Tuesday, July 18, 2006


From the folks at ed trust, currently the wisest people in the education world, comes a report subtitled "How Poor and Minority Students Are Shortchanged on Teacher Quality."

The report focuses on how poor not-White kids fare in Midwestern schools, and discovers, surprise!, teacher quality and effectiveness play great roles in the quality of education imparted, and, surprise!surprise!, if you're poor, if you're Black, if you're Latino, if you're living in a metropolis your chances of getting a worthless instructor are much higher than if you weren't. The only truism lacking from this work is the fact that if you're poor and not-White, you also need a quality instructor more than other kids.

The Education Trust is making sense, and continues to do so in their recommendations. Among these are the following:
  • Providing salary incentives to attract high-quality, experienced principals to work in schools that serve high concentrations of poor and minority students and linking their pay to improved conditions and improved achievement.
  • Identifying effective teachers and paying them more to teach in schools with shortages.

When you work in high-need communities and schools the job is harder. A school becomes the vehicle used to counter the debilitating effects of poverty, crime, depression, inequitable funding distributions, and so on. Teachers become the filters, using their time and energy to bridge all gaps. They work with proportionately fewer resources to achieve proportionately greater outcomes, more often than not for less pay. Enough. Really compensate the people -- especially the principal leaders -- who commit to working in these communities, the people capable of bringing about results, not those who have rolled down the proverbial hill like that most notorious of body excretions, landing in the places where their inaptitude is most damaging.

  • Giving teachers who work in the poorest communities fully paid sabbaticals.

I know many teachers who ceased teaching [Disclaimer: They were almost exclusively members of Teach For Awhile, which may invalidate this point] because the challenges and difficulties of enacting change in under-performing schools built to the point where they could no longer face the job and its myriad difficulties. I wonder how the availability of a sabbatical would have affected their decision-making. I envision a scenario of a year away from the classroom, a year spent recovering, planning, taking classes, and eventually returning to the same high-needs environment better prepared to enact change and foster achievement. What would such opportunities do for teacher retention and teacher quality?

  • Reserving tenure for those teachers who demonstrate effectiveness at producing student learning.

Demonstrate it through test scores, demonstrate it through arbitrary observation, demonstrate it through a scaled score on a state-wide rubric, I don't care so long as teachers are required to evince some measure of quality before they are given a life-time guarantee of employment. I've been handed "Permanent" employee status in my district by virtue of not leaving and not being a kiddie toucher. We should expect and demand more.

I like this report. I like its conclusion and recommendations. Beyond that, I like the forthright acknowledgment that there are two separate educational realities within the realm of public schooling. The chasm exists, and maybe we need to open ed schools that specialize in preparing teachers to teach the poor. Maybe we should offer P-credentials to teachers and administrators, and forbid those individuals without a specific skill set and knowledge to work with our most at-risk populations. Maybe we need to organize local NEA affiliates that are intellectually flexible enough to protect teacher's rights in high-needs schools without taking stances that hurt kids. Maybe we've succeeded in acknowledging that a public school in Compton is not the same as one in Santa Barbara, but I don't think we've actually done anything with this newfound knowledge. If working for the day when these disparities do not exist means formalizing and instituting awareness of the disparities, then let's go.


Commenter Polski3 writes, "Union flexibility? I doubt any affiliate of the NEA or AFT would approve a tiered contract with teacher benefits defined by the needs of a school."

No doubt he's right. But it shouldn't have to be that way, for two reasons. One, the decentralization of massive urban school districts -- to the extent that it has occurred, to the extent that it will occur in the future -- has essentially created these tiered contract situations anyway. I'll look to the 408, and it's main city, San Jose, which is carved up into numerous school districts of various levels of homogeneity, (my own district is composed almost entirely of Title I schools filled with ELLs). Each district has its own CTA/NEA bargaining unit, and each has negotiated contracts of various value to the individual teacher. These contracts are tiered of course, but the money flows in the opposite direction dictated by common sense and the need to improve schools. In practice, how is this situation different than a hypothetical move to formalize the vast differences that already exist between schools by creating different bargaining units that could advocate more effectively because a broad spectrum of issues and importance has been narrowed to a highly specific one.

