This two-week post-less stretch is the longest I have had in the last year. I'm sure that nobody noticed, but it is remarkable how much I have missed this format. I could post about the fantastic birthday party we had for Jedi Master yesterday, a great visit from my in-laws or the (pain in the butt) "Souper" Saturday I'm in charge of tomorrow, but instead I would rather talk about something that has been on my mind much this past month: Accountability in public schools.
If you are already asleep, then you can just tune in later.
In the past two months, three specific things have happened which have given rise to serious thoughts about what I would do with education if I was, you know, Queen of the Universe. I told Plantboy the other day that my ideal career would be Secretary of Education. To which he responded, "Yah, well, that can be tough to get." Still, whether my ideas ever see the light of day, it will not, of course, prevent me from having or via the miracle of the Internet, sharing them. Two months ago, Nate gave my name to a colleague of his who is currently living in Dubai, but hopes to get funding for a charter school when he returns to the States. After discussing his friend's proposal with him, Nate suggested that he have an educator with a surplus of opinions look at it. (Me.) The proposal is very broad and highly interesting. At its heart seems to be the philosophy, based mostly on anecdote and professional training of public school alumni, that public schools are doing a shockingly poor job of preparing people to compete or even function in the "real" world.
The second event that has caused me to reflect greatly on accountability for teachers and students is a ballot measure here in Oregon. This ballot measure would require teacher pay to be based on merit rather than seniority. There are many problems with the measure--it is unfunded, tests would have to be used to determine teacher qualifications though most subject areas do not actually have state-wide tests written for them, it is totally unclear what is meant be "teacher merit"--still, the frustration the author of the legislation feels is a very real public sentiment. After all, if you are routinely mediocre or lousy at most jobs, you get fired. In education, if you have tenure, you get a raise for similar performance.
When my mother-in-law was here last week, she and I had a conversation one afternoon about the problem with schools. Her bee-in-the-bonnet issue was that schools, rather than being accountable to the parents, have forced the parents to be accountable to them. Unsure about what she meant I asked for an example. The first one she came up with was reading charts. She said that the reading chart is just the school keeping tabs on what is going on at home, and that parents, instead, should have greater control on what goes on at school. Again, a very interesting perspective.
All three of these perspectives are very strongly held and come from "outsiders" to the system. It has emphasized to me just how many constituencies each local school is trying to please--eventual employers and corporations; government institutions who control the purse strings, basing their decisions on cost-benefit analyses; and parents who send their children off to school for a huge chunk of every weekday with faith that they will be better off for it and that the good will outweigh the bad.
My perspective as an "insider" to the system is different, but not necessarily better. Sometimes teachers get so caught up in day to day management, teaching their preferred agenda, and hanging on to their jobs that they lose sight of the bigger picture. A teacher can also end up in the uncomfortable position of being a sounding board for every frustration their friends and family members have with the system. Teachers unions have had many successes, but they have also had many failures as they have fought so hard to maintain the status quo that they have missed the boat on being a part of the dialogue on much-needed reform.
The ideas I'll now present here are an effort to address some of the most pressing problems in education today with a more comprehensive system that treats seemingly separate problems as more of the continuum that they actually are. How should students be assessed? Who is best qualified to assess? Should the assessments then be report cards for the students themselves, the teachers or the school? What role should parents play in exerting control over what happens at the school? How can we hold teachers accountable without resorting merely to tests, which may or may not be an accurate measurement of classroom efficacy? How should teachers be paid? What can be done about classroom sizes? How do we better retain and train new teachers?
I will argue that by radically re-thinking the system, many of these pressing and seemingly insurmountable problems can be addressed all at once, by using an idea for both students and teachers already common to business and many teacher (and other types of) re-licensing programs. My science background tells me the need to apply a system as fair and equitable and as measurable as possible.
I favor a point system, in conjunction with a radically revamped teacher training/mentoring program. The point system would enable teachers to understand, up front, exactly what was expected to merit a pay increase. Points would come from a variety of sources: a PE teacher who is not required to teach to a standardized tests (where there is a lot of pressure and public attention), would have find other ways to show equal merits with teachers who do. I'll explain more on this later, but I'll detour here to explain my mentoring program idea for new teachers.
Mentoring is a relationship I have never seen work. Most mentors (and nearly all of mine) look at you and say "Sink or swim." The ones that don't, are nearly powerless to help because they are already running the department or their off-hours are so busy with their own teaching agenda that they cannot possibly come to observe or advise. In addition, when observances are done, the mentor-teacher's assessment of a new teacher's performance is virtually unheeded by administrators. Mentors are very seldom paid for their additional responsibilities and there is little incentive to help mold and shape new teachers.
