So Now They Trust Teachers?

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In the aftermath of yet another school shooting, our national debate has centered around a handful of “solutions” that can be categorized into three groups:

We have the “no guns” crowd (masquerading as the “fewer guns” crowd) who believe that passing a series of laws making it harder for people to buy firearms is the answer.

There’s the “people not guns” contingent who believe we don’t do enough about those with mental health problems and who blame the coarsening of our culture (usually due to those damn videos games and Hollywood movies!) for turning people into unfeeling monsters.

Then we have the “more guns” folks who believe if we just put more weapons in schools then the would-be child killers would stay home or at least shoot up some other densely populated place. They recommend schools hire armed security guards or want laws that allow teachers to pack heat.

I won’t go into all of these proposed solutions, but I must admit to rolling my eyes at those who want to arm teachers. Many of them are the same people who think American education sucks and it’s the fault of lazy, untrustworthy educators.

I’m tempted to shout, “Oh, so now you trust us!” Because they certainly haven’t up to this point.

While politicians may talk about including teachers more, they continue to make policy without asking us. School boards make decisions without our input. Administrators establish policies that betray their true feelings about the people working under them. The treatment of teachers leaves little room for doubt: Most people, inside education and outside of it, think we’re not worthy of trust.

If your school district bans videos or requires you to get permission to show them, it’s because they don’t trust you to use them as instructional tools instead of as time wasters.

If your district requires you to show up when class is not in session to do administrative work, it’s because they don’t trust you to manage your own time and get the work done when and where you want.

If your district tracks the number of sick days you’ve used and levels insinuations, it’s because they don’t trust that you’re using them appropriately.

If your district counts the number of copies you make and makes teachers feel guilty for making them, it’s because they don’t trust you to make decisions about instructional resources (and also because they’re cheap).

If your district provides one-size-fits-all professional development, it’s because they don’t trust teachers to professionally develop themselves if they were simply given paid time to do so.

If your administration requires you to meet in PLCs and collects agendas from those meetings, it’s because they don’t trust you to use the time how you best see fit.

If the threat of evaluations is used to get teachers to use “best practices,” it’s because they’re not trusted to use them on their merits or figure out what works on their own.

If your district requires you to teach a Board-adopted program with strict fidelity, it’s because they don’t think much of your teaching abilities.

If you’re required to adhere to a pacing guide, it’s because you’re not trusted to determine what and how much instruction and practice your students need.

If administrator walkthroughs are evaluative instead of supportive, it’s because you’re not trusted to do your job.

If you need to seek approval before trying anything new, it’s because you’re not trusted to make decisions.

If you’re required to turn in lesson plans, it’s because you’re not trusted to design good lessons or even to follow the prescribed program that lays out all the lessons for you.

What’s baffling is there seems to be little reason for the lack of trust. Most teachers receive high ratings from their principals. In surveys, the public consistently rates teachers as some of the most trustworthy professionals in the workforce. Even students think their teachers are pretty good. The average score for teachers on Ratemyteachers.com is 4.46 out of 5.

So while it might be tempting to think that, when it comes to protecting our students’ lives, politicians have decided that teachers can finally be trusted, you’ll understand my skepticism. You don’t trust me to do my job, but you trust me to handle a gun? How’s that?

The truth is that arming teachers has nothing to do with trusting them. You don’t suddenly hand a firearm to the same people you’ve been micromanaging. It has everything to do with money and a lack of political will to actually address the problems. The reasons some politicians are suggesting we arm teachers is because:

They don’t like spending money on education, and school districts would expect additional funding to hire trained security guards. Little if any additional money is needed to allow teachers to carry their own pieces.
A cynic might suggest that arming teachers is simply another way to sell more guns, which is just what the powerful gun lobby wants.
Such a law would provide convenient scapegoats every time there’s a shooting.

Here’s how you know this isn’t about trust: Because once again, no one has asked teachers what they think about a law that would directly influence them and their students.

