Educators give thumbs-down to school choice

Teachers, principals and superintendents don’t much care for charter schools and vouchers. Not even the ones who voted for Donald Trump for president.

That’s a key take-away from a survey conducted by Education Week and reported by the publication last week. The survey was administered to more than 1,100 educators in September and October.

It found that 74 percent fully or somewhat oppose the creation of charter schools. And 79 percent fully or somewhat oppose publicly funded vouchers to pay private school tuition.

Among educators who voted for Trump, 64 percent oppose charter schools and 70 percent oppose vouchers — even though Trump and his secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, have made expanding “school choice” a centerpiece of their education rhetoric.

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Listening to teachers

Teachers are passionate about their work. They love their daily interactions with students, value collaborating with each other and feel strongly about the importance of public schools. They’re also frustrated by accountability mandates that make it harder to do their jobs. But they see value in some required tests, and they aren’t letting the annoyances keep them from doing their jobs.

Those are a few take-away messages from a panel discussion this week by seven Bloomington teachers: Sheila McDermott-Sipe and Kathleen Mills from Bloomington High School South, Kathy Loser and Greg Chaffin of Bloomington High School North, Megan Somers-Glenn of Marlin Elementary and Erika Peek and Ben Strawn of Summit Elementary. Some highlights:

      • Support is important. McDermott-Sipe said the local district’s adopting of Professional Learning Communities to facilitate collaboration was “a wonderful, wonderful development.” Mills said reading intervention staff, funded by a 2010 tax referendum, have been “life changing in high school.”
      • Panelists feel strongly about public education and fear it’s threatened by forces that, as Somers-Glenn said, “want to make money from our children.” Loser urged people in the audience to read Diane Ravitch’s book “Reign of Error” and vote for candidates who support public schools.
      • Strawn, who teaches third grade, said rounds of standardized tests and a state-required 90-minute block of uninterrupted reading instruction don’t leave enough time and flexibility for creative teaching. He said IREAD-3, the state’s third-grade retention test, puts “incredible stress on teachers.”
      • At the high school level, high-stakes assessments for sophomore English and algebra produce stress. But McDermott-Sipe said NWEA tests help tailor teaching to student’s needs. Mills said standardized tests don’t drive her teaching. “I definitely don’t feel I’m living a life of test prep,” she said.
      • Loser and Chaffin highlighted the fact that schools are about more than academics. Both talked about the importance of clubs, activities and informal relationships in keeping high-school students engaged – and not just sports and band but book clubs, groups for LGBT youth and international students, counseling groups, etc.
      • Teachers like talking about why they love their jobs and how much they enjoy their students. In an anecdote that could only happen in a public school, Mills said she overheard two students talking about their parents. One’s father went to Harvard; the other’s mother went to hairdressing school. The students, she said, were genuinely curious about each other’s families and their experiences.

The Monroe County Coalition for Public Education sponsored the discussion because teachers’ voices are often missing from public debates over education policy. Teachers are busy and many don’t have time for politics and public advocacy. They won’t all agree with each other. But when they talk about their work and their schools, those of us who claim to care about education should listen.

Spotlight on teachers

With Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett putting “identify and reward great teachers and principals” at the top of their education reform agenda, it’s a good time to share some of what’s being said and written about the subject of teacher quality.

The Milwaukee Journal and Sentinel, working in partnership with the New York-based Hechinger Report, is wrapping up a multi-part series titled “Building a Better Teacher.” Every Sunday since early November, the paper has included a story on the challenges to training, identifying and rewarding great teachers.

Topics have included teacher evaluations, merit pay, steering better teachers to high-need schools, teacher education, the role of unions and the importance of principals. The stories tend to focus on Wisconsin schools and issues. But they’re well reported and clearly written – a good overview of the questions that the Indiana Legislature will be considering.

Part Two, titled “Grading Teachers is No Easy Assignment,” and Part Three, “School Districts Evaluate Merits of Merit Pay,” report on the nationwide push to measure teacher effectiveness and use the results to determine how teachers should be evaluated, paid and retained in their jobs.

What does the public think?

According to an Associated Press-Stanford University poll reported this month, Americans think teachers should be paid more but that it should be easier to fire bad teachers.

The poll found that 78 percent of respondents think principals should be able to fire teachers whose performance isn’t up to snuff. At the same time, 57 percent think teachers are paid too little and only 7 percent think they are paid too much.

Only 35 percent said the number of bad teachers is a serious problem in American schools; and just 45 percent blamed teachers’ unions for the problem. Higher percentages were critical of parents and federal, state and local education officials.

