Apples, Oranges and Education Reform

20 Oct

Clarity.

Clarity –noun
1. clearness or lucidity as to perception or understanding; freedom from indistinctness or ambiguity.
2. the state or quality of being clear or transparent to the eye.

The need for clarity is at the core (pun intended) of the Education Reform debates. The plural is intentional because more than one debate is at issue. The lack of clarity in the way that we define “Ed Reform” has created a situation where educators are constantly arguing apples to oranges and non-educators are frequently confused and disconnected.

In terms of national, policy related dialogue, when people are talking about “Education Reform”, they are talking almost exclusively about the achievement gap and all issues that directly impact, contribute or relate to the achievement gap.

In the United States, the Achievement Gap is usually understood to be the difference in the way low-income and minority students perform on standardized tests as compared to their peers in other groups. Let’s call Ed Reform Dialogue (and its participants) focussed exclusively on the Achievement Gap “Apples”.

The “Apples” discussions relate to hiring policies that result in the least experienced teachers universally being placed at the highest-need schools, year after year. They include policies that provide those teachers with next to no support or development, and make it impossible to remove teachers who don’t come to work, or do their work and who add to the burden of their teammates.

“Apples” discussions address policies that allow principals to “evaluate” less than 1% of teachers as “Below Expectations”, even in schools where there is a deplorable, unconscionable history of student failure. These are just a few hot topics for those that define and understand “Education Reform” in relation to the Achievement Gap.

Reformers who are exclusively (or at least predominantly) focused on closing the achievement gap, have some image problems, especially with “good” teachers who hear their messages out of context. Talk of getting rid of teachers, even “bad” teachers, seriously ruffles the feathers of many dedicated and effective educators who are only hearing part of the message.

This is in spite of the fact that so many studies and surveys have proven that the vast majority of teachers acknowledge and agree that there are some “bad” teachers in their schools, and further, believe that they should be removed. Forget about test scores for a minute (although I do believe they matter). Some teachers don’t come to work. Some don’t even bother to maintain a safe, clean classroom environment. Some can’t (or won’t) get along with other people and some just don’t like kids.

NOW consider test scores. Whether or not we agree that testing is the most effective (or even a valid method to) evaluate student learning, in what case scenario would it be “Ok” for entire demographic or racial groups to universally do poorly on a specific type of assessment as compared to their peers from other racial groups or demographics? I can’t think of any.

That said, it’s important to note that virtually all proposed models for teacher evaluations consider additional factors besides student testing to determine the value teachers are adding in the classroom. In districts like Washington DC where the IMPACT model was rapidly implemented and widely feared, many, many teachers (including some who didn’t score well) acknowledged the benefits of the system after the first year, and appreciated the additional attention and feedback that it provided.

It’s also important to note, that while former DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee was initially demonized as an enemy of teachers, many teachers have become supporters and are sad to see her go. As it turns out, many, many teachers viewed her leadership as having significantly improved their ability to be effective in their classrooms by increasing accountability in their schools.

But many educators whom I admire and respect are angry right now about what they believe is an unfair attack on teachers. They resent the tone of some “reform” messaging, resent feeling “blamed” and judged, and feel that much of the way the National Education Reform dialogue has been constructed has left them out and further damaged the credibility of their profession.

I see their point and feel their pain, I really do. But I also believe that some of that is the result of destructive,  under-informed media spin and some of that is the result of deliberate political agenda.

I know that saying this out loud is NOT going to be popular with some of the educators that I admire the most. That doesn’t make it any less true.

New York’s “Rubber Rooms” may be a thing of the past, but there are still many other egregiously destructive policies that protect adults at the expense of kids. There ARE some horrible teachers in our schools and everyone, EVERYONE knows it. Members of my PLN regularly tweet warnings to new teachers to stay away from the toxic teachers’ lounge.

There ARE some HORRIBLE schools in our country, and we all know that too. Kids should NOT be subjected to those teachers and those schools. Not for one day of one year. Not anywhere in the country, not anywhere in the world. Saying that out loud HAS to be OK. It has to be, because it’s the truth.