But hey, at least if states allow teachers to arm themselves, then when another shooting does happen, politicians won’t have to blame their own inaction, or guns, or inadequate mental health care, or video games. They can blame the teachers, who either weren’t brave enough to fire back or weren’t selfless enough to arm themselves, even though they didn’t want and shouldn’t have that responsibility in the first place.

Then the gutless politicians can point where they’re used to pointing and say, “Well, we shouldn’t have trusted them.”

Why Pay a Great Teacher When You Can Hire a Cheap One?

Let’s say you have just been named your state’s teacher of the year. You have three years worth of data showing that students learn more in your class than in your colleagues’ classes. You might even have data showing that your students typically gain 1.5 years of growth in their ten months with you. Students love you. Parents love you. Hell, even your principal loves you. By any measure, you are an all-star. Congratulations.

Now what?

I can tell you what won’t happen. You will not be headhunted. You won’t be poached. Wealthy districts won’t engage in a bidding war to land you. You will not be taking your talents to South Beach.

There are only two explanations for this:

Despite what nearly everyone in education says — including every administrator I’ve ever met — district decision-makers don’t actually believe teachers make much of an impact.

Or:

District leaders know teachers make an impact, but they’re not willing to pay for it.

I think both are true. Most teachers don’t interact with every student in a building, much less a district. Superintendents may not be able to justify paying more for great teachers because such teachers will only impact a small percentage of their overall student population. Still, most district leaders probably realize that while such teachers’ direct influence might be limited, they can serve as mentors and role models for other teachers. Their high performance can enhance the reputation of an entire building. Hire more than a few and new families might even be attracted to the district.

No, I think most district leaders would love to have great teachers in their buildings, which means they’re unwilling to pay for them. They’re cheap. Regrettably, they’re right to be. These leaders recognize an ugly truth about pubic education in America:

There is a much greater incentive to control costs than there is to produce great students.

When it comes right down to it and a choice must be made, money matters more than kids.

At the state legislative level, education costs a lot of money. Legislators are reluctant to part with it. Republican legislators are especially unwilling because that would make it harder to lower taxes and balance budgets (something they used to claim they cared about). And they really don’t want to give schools more money because a lot of that money will end up in the hands of teachers, who will then turn over a portion of that money to their unions, who will then fight to get them out of office.

The amount of money a district gets is fixed. It can’t spend more than it has. School boards do what they can to keep from harming students, but they’re constrained. In the case of public schools, mismanagement of funds is much more likely to result in harsh consequences than poor academic outcomes. There is therefore a stronger incentive to keep costs under control than there is to increase achievement.

Let’s consider a hypothetical. A school district commits itself to producing better students. It decides it’s going to go out and hire the best teachers it can find (how they would identify these teachers is another matter). Nothing prevents them from offering a signing bonus to these teachers, so they cut elsewhere to come up with extra money that they will use to attract great teachers to work in their schools.

Let’s say it works. Scores rise. Kids learn more. Test scores increase. More kids go to college. The reputation of the school is burnished. Parents are fighting to get their kids in the door.

Where does that leave our district? They’d feel proud of their work. They might even use their success in marketing efforts to attract a few more students and receive a few more state dollars in return. But it’s eventually going to lead to money problems. The state isn’t going to reward the district with more cash for having greater success. So the district will be forced to cut costs down the road, and pretty soon they won’t be able to pay those great teachers what they were paying them before. And they won’t be able to lure more outstanding educators to their district. They’ll end up back where they started.

Critics of education often want schools to be run more like businesses. But when businesses succeed, there’s more money for everyone. Successful employees are rewarded. Companies go out and hire the best they can find. Money is invested back in the business. Success begets success in a virtuous cycle.

But in education, where funds are limited by state governments and better performance doesn’t result in more money, schools have a much greater incentive to watch their bottom lines. And if improving education outcomes raises costs, then you can be pretty sure those improvements won’t last. So to answer the title question, Why should you pay a great teacher when you can hire a cheap one?

