How School Reform Made The Teacher Shortage Worse

07/31/2017 08:52 am ET Updated Jul 31, 2017
Reuters Staff / Reuters

The teacher shortage crisis is growing across the nation, but Oklahoma has become the poster child for a system that can’t recruit or retain teaching talent. The state’s approval of 631 emergency certifications in a last-minute “scramble” to fill classrooms is decried as “the New Normal.” NPR and CNN report on Tulsa teacher panhandling on the roadway for classroom supplies. The crisis is far worse, however, in the inner city.

The Oklahoma City Public Schools System attempted the hurried closure of the elementary school that fed my old high school due to its inability to find qualified teachers and principals. It was then learned that several high-poverty schools, including the other high-poverty feeder for my school, often finish their school years with only a handful teachers willing to remain in those challenging classrooms. Two days before classes begin, the number of open teaching positions is down from 300 to 154.

Most Oklahoma teachers haven’t had a pay increase for years and many weren’t in the mood for the Daily Oklahoman editorial which notes that the teacher shortage is a national problem, and that even Colorado has a teacher shortage. The conservative newspaper ignores the high stakes testing unleashed by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 that has driven more and more of the joy of teaching and learning out of classrooms across the nation. One result of accountability-driven reform was that modal experience, or the most common number of years of teaching experience, was reduced from 15 in 1987 to 1 in 2007.

The Oklahoman doesn’t mention a key reason why Colorado, which has spent incredible amounts of money on “teacher quality” initiatives, faces growing problems in filling their classrooms. That state has been in the forefront of the Gates Foundation’s and the federal government’s campaigns to use experimental, outcomes-driven teacher evaluations to “build a better teacher.” The theory was that the identification and termination of the bottom-performing 5 to 10 percent of teachers, as well as data-driven professional development, would produce “transformative” change.

Colorado Democrat, Sen. Michael Bennet, the non-educator who ran the Denver Public Schools, is symbolic of the ideological nature of corporate school reform. He liked to say, “The examined life is not worth living,” as he rushed ahead, heedless of what he didn’t know that he didn’t know about classroom instruction.

Bennet attacked the concept of career teachers. He wanted an incentive system where young teachers burned themselves out for 7 to 9 years in order to produce transformative change. His multi-million dollar experiments helped form the basis of Arne Duncan’s multi-billion dollar debacles, such as the RttT, the SIG, and “incentivizing” states to incorporate test score growth into teacher evaluations.

These slapped together corporate reforms almost certainly helped drive veteran teachers out of the profession. They encouraged the labeling of career teachers, who opposed teach-to-the-test, as “culture killers;” Baby Boomers and their higher salaries were often “exited” in mass. As we should have always known would happen, high-stakes testing grew more oppressive, and it almost certainly reduced the effectiveness of the profession as a whole.

When the Oklahoma legislature went along with the pressure to codify the reformers’ untested theories on test-driven teacher evaluations into law, I was struck by the number of senators who were carrying a New Yorker article, “The Rubber Room” by non-educator Steve Brill. Brill argued for replacing veteran teachers, who supposedly refuse to do “whatever it takes” to overcome the effects of the poverty and trauma that our poorest kids bring to school. His hyperbolic attack on unions included the claim that “value-added” statistical models could provide a valid measure of teacher effectiveness, and a tool for speeding up the dismissal of “bad” teachers.

Brill’s subsequent book, Class Warfare, argued for the recruiting of young teachers with superhuman intensity and who would accept “No Excuses!” The hero of his morality play was Jessica Reid, the most determined person that Brill had ever met. The tale’s inspiring conclusion was undermined, however, when the 28-year-old quit in exhaustion.

It’s now clear that the “teacher quality” gamble failed, and even Oklahoma repealed the value-added portion of the teacher evaluation law we were coerced into passing. But today’s educators carry the burden of the damage it did to teaching and learning. My students who attended the elementary schools that can’t find teachers complained that they had been robbed of an education by bubble-in testing. They had to endure soul-killing rote instruction that produced in-one-ear-and-out-the-other “learning.”

Today’s inexperienced, exhausted, and underpaid teachers struggle to inspire students who often have been taught to hate school. Even if Oklahoma finally raises salaries, it will take years to undo the harm done by corporate school reform.

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