Two, it can only be a matter of time before the doctrine of equality espoused by unions collapses under the weight of its own dislogic. Look, I know leading a teacher-union is immensely difficult, if for no other reason than the rasion d'etre of a union qua union is in this case tempered by a host of other factors, namely the does-it-hurt-students test. Your average plumbers union does not suffer from second-guessing about whether or not a particular stance will, in the long run, adversely affect the nature of in-door plumbing. That said, when unions impede reforms on the basis of maintaining equality in the workplace among all members, I want to rage against machines. This is the intellectual equivalent of a fart. The vast inequalities that exist among union members working under the same contract, especially in large urban districts that tend to educate both the most elite and the most poor, are so looming, so pervasive, so absurdly apparent, that to push forward with this we're-all-the-same rhetoric makes you want to take these leaders on field trips or lock them in rooms with relevant power points and shout See? See? See?

And it's not just the money, these hypothetical and oft-ballyhooed increases or merit advances or whatever. It's about flexibility and responsivity and the acknowledgement of non-universivity. Every secondary school invited to present at that WestEd sponsored symposium on how to get out of Program Improvement status had made alterations to their existing schedule and the way their school-day was structured. Every one. These tend to not be issues the average school in the Oakland hills needs to address, but these alterations to contractual minutes and obligations tend to be critical for schools in West Oakland. The demand that the latter resemble the former lest equality be undermined seems more than a little absurd, and admits more than a little potential for damage. Again, let us acknowledge that things are not equal, really internalize what that means, and act accordingly.


Blogger Polski3 said...

Good Post.

And, how about teacher security in many of the neighborhoods with these schools? What teacher wants to repeatedly find their vehicle vandalized or burgled, or have to fear for their personal saftey getting to and while at work ? Yes, there are many good people in these neighborhoods, but the scum rule these places. Until they are delt with, the schools in those neighborhoods won't change.

Union flexibility? I doubt any affiliate of the NEA or AFT would approve a tiered contract with teacher benefits defined by the needs of a school.

5:01 PM  
Anonymous Lori Jablonski said...

This report, like other snippets I’ve read from Ed Trust raises many good if rather obvious points. Yes, teacher quality is HUGE. I can’t believe that folks even argue about this. What rankles me about Ed Trust is their penchant for implying that those who also insist on talking very plainly about poverty and its impacts on students’ lives, learning outcomes and teaching realities are somehow demeaning the contribution of teachers or harboring racist or classist assumptions about student ability and acheivement. Too often, it seems, high poverty schools are very challenging environments to work in – and I’m referring now to factors in addition to what the students bring to the classroom. Years of working under mediocre administrators, teaching in sweltering classrooms (on my mind now because I’m teaching summer school to 36 kids packed into a classroom without a functioning air conditioning system… it has been well over 100 degrees for the past three days! ), operating without enough textbooks or supplies take their toll. So does the ongoing stress of functioning as a basic social service provider in addition to a teacher. Oh sure, some teachers can avoid this by never inquiring about the kid’s horrendous teeth or why the child has missed three weeks of school or where the student is living after mom or dad went to jail… But by and large these types are not the effective teachers we’re so worried about keeping.

A very talented friend of mine with six years experience just bolted for a neighboring, suburban district. She taught ESL and students far below grade level; she loved them, they loved her and test score dates shows that she was effective. So why did she go? For starters, her new district offers two state of the art computer labs for each academic department. Our school has one lab of 35 computers (each still running Windows 98) for the entire 2500 student body. Her classroom will be big and well-ventilated, equipped with a projection system and a smart white board. Class size will be 25-27 ; ours is 35. She will also get a classroom budget of $300. Even with all that, she never really considered leaving until this past year. (I should add that while she will make slightly more per year for the next four years, the salary schedule will match ours after that; she will actually give up some significant benefits in terms of health care and retirement, so at best her decision financially is somewhat of a wash.)

What pushed her was an attack this year by a 15-year-old girl who grabbed her, pushed her into a stairway and finally threatened to kill her. The spark? My friend had admonished the girl for her foul language. The student was suspended, charges were filed (we have a full-time officer on campus), but it took months before the district actually expelled her (not unusual, in fact usually the district just shuffles the students over to other schools). In the meantime, she repeatedly came onto campus and continued to hurl threats. In addition, her family got into the act, came on campus several times also making threats against my friend. Restraining orders were eventually filed, but my friend felt uneasy all year.