As things stand right now, you shouldn’t.

 

 

Why Schools Shouldn’t Reward Attendance

I saw something on Twitter the other day. Somebody had created a nifty bulletin board. It listed the names of all the kids with outstanding attendance for each grade level in the school. The board’s creator had obviously spent a lot of time on it. On its face, it seemed like an awesome idea. Lots of Twitter people hit the heart. I commented, but sort of lied because I don’t like criticizing teachers on social media. Teaching is hard, and most of the things I now disagree with I used to do. I said I struggled with the idea of publicly acknowledging kids for attendance. In reality, there’s no struggle.

I’ve evolved from a teacher who used to create fancy certificates to present to those with two or fewer absences during an award ceremony on the last day of school to one who hardly mentions attendance to his students at all. Here’s why my thinking changed, and why I think bulletin boards like the one I saw on Twitter are well-intentioned but ultimately misguided.

It’s Not The Kids

If you want to get on your high school students about dragging themselves into your class ten minutes late on a regular basis, then go for it (although you may want to consider that your school’s start time and adolescents’ circadian rhythms are unaligned). But I teach third graders and the bulletin board referenced above was for a K-5 elementary school. Third graders don’t decide to stay home from school. They don’t drive to McDonald’s five minutes before the day starts. They don’t roll in late because they hit the snooze bar too many times.

I have a student this year who is almost always late. I know why. It’s not her fault. It does no good for me to get on her case about it. There’s nothing she can do.

There are lots of reasons a student might be absent or late. Some of those reasons are good ones, like they’re sick or had a dental appointment. Some are bad, like they pretended to be sick or they stayed up too late playing Minecraft. No matter the reason, it’s almost always on the parents.

I was a kid. I pretended to be sick because I didn’t want to go to school. My mom wouldn’t let me get away with it. If I wanted to sleep in– and believe me, I did–my mom got me out of bed. That’s what parents do.  That’s their job, and when they don’t do it, it isn’t their kid’s fault.

When elementary students are absent or late, it’s almost always either for a good reason or a parent fail. And for that reason, students shouldn’t be awarded or criticized. They’ve done nothing to deserve either.

Sometimes, Kids Should Stay Home

I used to offer a class party when we hit attendance milestones. For every 20 days of perfect class attendance, I’d throw a party. I hoped it would encourage kids to show up. If they weren’t feeling 100% before school, I thought the incentive would make them think twice before asking to stay home. If they got a stomachache after lunch, I wanted them to gut it out for the team.

That was dumb. Sometimes, kids should stay home or leave school early.

I don’t want them in class if they’re sick. Not only will they not learn much if they’re genuinely ill, but they’ll tell me about it all day, which is really annoying. There’s also a decent chance they’ll make other kids (or worse, me) sick. With the flu being what it is this winter, I pray every day when I send my child out the door that her classmates’ parents are keeping their sick kids home.

One year, I had a student who lost his father in a terrible accident. In May of that year, I was scrolling through the attendance numbers of my class. I congratulated a couple of kids on how few days they had missed. A lot of them wanted to know their number of absences. So I told them. When this boy asked me and I told him ten, he was shocked. I gave him a few seconds to figure it out. When he didn’t, I said, “You missed a week in March.” Thankfully, he remembered and I didn’t have to say anymore.

But I felt like a jerk for even talking about attendance. What you reward, you get. And if you reward attendance, you’ll get it. That might not be a good thing. If they’re sick, I want students at home. If there is a tragedy in their family, I want them with their family. They shouldn’t be made to feel like they’re letting people down about either.

There’s More to Life

School is often referred to as kids’ jobs. It’s a crappy comparison, but even if we go along with it, do we really want to be responsible for perpetuating Americans’ obsession with work? I’ve never understood people’s pride in never missing a day on the job. It’s like bragging that you prioritized working for others over your family and yourself. There’s so much more to life.

