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Web Letters | The Nation

Teachers Aren't the Enemy

The new generation of reformers isn’t the enemy, either

I appreciate the points raised in this article. However, I think the focus is woefully misplaced. Instead of focusing on—and perhaps further deepening—the political and philosophical divides between us adults, why don’t we focus our energies on things that can really make a difference in teachers’ (and thus their students’) lives? I suggest the following:

1.) A continued emphasis on creating meaningful teacher evaluation systems that promote growth and accountability. Let’s not let ourselves get distracted by arguments about "last in, first out." Instead, we should be asking, “How do we keep the teachers who are most effective with students?” regardless of years served. Our modal teacher evaluation systems, checklists completed during “drive-by” or “dog-and-pony show” observations, do little to inform our schools and systems about actual teacher performance, and do even less to guide teachers in knowing how to improve their practice. (See, for example, the recent Ohio study by Eric Taylor and John Tyler referenced by Andy Rotherham in his recent Time magazine piece.)

2.) Creating systems of true per-pupil budgeting that no longer protect the practice of concentrating more experienced, successful teachers (and the funds that follow them) in higher-performing schools. I thank Paul Hill and Marguerite Roza for shining much-needed light on this often overlooked issue.

3.) Ongoing, thorough analysis of the turnaround school approach on student outcomes, looking closely at indicators such as student safety, attendance, graduation rates and, of course, learning gains. Initial results here in Chicago are promising, suggesting that changes in culture come first, followed closely by growth in student achievement.

In addition to these areas of focus, we might examine the potential benefits—and possible pitfalls—of allocating funds across the salary schedule differently. Does it still make sense in a world with greater mobility (both geographic and professional) to wait to reward those at the far end of the schedule with higher salaries, or might we attract and retain more promising early and mid-career teachers by distributing some of those salary funds earlier in their careers?

Another issue that I find troubling is the quick, scathing critique of charter schools among progressives, while everyone remains silent regarding the enormous inequities created by selective enrollment schools in our cities. While charters, which by federal law cannot screen applicants based on performance criteria, are lambasted by liberals, we don’t address the fundamental inequities and instabilities created in neighborhood schools when high-achieving students depart in large numbers for magnet and other admissions-based programs. As you state in your article, charters “make opportunities available largely to those motivated and able to leave local schools”—don’t selective enrollment schools do the same thing? If we are going to be critical of choice in public school systems, we must address all aspects of choice, not just the one with the less popular governance model.

In the article, you mention Chicago, but neglect to mention the landmark legislation passed unanimously by the Illinois Senate and awaiting the House’s vote. (This could be due to the publication deadline, but I believe it deserves mention here.) Unions and reform groups, including the CTU, IEA and IFT, and the “neoliberal” Stand For Children, came together and found common ground in crafting a piece of legislation to help address some of the points I’ve made above, particularly in regards to teacher evaluation and accountability. These are the types of examples of collaboration we should be focusing our spotlight on, not just the examples of rancor and polarization that tend to dominate our conversations.

I believe in the power and value of organized labor, but I also believe that for too long teachers’ unions have resisted calls for meaningful accountability while outcomes for high-poverty students of color have suffered. (For example, in Chicago, upwards of 90 percent of teachers have been rated consistently in the top two performance tiers. At the same tme, just over a quarter of eleventh graders met the district goal of a 20 on the ACT, which, according to the Consortium on Chicago School research is “lower than the state average and college-readiness benchmarks.” Anyone else see the disconnect here?)

As a committed student of urban education, I admire the work of Drs. Fine and Noguera immensely. I implore them to keep their eyes on the prize—meeting the needs of students, particularly the most vulnerable among us, by whatever means necessary—not allowing themselves to be swept up in the politics of the adults.

Jennifer L. Husbands, PhD

Chicago, IL

Apr 24 2011 - 9:38pm

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