Certainly, such things occur in more well-heeled communities, but I think we all know that students and faculty in high poverty, urban school districts face enormous challenges relating to violence, discipline, student health and safety-- in addition to all the academic ones--and lack the resources and, yes, in some cases the will to both compassionately and effectively counter these problems. As our public sphere continues to shrink our society is growing ever more adept at ignoring the enormous toll of both generational and situational poverty…our public schools seem to be the only place left where the realities are revealed-that is to those who truly want to see it. I’m not sure the folks at Ed Trust are even that interested.

Rethinking tenure, pay-for-performance, drafting the stars and sabbaticals are all juicy things to talk about, but, truly, they are just nibbling around the edges. They are also solutions that seem cobbled together based on the sterility of data sets. Where are the interviews with teachers who used to work in high poverty schools and then chose to leave? How about really talking and listening to the them? Most of the good teachers I’ve been fortunate to work with want to practice their craft in functional environments with functional administrators at the helm. A few thousands dollars a year either way is not the deciding factor of whether they stay or go.

Reading about the gains your school has made certainly speaks to the need to attract and keep high quality teachers in high poverty schools (actually I have always believed this). But it also seems that supporting the teachers at your school is a very effective principal and additional resources to mitigate some of the issues in your students’ lives, resources which have been deployed quite well. I’ve also read that your school risks losing some of these resources if you continue to gain on your test scores. Utterly absurd. As that possibility demonstrates, Ed Trust only gets part of it. It is indeed possible—in fact essential— to demand and work for better teachers at the same time we very forthrightly recognize and reckon with the impact of poverty on our students’ lives and our lives as teachers.

Too lengthy and rambling I know...but you always manage to get me thinking. Thanks and happy summer.

7:21 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Polski, how would you "deal with" the "scum"?

12:11 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Thanks for writing, Lori; it was neither too long nor too rambling.

Let me ask you a question, because you're right, I do work in a school with a tremendous principal leader and excellent staff: To what extent do you believe the level of violence in a school is a function of the quality of the staff and adults leading the school? How much can be controlled and how much would still exist, even given unthinkably high levels of adult-quality?

4:34 PM  
Anonymous Lori Jablonski said...

Obviously, the level of violence within a school can be greatly reduced with excellent administrators and staff, well supported with resources and effective policies. Talented teachers raise students’ comfort level and buy-in and are often able to diffuse tensions in the classrooms before they boil over. They know their stuff. They’re comfortable around kids—actually like being with them--and comfortable with the discipline techniques they employ. They’re fair (fairness is not always rigidly consistent). They make every attempt to engage parents or caregivers and they really try to figure out what’s going on in their students’ lives and then respond accordingly. Talented administrators support their teachers, take appropriate action quickly, don’t dodge responsibility, advocate at the district level on behalf of their staff and students, set a tone of respect and purpose that permeates the entire school environment, know what is going on in the classrooms, involve parents, actually get out of their office and walk around the campus for a good part of the day, get to know students’ names...

Talented teachers and administrators don’t go home with the kids though. I hope I don’t bore you with another story, but here goes: two years ago, school opened with the news that the parents of three of our students were shot and killed during a robbery of their store. One of the students was in my government class…I bet no one would be surprised that she had a hell of time concentrating or even caring about school all year.

Months later, one of our students (who was serving a three-day suspension at the time) was shot and killed in front of the sandwich shop a half a block away from the school. This happened immediately after school with dozens of kids as witnesses. Television station reported the shooting was gang related. The police eventually refuted that saying a fight over a girl precipitated the killing. Gang tensions exploded on campus, with huge fights at lunch and many parents keeping their kids at home for well over a week.

Shortly after that, a just-expelled student was killed while breaking into a local Asian market. It seems one of the owners was so sick of all the recent burglaries he decided to sleep there with a loaded gun at his side. The next night, well over a hundred kids congregated on a street corner for a candlight memorial to their friend. The vigil was held in rival gang territory, apparently deliberately; drive by shooters sprayed the crowd and one of my students was shot several times in the leg. Once again, gang tensions boiled over. Honestly, we probably weren’t at our best with the teaching or the learning that year.