I challenge anyone who would dispute those statements to explain the following video clip. I challenge ANYONE to explain how any school could ever fall into this state of disrepair and neglect if it were consistently staffed entirely with great leaders and great teachers. (Please bear with the short ad – the video was removed from Youtube and is no longer available without the ads but still worth watching).

The New Teacher Project says it out loud, with more clarity than any other source I’ve found. They also advocate strongly FOR teachers, insisting that they deserve to be treated as and valued as professionals.  Most importantly, TNTP addresses the disparity that is created when excellent teachers and poor teachers are viewed and treated as if they are interchangeable.

This is an incredibly important point, because it addresses a major sticking point between those who support and oppose “Merit Pay”. Many people oppose Merit Pay and insist that it won’t serve to improve performance.

I agree that Merit Pay is unlikely to significantly change the behavior or performance of individual teachers. Daniel Pink gives an amazing TED talk on the Surprising Science of Motivation. Anyone and everyone who has an interest in the dialogue surrounding Merit Pay should see this video, and consider reading the book Drive. I’ve embedded the TED Talk and a trailer about Drive below.

Now, PLEASE read TNTP’s reports. PLEASE. There can be no informed dialogue on issues like tenure, hiring practices, Merit Pay and teacher evaluation without at least considering their studies.

Which brings me to the reasons why I ALSO understand and ultimately, support the idea of Merit Pay as one tool in efforts to close the achievement gap. Here’s why:

  1. TNTP, and other supporters of Merit Pay are not (usually) saying that merit pay is going to significantly impact the performance of existing teachers. They are saying that teachers who are “highly effective” deserve to be paid significantly more than they are right now, and that effective teachers should have the opportunity to make more than ineffective teachers. I agree.
  2. Supporters of Merit Pay frequently assert that teaching is undervalued as a profession, and that treating all teachers the same exacerbates the gap between the importance of the work they do and the social status they receive. They believe that Merit Pay is one way to recognize and show appreciation for excellent teachers, and that this may make teaching a more attractive option for high achievers, and support retention of top performers. I agree.
  3. There are many talented, driven, charismatic and caring college students who don’t even consider teaching, not because they don’t care about kids, or have the drive or skills, but because they aspire to a better quality of life than they believe they can achieve as teachers. I agree.
  4. TNTP asserts that Merit Pay will draw people to teaching who otherwise would not consider it as a viable professional option. Many advocates for Merit Pay believe that this group, and their Career-changing counter parts would be more likely to consider teaching if they knew that they had the potential to improve their earnings based on their own Merit. Further, they believe that Merit pay may encourage top performers to consider teaching at high needs schools. I agree.

“Apples” call foul on the idea that we have to continue to tolerate “bad” in schools. Actually, they go further and get in all of our faces and challenge all of us to call foul and do our part to make it right, right now. RIGHT NOW. To the greatest degree possible, right this minute, every minute, of every day.

Ideology, philosophy, and “feelings” aside, and like it or not, the achievement gap is all of our problem. Apples put it in our face as much as possible and force us to see what we otherwise wouldn’t if we are fortunate enough to work in a “better” school, or in a “better” district.

It’s not that they love testing (many don’t), that they don’t want kids to be happy, or want them to hate school. It’s not that they don’t want their students to become great thinkers, leaders, PEOPLE, or that they hate arts, sports and music.

It’s that kids, lots and LOTS of kids can’t READ. They can’t write, or do basic math… in HIGH SCHOOL. It’s that every second of every day that we aren’t addressing that, and making that the MOST important thing, puts us further away from ever closing the achievement gap.

It’s that the clock never stops ticking its way towards “too late” for our schools to help and truly serve another generation of kids… kids like the ones I’ve spent most of my professional life serving.  I work with bright, good kids, who way too often, can’t read, write or do basic math; 16-24 year olds who are trying to recover from their histories of abysmal school failure in time to build viable futures as adults.

