My opinion: On Budget Cuts, Education Reform and the Teaching Profession
by Caroline Lewis, Educator and Education Strategist
Founder and Director, The CLEO Institute
March 28, 2011
For twenty-two years I was a teacher and principal at excellent schools in Trinidad, New York and Miami. Then, for eight years, I directed education programs at a botanic garden, creating opportunities, like the Fairchild Challenge, to engage tens of thousands of urban youth and their teachers in current environmental issues. That program’s design provoked and inspired engagement, and celebrated participants, and I watched in awe as interest in learning and pride in the teaching profession grew before my very eyes. Teachers, across disciplines and by the hundreds, many overworked, exhausted, denied raises, and demoralized, clung to the program and seized opportunity after opportunity to engage their students in meaningful, creative, open-ended learning. This response taught me a great deal about the power and importance of inspiration, motivation and celebration in promoting effective teaching and empowering teachers.
On Budget Cuts, Education Reform and the Teaching Profession
I saw a young protester’s sign recently that read: “Don’t make me regret becoming a teacher!” and my heart broke into smithereens.
If you are tuned into the economic, social and political debates swirling around education and the teaching profession, it should be alarmingly clear that we are losing ground, a lot of ground.
There is tremendous damage being done in the public demoralization of the teaching profession happening before our eyes. I know that many public, private and philanthropic leaders are invested in improving education, and, at the very least, are asking the right questions. The education reform movement has committed people at the table.
However, our investment in reform and identifying and measuring effective teaching is being significantly affected. Federal and state budget cuts are rapidly approaching worst-case scenarios, with no easy solutions, and the political, economical and social assault on the teaching profession intensifies.
Alas, the quality of the American teaching pool will diminish – rapidly. It’s not just harder to attract the brightest and the best; it is also that, understandably, the good ones, the effective ones are prematurely leaving or considering leaving the profession.
We are witnessing the demise of a profession that wooed me significantly. Becoming a teacher, despite a brief coup attempt by family to divert me to the medical profession, is the best decision I ever made. Teaching gave me a sense of pride, purpose and meaning throughout my 30-year career in education.
We need to inject respect, inspiration and appreciation in the current debate. Budget decisions will get tougher, but we must extol, not vilify, the teaching profession. To that end, I appeal to leaders to:
Respect the profession – Criticism about teachers’ salaries cannot be focused on the poorest performers. Give principals and administrators power and training to use due process to terminate ineffective teachers. Accept what constitutes a livable wage for a professional, and do not play the alarm game with benefits. Unless Kevin G Hall, McClatchy News Service (in Miami Herald 3/6/11) is lying, state and local pension contributions approximate the burden shouldered by the private sector. The bottom line is, whatever we are paying our effective teachers is not enough, and I argue that most teachers are effective or can be effective, if motivation and talent are not constantly compromised.
Do not over-measure the profession. In the era of quantifiable outcomes, we are starting to appreciate only what we can measure. Effective teaching is very nuanced, and its reality is not readily measurable in snapshots. There is an abundance of misdiagnoses when everything is quantified. Like it or not, some degree of subjectivity is involved. It is common to informally (and quite accurately) determine effective teaching by what kids say about their teachers anecdotally, not by how they perform in teachers’ classes. Rather that focusing only on measuring performance, let’s focus on motivating and inspiring teachers to be effective. It helps reset the clock in selfless teachers, arguably a majority trait in this profession.
Define the profession. Attracting and retaining more effective teachers will require us to re-market the profession, paying close attention to the first two appeals. We need leaders to speak up, especially those who are earnestly seeking to improve education, identifying problems and promoting working solutions. We need you to silence the political, economical and social assault on the teaching profession, and champion teachers, the majority of whom are wonderfully dedicated, good-to-great professionals. Let’s extol, not vilify.
Let’s unleash the superman/superwoman in the mediocre teachers to make them good teachers; in the good teachers to make them great teachers; and in the great teachers to keep them motivated and validated. Let’s make every good teacher want to stay in the profession, forever.
12915 SW 83 Ct. Miami, FL 33156
Please read on...