A commission on teacher quality

The nation’s biggest teachers’ union, the National Education Association, announced recently that it will establish an independent panel on teacher quality, called the Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching.

The commission will include 21 accomplished teachers, who will be supported by researchers, policy experts and academics, the NEA said. Their goal will be to “craft a new teacher-centered vision of teaching and the teaching profession.”

The commissioners will meet four to six times over the next year and hold public meetings to gather input on the topics they’re considering, according to the NEA.

School improvement the Finnish way

Hechinger Report has a Q-and-A with Pasi Sahlberg, an official with the Ministry of Education of Finland, which was once again among the top-scoring nations on the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Here’s what Sahlberg says about using “value-added” data from test scores to evaluate teachers: “It’s very difficult to use this data to say anything about the effectiveness of teachers. If you tried to do this in my country, Finnish teachers would probably go on strike and wouldn’t return until this crazy idea went away.”

Daniels and Bennett have said they want student achievement – measured by improvement in test scores – to count for at least half of the annual evaluation of Indiana teachers.

Report asks: Can attracting ‘talented’ teachers transform schools?

A recent report by the research and consulting firm McKinsey and Co. examines what it would take to induce more talented young people in the United States to become teachers.

The report, titled “Closing the Talent Gap,” makes a nice complement to most of the debate taking place on teaching quality – which focuses on how to improve the performance of those already in the profession, typically with merit pay and making it easier to fire “bad” teachers.

Newspaper columnist Andrea Neal of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation wrote about McKinsey’s international education research in a recent column. But it’s better to read the report, not Neal’s selective and slanted account.

“Closing the Talent Gap” looks at the K-12 teaching profession in Finland, Singapore and South Korea, three of the countries that do best on international comparisons of student performance. It describes how those countries draw their elementary and secondary teachers almost entirely from the top third of college-bound students. Admission to teacher preparation programs is highly selective, with only the best students getting in.

The report says that the U.S., on the other hand, disproportionately draws teachers from the bottom third of college graduates. (Note that’s the bottom third of college graduates. Neal, in her column, contrasts this with Finland, Singapore and South Korea, which draw teachers from the top 5-30 percent of high school graduates, as if it were an apples-to-apples comparison.)

The McKinsey report asks what it would take for the U.S. to implement a similar approach. While conceding that the research is mixed on whether academically “talented” college graduates make the best teachers, it concludes that experimenting with the approach would be worthwhile.

One obvious issue is money. Based on interviews with U.S. students, McKinsey concludes we could significantly improve the percentage of “top third” college graduates willing to become teachers and teach in high-need schools – if we improved starting salaries to $65,000 and maximum pay to $155,000.

Another striking factor in the report is the high social status and cultural respect accorded to teachers in countries with the highest performing students, but not in the U.S. High status is reflected by high salaries in Singapore and South Korea, but not in Finland, the report says.

McKinsey doesn’t provide a lot of support for people who think that merit pay based on student test scores will attract more talented people to the profession. Singapore does pay teachers large bonuses based on performance as judged by rigorous and broad-based evaluations. In South Korea, bonuses don’t vary much by teacher performance. In Finland, there isn’t merit pay, and “anybody who suggested it would be laughed at or hanged,” the report quotes an education official as saying.

But in the U.S., where professional status is so closely tied to money, it’s hard to imagine attracting more top college students to teaching without changing the pay structure.

The report says that teacher pay has stayed relatively flat in the U.S. while compensation for some other professions has exploded. It says that, in 1970, the difference between starting pay for a teacher and a lawyer at a top firm in New York City was only $2,000. Now the difference is $115,000.

‘Last hired, first fired’ strikes again

A story in Saturday’s Bloomington Herald-Times (subscription required) provides an example of the kind of thing that gives teachers’ unions and public schools a bad name.

It’s about Scott Wallace, a science teacher in the Monroe County Community School Corp. who was selected as 2010 Indiana Teacher of the Year by the Air Force Association but lost his job with the MCCSC because of budget cuts. Wallace was placed deep on the district’s reduction-in-force list as a result of the strict seniority system – “last hired, first fired” – enshrined by the MCCSC’s contract with the local teachers’ union, the Monroe County Education Association.

The MCCSC board voted in April to put 73 teachers on the RIF list, which meant they could be laid off for the 2010-11 school year.

Dozens were called back over the summer. They included Batchelor Middle School’s Jackie Macal, one of six “outstanding Hoosier educators” honored at a Statehouse ceremony in May, Continue reading