I never have a problem with students missing a week to go on a family vacation. I’m cool with Take Your Child To Work day. If a parent wants to pull their kid out of school for the first day of deer season, or to celebrate the child’s birthday, or to sign them out early for gymnastics class, or to get down to the stadium early so they can watch batting practice with dad, I’m fine with it. Learning happens outside of school, too. And we should send the message that school, like work, shouldn’t take priority over our families or our passions.

Kids who are in school every day haven’t done anything to deserve our praise. And they certainly haven’t done anything to earn a reward. They’re lucky. They’ve won lotteries. They have responsible parents who value education (maybe too much?), and they were fortunate to not get sick or have life happen to them for ten months out of the year.

Those kids have already won.

Why “Time-on-Task” Hurts Kids (and Test Scores)

There are a number of phrases in education that make me wince every time I hear them and “time-on-task” is right up there with “strict fidelity.” Time-on-task refers to the amount of time students are actively engaged in learning.

The thinking goes like this: The more of something people do, the better they get at it. Therefore, if we have students for seven hours each day, we should maximize their time-on-task so they’ll learn more stuff and get higher test scores. We shouldn’t waste a minute, and we certainly shouldn’t squander time on breaks and recesses.

That kind of thinking is wrong.

Before we get to the academic reasons why schools should build in more breaks for students, let’s start with this simple fact: It’s humane.

The United Nations recognizes this. The Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners states, “Every prisoner who is not employed in outdoor work shall have at least one hour of suitable exercise in the open air daily if the weather permits.” Maybe the UN should weigh in on recess time.

There’s also the law of diminishing returns. Put simply, doing more of something only works up to a point. After that point, performance suffers. This is seen in every field and there’s no reason to think it doesn’t happen to kids and their learning.

In one study, researchers recruited 31 students to learn a difficult computer task. The participants were split into three groups. A control group spent one hour training. A second group spent two hours on the task without stopping. A third group also trained for two hours, but they were given a one-hour break between sessions.

On the second day of the study, the control group had mastered the task better than the two-hour group, despite training for only half the time. Those who were given a break also outperformed the nonstop workers, even though the two groups had spent the same total time on the task. (SOURCE)

DeskTime, a productivity app that tracks employees’ computer use, looked at its data to study the behavior of its most productive workers. The highest-performing 10 percent tended to work for 52 straight minutes followed by a 17-minute break. Those 17 minutes were often spent away from the computer, said Julia Gifford at The Muse, by taking a walk, doing exercises, or talking to coworkers. (SOURCE)

Or consider the study of violinists conducted by performance expert Anders Ericsson at the Berlin Academy of Music. The best of the violinists practiced in sessions no longer than 90 minutes, and they took a break in between each one. They almost never practiced more than 4 ½ hours in a day. They  understood the law of diminishing returns.

Breaks aren’t just important for students’ performance and well-being, they’re essential.

In his newest book, When, Daniel Pink shares some research from Danish schools that found that the time of day students took national standardized tests impacted their scores. Pink writes:

“Students scored higher in the morning than in the afternoons. Indeed, for every hour later in the day the tests were administered, scores fell a little more. The effects of later-in-the-day testing were similar to having parents with slightly lower incomes or less education–or missing two weeks of a school year.”

It would seem that a simple way to improve student test scores would be to simply move testing times to the morning. But researchers discovered what might be an even easier remedy.

When those same Danish students had a twenty- to thirty-minute break to “eat, play, and chat” before a test, their scores increased. Researchers concluded that scores went down in the afternoon, but they went up by a higher amount after breaks. Pink writes:

“Taking a test after a twenty- to thirty-minute break leads to scores that are equivalent to students spending three additional weeks in the classroom and having somewhat wealthier and better-educated parents. And the benefits were greatest for the lowest-performing students.”