In my fantasy program, each school (or district, if school or content area enrollment is very small) would have three designations of teachers--provisional, lead and master. Provisional teachers are not teachers new to the district or school, but new to the profession. Such designation is important: this keeps teachers of experience from being sent through an un-needed mentoring program, freeing up resources for other uses. The provisional period is a minimum of two years and a maximum of four. During the provisional period, the new teacher team-teaches with a master teacher. The new teacher is formally evaluated monthly by both their principal and their partner teacher. Notice is given of these formal evaluations.
Class sizes in a team-taught classroom would range from 30 to 35 students. Under this intense type of mentoring, student teaching is done away with entirely. Provisional teachers would enter a contract with a very modest salary, with no pay increase until they move out of the provisional program. Movement out of the program would require a minimum of two academic years, evaluations consistently high for three consecutive months, and problem areas consistently improved. The evaluation would be based out of 100, weighted for different skills (most districts/states already do something like this.) A "high" evaluation could probably be considered anything above an 85. Provisional teachers would be required to observe (not evaluate) other teachers twice monthly.
Once the provisional period is past, a teacher becomes a lead teacher. Lead teachers are in their own classrooms, but they are not given more than 24 students, with 18 being optimum. By averaging these smaller classes with the larger classes in the team-taught rooms, student-teacher ratios are only slightly lower than they currently are, so the cost would not be exorbitant. Teachers are also likely to demand less money when their working conditions are move favorable to what teachers want to actually be doing--teaching. Lead teachers enter a contract at a base salary. Armed with a knowledge of the point system, teachers will set out a plan from the first day of school for achieving the requisite number of points to be eligible for pay raises at the end of the year. If the system was to be based on a 100 point system, any teacher above 90 would receive the maximum possible pay raise (7%, substantial). Any teacher above 80 would receive a lesser raise (say, 5%), scores above 75 would receive a cost of living type increase (3%), all other teachers would receive no raise. Two consistent years of being in the non-raise category, would give a teacher the following two options: re-enter the provisional system to revamp your skills and start over with the accompanying pay cut, or find a new career. There would probably have to be eventual caps. Administrator pay would be based on a different meritous scale, which by no means would guarantee that a head principal is the highest paid person on the staff (which is usually the case). District administrators would have serious limits based on how much they can earn relative to the people ACTUALLY doing the work of the school district.
During the lead-teacher portion of a person's career, they are evaluated by either the principal or the vice-principal four times yearly. These visits are unscheduled, but should happen at regular intervals. (In other words, it wouldn't be fair for a principal to drop in four times in a row in mid-May because they were running behind. The drop-in without announcement evaluation is much more typical to non-school work environments. Teaching is about the only job where you can do your thing all day every day and maybe see your principal in your room during instruction time ONCE. This is a huge problem.) Lead teachers must also evaluate another teacher on the faculty once each month. This means that the agreement is reciprocated as well, with each teacher being observed once monthly. These evaluations are averaged in with the administration's observations. A third observation is also averaged in: the PTA will organize a parent committee with volunteers trained to evaluate who agree to put in five hours each month visiting classrooms and making their own observations. Each teacher will receive several of these parent evaluations each year. This evaluation score is scaled and added into the "point system."
Master teachers are those who have at least 4 years experience as a lead-teacher, express interest in training new teachers, and have scored above 85 in the previous 3 years' merit evaluations. For the time they spend training, they would keep their current level lead-teacher salary, with no raise eligibility, but have their own set of bonuses based on how well their provisional teacher performs. They may train up to five consecutive years before returning to lead teacher status with the salary they left at. Again, they would be evaluated as the other lead teachers and be eligible for earned merit increases.
Now, for the point system. Such programs would best be applied at a district or a state level. Local administrators would have some leeway, but too much leeway would not allow for proper consistency. For example on a system based on 100 points, teachers may earn up to 30 points for their evaluations, scaling administrator, colleague, and parent evaluations to ten points each. For percentage improvements from the previous year on mandated testing, teachers could earn points. They could also earn scaled points based on percentages of students passing the same tests. Listed below are other items that might be given point values, looking mostly at secondary schools, though many would apply to elementary schools as well:
*Not using all of your annual personal and/or sick days
*Volunteering for after school programs (paid positions would not count, though some teachers may opt for points toward raises instead of extra pay. This might be a good option for coaches.)
* Logged tutoring hours.
*College courses or teaching training with points based on hours invested and/or marks received.
*Faculty meeting attendance
*Money attracted to the school in the form of written grants.
*Regular positive parent contact in the method most approved by the school--a minimum number of positive phone calls or post cards, personal email
*Regular notification of grades--progress reports biweekly for failing students, mass e-mail through a grading program at least every three weeks.