For the record, there are a whole lot of “Apples” who work in schools with longer days, and Saturday and summer school programs, so that their students can spend time on task in school and still play sports, make music, and learn to lead. There are also a whole lot of Apples who advocate passionately for valuing teaching as a profession, and supporting teachers as professionals who do critically important work.

Now let’s talk “Oranges”.

For the sake of this analogy, “Oranges” are discussions about all of the other issues often referenced in terms of “Education Reform”. Digital Literacy, 21st Century Skills, Student Centered Learning, Differentiation, Project and Portfolio based assessment, Experiential, Collaborative Learning, Strength Based Approaches, Classroom Communities, Learning Teams, Language Studies, Music and Arts… all of the things about school that, frankly, have always made my heart beat a little faster and put a bounce in my step, both as a student and as a teacher.

High stakes testing flies in the face of the “Orange” perspective on Ed Reform. It creates enormous pressure to “teach to the test” in schools and districts where leaders have failed to make the connection between outstanding teaching and student achievement. Situations like those referenced in this NY Times Op Ed piece highlight the validity of those fears.

If Apples are Waiting for Superman, Oranges are Race to Nowhere. People who are interested in authentic dialogue should see and consider both.

Orange discussions are farsighted and forward thinking. Orange advocates are deeply invested in ensuring education keeps pace with the times. They are concerned about a deficit in 21st century skills like critical thinking and digital literacy becoming the next manifestation of the achievement gap.

Proponents of Orange have a lot to offer to the Apples discussion. They are creative, often brilliant problem solvers and inspired teachers. They are collaborators and risk takers. They understand teaching and learning and kids. They are coaches and cheer leaders, award winners and life-long learners.

That’s why it’s so tragic that they often feel like the kid on the playground who never gets picked in the national dialogue on education reform. NBC’s recently broadcast and widely publicized Education Nation is an example of how (perhaps) well intended media efforts to support education reform have further polarized stake holders.

Throw in the world’s most famous talk-show host, a young billionaire, a-not-so-young billionaire, a gifted young mayor, and the Chancellor of DC PS and subtract all input from active teachers, and you have the perfect storm. This Huffington Post article by @Garystager is a taste of what you get when you (consciously or inadvertently) scorn brilliant educators.

So what’s next? Hopefully, movement toward more inclusive, open-minded dialogue. Currently, the climate is QUITE “Apples versus Oranges”… and vice versa. Oranges are frequently as caustic in their condemnation of all things “Apple” as Apples are exclusive in presenting their strategies for improving failing schools.

@TomWhitby has written several thoughtful and thought provoking posts since the airing of Education Nation, and urged an end to the “teacher bashing” that has become so central to the discussion. One of his posts was a call to action, encouraging educators to blog their thoughts on education reform and post them on the Rebel Education Reform Blogs Wallwisher.

More than 100 educators answered his call yesterday. The posts represent an enormous range of experience, insight and investment from educators all over the country, and a few from all over the world. Some, I agree with, others I don’t. But I am going to read them all.

Each and every post represents an educator who cared enough to take the time to weigh in, and each represents another piece of the puzzle that we need to truly understand what is needed for us to move forward, together. For that reason, I’ll read them all.

I’ll also commit to ensuring that OTHER people have an opportunity to see them… People who may benefit from an “Orange-er” or “Apple-er” perspective, or who may appreciate the invitation to explore the insights of so many “real”, dedicated, talented educators, even if they don’t agree with their positions. People who aren’t “sure” and want to understand. People who have some sway, and some say and would want to know that this is going on.

What’s next?

We share… the wallwisher, individual bloggers’ posts, Tom’s call to action – all of it. We let the world know that we are here…that Educators, from around the world work together every day to grow together and find a better way, and that we have invested in this effort to deepen understanding of the teacher’s perspective on Education Reform. Shelly Terrell (@ShellTerrell ) delivers great ideas for reaching out and spreading the word in her compelling article,  How a Whisper Becomes a Roar.

