Teacher hiring season is revving up, and with the economy in shambles schools are fighting over top teaching talent. I'm sorry, that was the headline about Silicon Valley tech firms -- but for them, the economy is looking up and they really are fighting for the best talent.
Let's imagine for a second what fighting for the best talent would look like in schools. In a large, urban district a principal hears about an amazing physics teacher. How did she hear? A student transferred from one high school to the next and told the principal she really needs to hire this teacher. She looks for quantitative evidence on how well this teacher's students are doing on the statewide assessment, SATs, or AP exams and finds none. She looks for qualitative evidence on how well this teacher's doing based on principal observation, student and parent feedback, or peer reviews and finds none. Being that physics teachers are hard to find,she decides to pursue this teacher based on the recommendation of this one new student.
So, the principal goes to the district and requests to speak with the teacher. The district asks the principal to fill out a five page transfer document by hand and turn it in -- in triplicate -- to the HR office. After four weeks, the principal gets anxious and calls human resources. The paperwork was lost. Frustrated, the principal reaches out to the teacher herself and asks if he'd be willing to transfer. The teacher is really interested and appreciates being sought after. The principal would like to offer the teacher a higher salary, greater benefits, or better working conditions but the union negotiated contract forbids it and collective bargaining ensures equal (not equitable) salary and benefits. In fact, the union chairs from both campuses file a grievance against the principal for not following district-union protocol concerning teacher transfers. All she wanted to do was talk to him.
Frustrated, the teacher quits and joins a high tech firm where he negotiates a contract for much more money, greater benefits, and the promise of an amazing work environment. There, he will get to utilize his creativity and be part of a team. Under NCLB and with the state tests, all creativity in his teaching has been lost. The union mandates collaboration could occur for no more than one hour per week during the designated school day and teachers are not allowed to talk about specific planning and instructional situations.
The principal gets a must-place transfer teacher who has been at five schools in four years and is only teaching because he'd been fired from three high-tech jobs before. He is continually transferred from school to school for open defiance against the principals. How soon before this principal resigns?
This situation is all too real in the world of education. While much energy is being spent by education reformers and pundits that our problems with education are largely a human capital issue, their proposed solutions are not getting us any closer to attracting, supporting, and retaining the humans teaching in the schools. While I am critical of teacher unions, removing collective bargaining rights is not the answer. While poor performing teachers should be fired, this will not help meet the needs of the majority of teachers. While teachers should be fairly evaluated and student achievement should be part of that evaluation, linking pay to high-stakes tests produces deleterious effects on instruction and learning. If we are truly trying to elevate teaching as an honored profession, as these reformers purport, we need to invest in the teachers themselves and in the process of teaching and learning. If we want teachers to survive and thrive in the profession we need to afford them the support and the creative space to do so. See my previous post, "The Best and the Brightest Will Never Teach" for more on this.
If we are going to invest in our teachers and in the process of teaching and learning we also need to invest in our principals by giving them the support, coaching, and tools to fairly and equitably support, coach, and evaluate teachers. This means removing many of the structures and systems placed on the principal by the myriad layers of educational bureaucracy including districts, unions, states, and (more and more) the federal government but doing so with a scalpel as opposed to a machete. What is happening in Wisconsin, Ohio, and potentially in other states concerning the teacher unions is the reaction of governments to an organization which took an entrenched position - and now we are all paying.
Are we too far gone in the debate around how to reform our public schools with our ideologies and bifurcation of ideas? Charter schools are not the answer, but things are to be learned from them. Teach for America is neither savior nor Satan, but they do influence the national discussion. Unions are not the problem, but they are not part of the solution either. Common Core standards are an improvement, but standards do not guarantee quality instruction. And when we look back on this post-NCLB era of education reform will we be asking, "Where have all the teacher's gone?" Stop paying lip service to the professionalization of teaching and figure out a way to reward teachers for what they do and create reasons for them to stay. Everything else is background noise. That's why high tech is no longer in a recession and education is.
Interesting coincidence -- the article which spurred this post was from Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Mayor Bloomberg is one of the primary reformers sending us go down this path.