On Budget Cuts, Education Reform and the Teaching Profession
By Caroline Lewis
Federal and state budget cuts are rapidly approaching worst-case scenarios, with no easy solutions. Meanwhile, the education reform movement had picked up steam, with many good people and institutions weighing in. The Federal Government motivated states, via $4.3 billion in Race To The Top grant competitions, to reform education and include value-added teacher evaluation linked to student performance. In my state, Florida, our superintendents and state and union leaders rallied around a successful grant proposal. Our Governor and his recently named education advisor, Michelle Rhee, DC’s past superintendent, advocate for stronger teacher evaluation. Education Week Magazine this year named Florida’s public education system fifth best in the nation. Reform and rankings are alive and well in my state.
Recently, leaders in education seemed to step up their quest to put kids first, challenging or lauding efforts like: the Harlem Children’s Zone and the Promise Neighborhoods initiative; KIPP Schools, Green Dot Schools, and Seed Schools; Teach for America, the New Teacher Project, and New Leaders for New Schools; and, publicizing teacher rankings and other no-nonsense strategies in school districts. The Gates Foundation and other outstanding groups are investing more and more in education reform and measuring effective teaching. And, the documentary, Waiting for Superman, spurred the discussion.
But something hugely important seems missing from the conversation, especially for those of us who want education reform to include celebrating and elevating the teaching profession. We must simultaneously attend to inspiration, motivation, sense of purpose, and sense of pride in teaching. Cost-benefit analysis of this type of focus will, I believe, yield some significant and very affordable gains in teaching, learning and leadership in our schools and school systems.
Sadly, too many good educators are at risk of burnout - emotional, physical and professional. Let’s then take a pulse on what it really means to teach effectively day-in-day-out: preparing, instructing, assigning, strategizing, collaborating, assessing, disciplining, motivating, judging and being judged. It is exhausting, and the growing demoralization within the profession concerns me deeply. A recent report by Public Agenda and Learning Point Associates, Teaching for a Living: How Teachers See the Profession Today, indicates that 40% of America’s four million teachers appear disheartened and disappointed about their jobs. I would guess that the majority of the disheartened are, were or could be very effective teachers.
When I speak to teachers about their power to impact young lives, I remind them of the great teachers who influenced us, and of the many, many lives we unknowingly influence. I challenge their pedagogy and review characteristics of effective teaching. When I ask teachers to reflect on their styles, and seek their help in elevating the teaching profession, they almost always respond with renewed optimism and commitment, grateful for the message.
Several years ago, my research focused on Effective Teaching: What is it and how do we promote it? None of the characteristics of effective teaching I identified were tied to student performance. They had more to do with combinations of empathy, enthusiasm, creative pedagogy, communication, and scholarship.
Teaching gave me a sense of pride, purpose and meaning throughout my career, although it has not been all fairy tales. I worked with some of the best and some of the worst colleagues.
In fact, it was disgust with lousy public school teachers that ushered me into private schools.
Clearly, some teachers are better at teaching than others, and most of us agree that leadership should identify and confront the weakest. But many leaders miss opportunities and bureaucracies slow processes. Blindly protecting all teachers is harmful to the profession. Alas, effective teachers are further demoralized by inaction towards seriously underperforming colleagues.
Trying to quantify teachers’ contributions to students’ learning gains using value-added data is an interesting strategy. The problem is not with the data collecting and analysis, but with acting on or publicizing findings before we fully understand what we’ve found out. Both supporters and critics of value-added analysis recognize that teaching-learning environments have many, many variables affecting the daily lives and classrooms of real teachers and real students.
Many students are not arriving at school on a daily basis prepared and fully engaged. I was known to meet the morning crowd of groggy high school kids with bright “Ready to Learn?” greetings, irritating some, amusing others, and perhaps reminding a few of their role in this effort called education. Teachers must teach all students - the motivated and the unmotivated, the well behaved and the unruly - getting them to care, to think, to learn, and to perform.
Nobody disputes that good teaching is important. But we also need good leadership, parenting, health, nutrition, funding, schools, and so on. Let’s keep in mind both the tremendous opportunity and the real world limitations that confront teachers.
As we figure out the best strategies to spur reform, and with increasing budget cuts upon us, I make a plea to simultaneously attend to inspiration, motivation, sense of purpose, and sense of pride in teaching.