Those who don’t do Social Networking spread the word by word of mouth. Email, snail-mail, IM, text and shout it from roof-tops.  Copy and paste and quote and post on bulletin boards and Message Boards. Weigh in, speak up and share your own experiences in any way that you can.

No matter how you choose to share, please let me know if you get any traction! Good luck, Rebel Reformers! Social networkers, there’s more…

If we are Linkedin, we link in. We Facebook, Digg, Delicious, Stumble and Tumble… and those of us who tweet, tweet often. Maybe we can tweet with the Hashtag #redref for “Rebel Ed Reform”. Maybe we should use the regular #edreform hashtag. What do you think?

Below are a “few” Twitter contacts we might start with but add your own as well, and please remember to share your experiences and responses! Be bold, be brave, be heard and be part of the solution! Isn’t that what this is all about?

@educationreview @drsteveperry @edpresssec @tfanews @tntp @lateducation @hechingerreport @educationnation @ulrichboser @EdPolicyAdvisor @teacherbeat @educationvoters @educationsector @emilyjohns @catalystohio @baltimorecityschools @michaelbirnbaum @TimesEducation @EducationWeek @Usedgov @Postschools @cathgrimes @tomstptimes @smarick @arotherham @nyedreform @buffaloreformed @PNS_News @district299 @dropoutnation @edubeat @catalystchicago @m_rhee @notextbkanswer @compclass @changeeducation @aaeteachers @publicagenda @mikememoli @sirgutz @mitchellreports @msnbc @mikedebonis @donewaiting @edequality @corybooker @pbsneedtoknow @stevefarber @danielpink

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5 Responses to “Apples, Oranges and Education Reform”

  1. ktenkely November 2, 2010 at 3:34 pm #

    Wow Melissa, when you take it on you take it on! Love the apples/oranges look at the reform debate. I think on each side there are good arguments and people who truly want what is best for kids. In some instances this means taking a real look at the teachers and firing those who aren’t effective. We DO know those teachers. I think the problem is, those of us involved in social media, are there because we are SO passionate about teaching/learning/education that we have to share it with others. We forget that on Twitter and in the blogosphere we are surrounded by the best of the best. They are actively involved because they are the best. I think they see the firings as a threat but we shouldn’t. I think the bigger issue for me is the focus on bad teachers alone. Yes there are bad teachers and schools full of bad teachers, but will taking care of that problem alone solve the issues in education? No. Because the problems in education are multifaceted.
    Excellent post! You leave me thinking :)

    • thenewtag November 4, 2010 at 10:42 pm #

      Kelly, thanks so much for your comment! I agree, the problem is multifaceted and there is never an “only” solution. The thing that makes me a little nuts is when we, as educators, fail to fully consider the problem from multiple perspectives… because being able to do that is such a big part of what we are entrusted to TEACH! When you look at education reform through the eyes of the 4 year old in Baltimore City, or 10 year old in DC, or 7 year old in Hingham, Massachusetts or a 14 year old in Iowa, or through the eyes of each of their parents’ teachers, principals etc, it’s impossible not to realize that successful Education Reform initiative can not be “One size fits all”. Once we realize that, many of the arguments lose steam because we stop arguing “Apples to Oranges” and begin to realize that our true goals are more in line than we thought… Thanks again for taking the time to read and for sharing your thoughts!

  2. Meyer June 23, 2011 at 5:24 pm #

    I only recently found this, but I find your post interesting. I am especially interested in the fact that there are so many young, inexperienced teachers going into high needs areas. I’d argue that there needs to be additional support for these young teachers. I find it noteworthy that many successful urban schools focus recruiting on teachers with 1-3 years of experience (and generally avoid first year teachers) and also provide highly structured support throughout the year. I also think you framed the merit pay issue well: highly successful teachers deserve additional compensation, and it helps retain teachers who might otherwise pursue different careers or leave for a different school.

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