Thursday, March 24, 2011

Summit shows others, elsewhere, may be doing the right things

Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post published a great column by Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University at her blog today on the topic of last week's international education in New York City.

South Carolinians may recall that Darling-Hammond, who served as President Barack Obama's education advisor through the 2008 presidential campaign, was a witness for the plaintiffs in Abbeville v. South Carolina, the case questioning South Carolina's commitment to funding public education.

Darling-Hammond's credentials and experience are impeccable, which makes it heartwarming to read her column in today's Post:

The first ever International Summit on Teaching, convened last week in New York City, showed perhaps more clearly than ever that the United States has been pursuing an approach to teaching almost diametrically opposed to that pursued by the highest-achieving nations.

In a statement rarely heard these days in the United States, the Finnish Minister of Education launched the first session of last week’s with the words: “We are very proud of our teachers.” Her statement was so appreciative of teachers’ knowledge, skills, and commitment that one of the U.S. participants later confessed that he thought she was the teacher union president, who, it turned out, was sitting beside her agreeing with her account of their jointly-constructed profession.

"Jointly-constructed," meaning that organized educators were welcomed and respected partners in decision-making about the quality and delivery of public education in Finland. What would it take for South Carolina's lawmakers to welcome and respect collaboration with South Carolina's professional educators in decision-making here -- and I'm not referring to ga-ga (go along, get along), milksop efforts mounted for show, like the proposed teacher committee to advise Superintendent Mick Zais on his pay-for-test-scores plan.

Teachers advising Zais on pay-for-test-scores is like chickens advising Colonel Sanders on the correct temperature and cooking time to achieve the best crunch on KFC's extra-crispy. It is not a win-win situation for any chicken.

Darling-Hammond gleaned several other eye-opening points from the summit, finding it "the first time that the growing de-professionalization of teaching in America was recognized as out of step with the strategies pursued by the world’s educational leaders."

Evidence presented at the summit showed that, with dwindling supports, most teachers in the United States must go into debt in order to prepare for an occupation that pays them, on average, 60% of the salaries earned by other college graduates. Those who work in poor districts will not only earn less than their colleagues in wealthy schools, but they will pay for many of their students’ books and supplies themselves.

And with states’ willingness to lower standards rather than raise salaries for the teachers of the poor, a growing number of recruits enter with little prior training, trying to learn on-the-job with the uneven mentoring provided by cash-strapped districts. It is no wonder that a third of U.S. beginners leave within the first five years, and those with the least training leave at more than twice the rate of those who are well-prepared.

Those who stay are likely to work in egg-crate classrooms with few opportunities to collaborate with one another. In many districts, they will have little more than “drive-by” workshops for professional development, and – if they can find good learning opportunities, they will pay for most of it out of their own pockets.

Depending on the surveys you read, teachers contribute upwards of $400 annually from their own pockets for school supplies.

I hear so-called taxpayer advocates argue constantly that any dollar taken by the government out of taxpayers' pockets is a tax, regardless of what it's called. And, say those advocates, average taxpayers are taxed too much.

So if South Carolina's educators, who are public employees in a right-to-work-for-less state and therefore earn less than education professionals in most other states, pay upwards of $400 annually for school supplies for their classrooms, is that not -- using the same taxpayer-advocates' rhetoric -- a tax on educators? After all, educators are taxpayers, too.

If that's the case, then I suggest we call it what it is, a Teacher Tax.

I'd go one step further. Since South Carolina's educators aren't paid near the national average, I suggest that we clearly identify what the national average is. Each teacher should subtract his or her salary from that average, add to the difference the dollar amount that reflects out-of-pocket expenses for their own classroom, and call that total their Teacher Tax for a given year -- their economic penalty for being a professional educator in South Carolina.

Darling-Hammond makes some salient observations about the quality of teacher preparation, too:

Meanwhile, some policymakers argue that we should eliminate requirements for teacher training, stop paying teachers for gaining more education, let anyone enter teaching, and fire those later who fail to raise student test scores. And efforts like those in Wisconsin to eliminate collective bargaining create the prospect that salaries and working conditions will sink even lower, making teaching an unattractive career for anyone with other professional options.