*Grades submitted on time every grading period
*Maintenance of a class website or blog through which parents and students can access assignments, including downloads of forgotten homework
*Administration approved, objective student surveys
*Regular newsletters sent to students
*Participation in science fairs, geography bees, spelling bees, math competition, academic Olympiad, etc.
*Does not exceed the school agreed-on maximum number of office referrals.
*Attendance at all requested IEP's for the Special Ed program.
* Approved classroom visitors to shed added insight into classroom topics or give career advice.
*Parent volunteer hours (this counts for teachers because teachers have to really work to get parents in the classroom, despite all of the talk about wanting more control about what goes on.)
*Regularly displaying student work with clear objectives.
More could be added, with items given relative point values. Here are examples of two very different, though effective in their own way, high school teachers who could receive pay raises this year under the merit system:
A) Miss Smith teaches English. She is strict and has excellent classroom management skills. This makes her very popular among the faculty and parents, but students groan a bit when they find out they are headed to her class. Her approach is very traditional, but kids, if reluctantly, learn a lot. Her students find that she is much better one-on-one and easier to get along with in small settings. She will put together her hundred points by receiving high evaluations from all concerned parties, being consistent about how many of her students pass their standardized English test, holding regular tutoring hours after school twice weekly, attending all offered teacher training, and taking at least one college course every summer. In addition, she runs the after school "Young Poets" club that meets almost weekly.
B) Mr. Jones teaches Spanish. He is laid back in class and very out-going. The kids love him, though most adult observers see mildly organized chaos when entering his room. His approach to teaching is conversational--the more speaking the students do, the better. He does a lot of fun projects and culture days. He will earn his hundred points by having strong, though not outstanding, evaluations. He is at school every day and helps coach the football and wrestling teams. When he isn't coaching he holds meetings of the multicultural club and exercises with students during the early morning running club. He wrote a grant to get some audio materials--headphones, software and two computers--of actual Spanish speakers for the students to listen to and practice from. He uses a lot of technology, emailing home regularly both for grades and for positive contacts. He maintains a class blog that nearly 50 students comment regularly on. He takes a large team to the district and state Spanish fair every year where they win lots of awards. He always invites a Spanish-speaking guest to their culture days.
Again, two great, effective teachers, with classrooms that have night and day differences. The list shows how much goes into being a great teacher--NOT just passing tests. The two examples above show teachers being accountable to their several audiences through positive choices that BOOM just happen to result in a very good annual pay increase. Teachers have incentive to organize, get and document their points. Teachers who are lazy, lack initiative and will not think outside the box will not cut it. The point system will provide a framework for teachers to improve while allowing each teacher to emphasize the things he or she is already good at. Because teachers are evaluated frequently and by a variety of sources, they must be prepared and at the top of their game every day. The also have incentive to work in a positive direction with their colleagues (teacher gossip is THE WORST) because those same people will have a say in evaluating them.
Control over incentives will most certainly result in improved teaching. Such teaching will inevitably result in generally improved classroom management because of consistency, a school culture where learning is paramount, even "cool," and students will be more committed and engaged. Just like they are in the best classrooms all over the country.
So what about the students? Where is their responsibility in all of this? I think graduation from high school should be based on a point system as well. In designing the point system, the state should set certain requirements (including testing) and allow the district to fill in the rest. Before creating the system, the district administration should sit down with a team of parents, students, local business leaders and educators to determine what things would help students earn their required points. In other words, the things that will help the students become the best people. This would allow local schools to keep their "flavor" but still meet state and federal funding requirements for doing the tests. Student incentive would be high because of the points they are trying to meet. Students would meet regularly in a homeroom type class with teachers and/or counselors to keep their educational goals on target.
Even with major reforms, schools will still fail. If parents want to push for Charter schools, that is is fine. But these schools should be held to the same standards as public schools if they want the money--testing, accredited programs, certified teachers, the same spending per pupil, etc. Vouchers are unfair because they route public funds to private educational establishments who, again, are not accountable under any kind of state system. Public money, public accountability. End of story.
As for home schooled kids, maybe these parents should be given some kind of double income tax credit for their property taxes to help soothe their resentment for paying taxes into a system they don't use. Though, it must be noted that LOADS of people pay property taxes that don't send kids to school now or maybe never did. Education is something that the public agrees to collectively because the alternative is just disastrous. Any society that doesn't agree to educate as many as possible for as long as possible is a generation away from losing their democracy. Failing public schools are not just a major headache for politicians and parents, they are an assault on our very future.
If you have made it this far, bless you. In my head this was a very straightforward post, but once it all came out the result is more like a wanna-be master's thesis. I'm also very interested in your feedback. What, specifically, would be a good fix for YOUR local schools?