circles as of late. The idea of merit pay has come into question with some districts proposing the idea that teachers should be paid more based on how well their students do on standardized tests. This has raised an outcry from those teachers who teach in lower socio-economic schools as they would be very capable teachers but their students would most likely not do as well as the affluent counterparts. Just because a teacher's students have high scores is not necessarily a reflection of good teaching just as low scores are not necessarily a reflection of poor teaching. There are too many extenuating factors to solely use the idea of student test scores in evaluating teachers. So, if we can't use test scores, how should we evaluate teachers?

The next train of thought is that of teacher evaluations. Surely, this is even across all playing fields, right? Principals have fairly generic evaluations forms and teachers get evaluated at least twice a year. These evaluation forms look at various things such as teacher preparedness, the content being taught, the interaction between the teacher and students, as well as the overall effectiveness of the learning environment. Administrators have certain principles and philosophies that they feel mesh well with their school and they expect all their teachers to adhere to these philosophies. Teachers should be able to do all of the above things while being in line with the school culture and if they can, this should be positively identified on a formal evaluation. Makes perfect sense, doesn't it?

The problem is that often times these evaluations are simply ineffective. The first issue is that at larger schools, it is difficult for administrators to find the time to evaluate all their teachers as least twice a year. I am at a small charter school and our administrators are so busy that they themselves have yet to formally evaluate us and there are only seven of us currently on campus. The second issue is that evaluations based on two lessons out of hundreds a year is not an accurate depiction of a teacher. I remember getting formally reviewed by a mentoring teacher the day after a school wide assembly. Classes were extended for the day so I had my students for twice as long as I normally had them so I essentially had to do two lessons into one. My mentoring teacher criticized the overall continuity of the lesson and gave me extremely low marks. This was one of the two evaluations for that school year that went into my permanent file and there were no second chances.

So we cannot use test scores and we cannot use evaluations, so what is left? Experience. Number of years in the field. That's right, the bulk of school districts today when faced with having to fire teachers have resorted to what's known as the last-hired, first-fired policy. Thanks to teacher's unions, public school teachers receive tenure after three years. After those three years, these teachers are guaranteed a job unless they somehow make it to the headline news by being caught in a sex scandal with a student. These teachers are essentially immune from being fired, so who's left? That's right, the young up and coming teacher who has been in a classroom for one or two years. The teacher full of idealism, who is leading after school clubs, who is staying up late on nights and weekends to make really good and fun lesson plans is tossed off quicker than a dress on prom night. After all, since all teachers are the same, we may as well get rid of the ones with the least experience, right?

The problem with this line of thinking is that it fails in so many ways. First and foremost, the legality of the last-hired, first-fired policy has already come under intense scrutiny in Los Angeles, where there is an impending lawsuit against the district for implementing this same policy last summer. Secondly, as mentioned, it destroys the drive and vigor of a generation of educators who are ready and willing to work under difficult circumstances. These teachers are fresh out of teacher preparation programs and have learned how to work with students with special needs, English language learners, high-achieving students, as well as how to incorporate technology and the most up-to-date pedagogical methods into their teaching. These are the ones who are really going to go above and beyond and truly, genuinely believe that they can make a difference in the education profession. To give them the ax would crush their dreams and spirits and we would lose out on a generation of talented, dedicated educators.

The third, and perhaps most troubling issue that I see is the fact that these layoffs are not uniform across all schools. The more affluent schools somehow, some way will lose a smaller percentage of their staff as opposed to those schools who deal with students of lower socio-economic status. So, here we are in San Diego with a third of our schools failing and we are going to actually take away teachers from those schools. Not only are we going to take away teachers from those schools but we are going to take away those young, idealistic teachers. You know, the ones who chose to teach in difficult situations because they really thought they could make a difference and reach the students. Instead of having those teachers stay, we are going to remove them, leaving these failing schools with even fewer resources than they had before. This same mentality also doesn't help the schools who are on the cusp of failing as well. Removing teachers and ruining any kind of continuity these schools might have had is a recipe for disaster and will more than likely push a whole new group of schools into the failing zone in the coming year.

So, what's our answer? Unlike some of my previous posts, where I say there is no simple answer, there is actually a viable solution to this problem: We need to shift our view on education in this country. We need to make education a priority. We need to have political candidates discuss education. We need to remove it's entertainment section on its front page and replace it with education. The truth is that we as a society who prides itself on its education, should never find itself in this ridiculous catch-22 situation. The schools are failing but we need to cut jobs but if we cut jobs then the schools will fail... Complete and utter hogwash. Let's make education a top domestic priority and then go from there. Let's stop the cycle of stupidity by putting ourselves in these precarious situations. Some of my best friends are on the chopping block this year and it pains me so much because I know they are making a difference in young men and women's lives. Let's re-invest in our nation's future by first re-investing in our nation's teachers. Once we do that, we can then, and only then, begin to have a real discussion about where education is at today.