The contrasts to the American attitude toward teachers and teaching could not have been more stark. Officials from countries like Finland and Singapore described how they have built a high-performing teaching profession by enabling all of their teachers to enter high-quality preparation programs, generally at the masters’ degree level, where they receive a salary while they prepare. There they learn research-based teaching strategies and train with experts in model schools attached to their universities. They enter a well-paid profession – in Singapore earning as much as beginning doctors -- where they are supported by mentor teachers and have 15 or more hours a week to work and learn together – engaging in shared planning, action research, lesson study, and observations in each other’s classrooms. And they work in schools that are equitably funded and well-resourced with the latest technology and materials.

In Singapore, based on their talents and interests, many teachers are encouraged to pursue career ladders to become master teachers, curriculum specialists, and principals, expanding their opportunities and their earnings with still more training paid for by the government. Teacher union members in these countries talked about how they work closely with their governments to further enrich teachers’ and school leaders’ learning opportunities and to strengthen their skills.

In South Carolina, our chief education officer recommends that we pay teachers based on their students' scores on standardized tests, plus the subjective evaluations of an administrator, not credentials plus years of experience.

And, rather than unite behind an effort to kill that proposal in its tracks, some teacher groups play the roaster to ol' Colonel Sanders and ask to be included in the discussion about how we'd like to be plucked, battered and fried.

The answer, for the jackpot, is: "Because lawmakers say it will cost more than we choose to afford."

And the correct question, Alex, is: "Why don't we drag out the same set of time-tested principles that committees and commissions draft time after time when asked how to improve the quality of public schools in South Carolina, and adopt them?"

In these summit discussions, there was no teacher-bashing, no discussion of removing collective bargaining rights, no proposals for reducing preparation for teaching, no discussion of closing schools or firing bad teachers, and no proposals for ranking teachers based on their students’ test scores. The Singaporean Minister explicitly noted that his country’s well-developed teacher evaluation system does not “digitally rank or calibrate teachers,” and focuses instead on how well teachers develop the whole child and contribute to each others’ efforts and to the welfare of the whole school.

Perhaps most stunning was the detailed statement of the Chinese Minister of Education who described how – in the poor states which lag behind the star provinces of Hong Kong and Shanghai – billions of yuen are being spent on a fast-paced plan to improve millions of teachers’ preparation and professional development, salaries, working conditions and living conditions (including building special teachers’ housing). The initial efforts to improve teachers’ knowledge and skills and stem attrition are being rapidly scaled up as their success is proved.

It is, of course, offensive to South Carolinian culture to be shown in black-and-white letters and numbers how other people, elsewhere, attempt to accomplish the same goals we claim to pursue, except that other people, elsewhere, pour major resources into appropriate strategies and actually achieve goals -- while our leaders moan and groan that education costs more and more, and delivers less and less, and educators don't do what they're told, and if we only had vouchers and tuition tax credits, we would achieve exactly the same results as other people, elsewhere.

(Particularly in recent decades, our attempts at so-called education reform have been just as education researcher Richard Kahlenburg said: "Ninety-five percent of education reform is about trying to make separate schools for rich and poor work, but there is very little evidence that you can have success when you pack all the low-income students into one particular school.")

After all, ours is the state that originated the concept of nullification -- declaring that we alone could veto any federal law we didn't like -- and ours is the state that seceded from America when America cast a dim view on slavery and conspired to elect Abraham Lincoln to the presidency. We don't take kindly to being shown that good ideas can come from other people, elsewhere, and that not all of our ideas in South Carolina are particularly good ones.

Can you imagine what would happen if South Carolina took a page from China's playbook and spent billions "on a fast-paced plan to improve millions of teachers’ preparation and professional development, salaries, working conditions and living conditions (including building special teachers’ housing)"? I can imagine it. Graduation rates might improve. And then the sky would fall.

Clearly, another first is called for if we are ever to regain our educational standing in the world: A first step toward finally taking teaching seriously in America. Will our leaders be willing to take that step? Or will we devolve into a third class power because we have neglected our most important resource for creating a first-class system of education?

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