I’ll stop for now with the observation that we do our public schools no favors by insisting incredibly capable teachers, backed by good administrators, can themselves counter the debilitating impacts of poverty, violence, crime, social dysfunction, underemployment etc. No one has ever been able to answer for me why insisting on both excellent, well-supported teachers in our schools AND focused anti-poverty efforts in our communities are mutually exclusive goals. Failing to compelling point out the impacts of poverty and all its associated manifestations on what we do and what our students bring into the classroom really lets our elected policymakers and in fact all of us as citizens off the hook. It cheapens our discourse and only serves to further erode any sense of public responsibility and accountability. I’m just losing patience with the implication that all we need are high expectations and excellent, accountable teachers to address the most pressing and enduring social issues in this nation. Cool…everyone else gets a pass.

9:58 PM  
Anonymous Lori Jablonski said...

Me again. I just checked out my response; I really do need to proof read before I post. Oh well. By the way, it is possible to take paid sabbaticals in my district. Maybe I'll look into it at some point.

11:33 PM  
Anonymous Lori Jablonski said...

Good comments regarding union flexiblilty. Decentralized districts and bargaining units in theory should work to improve flexibility...All but one of the comprehensive high schools in my district is designated Title 1...our issues are quite different than the more affluent communities in the foothills and our contract reflects that. One of the reasons our negotiating team works hard to protect benefits and pensions (packages that are generally significantly more generous than neighboring districts) is to actually retain teachers for the long haul --something that, again in theory, should benefit our students too.

Alterations in contractual minutes is constantly under discussion here. Yes, it is controversial, but largely because the district has been so loathe to actually pony up more pay for more time. Teachers are generally quite receptive to exploring schedule and school day alterations and have made a myriad of proposals themselves..they get nervous when the tradeoff is losing prep time and increasing the number of students we're responsible for each day or each year (without any increase in support or resources...our district is $10 million in debt owing partly to a pension fund scam perpetrated by former top district officials; we are also heavily funded by Gates and Carnegie, which adds more layers of -- well, to be polite, I'll just call it bureaucratic complexity). So often, these concerns are criticized as pro-adult and anti-kid...I would counter that in these cases the interests of adults and kids are in-synch.

Now, I have a question for you: the schools that you mentioned as successfully altering their school day and schedule...did the bargaining units in question eventually accede to the changes? Were the unions eventually flexible (I'm not really concerned if the unit as a whole was happy, just whether it finally agreed) or are the schools essentially unilaterally implementing these changes without unit agreement? I am quite interested in how these changes were accomplished and what they look like in terms of the contract.

I think I've now completely passed my quota of tolerable blog commenting...your musings however are essential...this is the type of stuff us public schoolniks should be openly discussing.

10:29 AM  
Blogger TMAO said...


I appreciate everything you've posted here and in no way feel it is too long or too lengthy, so please, keep with it. You're right of course, teachers have limited range to immediately bring about change in their communities. That type of societal change is achieved or impacted only long-term, only when the education imparted is translated into social capital. Personally, I've found I become distracted into dysfunction whenever I attempt to directly alter the day-to-day realities of life outside of my room or school. It's their, it colors everything I do and try to do, but I can barely scratch at it. What a shitty Catch-22.

As for the schools I mentioned, the majority managed to perform their scheduling gymnastics without contractual change. I remember reading the plans and thinking about how the principles of student grouping and targeted instruction could be vastly improved with some additional add-ons. It is the add-ons of course, that take people outside the contract.

My own school developed a plan that lengthened the school day by 51 instructional minutes and built in paid collaboration time by scheduling a late-start day for students. It required union and district support. The district thought it was great, the union didn't, and I remember us spending what felt like an entire summer lobbying and refusing to accept the myriad of no-answers, until finally we were approved on the force of regional officer approval, rather than anything like support from the local body. We've since developed ways to achieve the same result without needing to make contractual ammendments, which I think is good for everyone.

9:08 PM  
Blogger KC said...

Just a note about sabbaticals...

One high tech employer I worked for offered a 6-week sabbatical after 4 years. We loved it. It was a great recruiting carrot and a motivator.

But the employer found that many people quit immediately after taking their sabbatical. Far from recharging everyone's batteries, it seemed like an anchor that held many people on the job just long enough to get the benefit, then bye-bye!

In the end they determined that it was still a win-win benefit -- that holding people longer was worthwhile, and giving them a space to realize they were burned out or unmotivated or... was also good for the workplace. They still offer the sabbatical.

The moral is that sabbaticals are good as a reward and as a carrot to recruit and retain people longer. But don't necessarily expect them to come back strong for another tour of duty. Some will. Some won't. The one's that do will be re-energized. The one that don't will not be missed.

3:32 PM  

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