The irony — and it’s rich — is that schools’ intent on maximizing “time-on-task” to the extent that their students aren’t given frequent breaks, especially in the afternoon, is actually sabotaging their own stated goal of improving student test scores.

Instead of adding days or hours to the calendar, or forcing our lowest students to do even more work, we need only to acknowledge the law of diminishing returns. Kids should be allowed to do as the violinists do and take more breaks.

Pink helpfully offers suggestions based on research about what kinds of breaks work best:

Short and Frequent

Short, frequent breaks are more effective than occasional, longer ones. Which means most schools do recess wrong. It would be better to have students run around for five minutes after each 45-minute learning block than it would be to give one 30-minute recess in the afternoon with no other breaks.

Move

Having students use technology during their breaks is better than no break at all, but getting them moving is better.

Be Social

We are social animals. Time alone can be good, but time with others, especially if students get to choose who those others are, is better.

Get Outside

Research shows that people who take short walks outside return with better moods and greater replenishment than people who walk inside. Nature seems to have a rehabilitating effect on people.

Detach

Don’t ask students to multi-task during breaks. Don’t have them keep working on their papers while eating a snack. That’s not productive. For the best breaks, get students out of the classroom doing things that have nothing to do with learning.

I’m sure you’ve already figured out that the easiest way schools could accomplish all of the above is by giving kids frequent outdoor recesses. People often complain that education hasn’t changed in 100 years. This is one example of how it would be better for kids (and test scores) if that was true.

 

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Deyshia Hargrave, Salary Schedules, and the Bad Options for Dissatisfied Veteran Teachers

This past week, Louisiana middle school teacher Deyshia Hargrave was thrust into the national spotlight after a marshal removed her from a school board meeting, pushed her to the floor, and arrested her for having the audacity to question her superintendent about the $38,000 pay raise (and car) he’d just accepted.*

Hargrave graduated from college in 2007, which means she’s been teaching for about 10 years. In 2016, she was named her district’s Teacher of the Year. She’s pursuing a master’s degree in administration. She’s reportedly outspoken, described as a “passionate education advocate,” who has “given her voice for many of those she works with,” according to the school’s write-up of her award.

She’s also clearly disgruntled. Her comments reflected frustration over teacher pay, burgeoning class sizes, increasing hoops to jump through, and a lack of recognition for the hard work teachers had done to improve scores in the district. She called the superintendent’s raise a “slap in the face.” That’s a teacher who’s not real happy with her employer. So what are her options, and if you find yourself in a similarly dissatisfying situation, what are yours?

In his book Originals, Adam Grant identified four options every disgruntled employee has. They are:

  1. Persistence — You grin (or don’t) and bear it. You keep working hard, accepting that nothing is going to change.
  2. Neglect — You mail it in. You show up but just go through the motions. Neglect describes the 57% of teachers who are not engaged at work.
  3. Voice — You try to change your circumstances by speaking up and fighting for change.
  4. Exit — You quit your job and find one with better circumstances.

If you take no action, the status quo persists. So only two of those have the chance of changing your situation.

You can work to improve things or you can walk.

Hargrave has obviously chosen to fight.  That’s a perilous choice in Louisiana. As she herself referenced in her comments, Louisiana legislators, assuming, as many legislatures have this last decade, that their teachers are likely pretty shitty, passed Act 1, which weakened tenure protections and gave principals and superintendents the final authority in personnel decisions, meaning they can more easily cast off the dead weight (or, you know, teachers that are mouthy and bring negative attention to their districts).

Hargrave explained that she was speaking for others because they were afraid. “I feel like I’m speaking on behalf of more than just myself, more than just Kaplan teachers, I’m speaking as a group,” she said. But given Lousiana’s legislators’ contempt for teachers, one has to wonder what will become of Hargrave when the furor dies down and the illumination of the national spotlight turns away.

The only other option Hargrave has is to leave. No one could blame her if she did. After all, I don’t know too many people who would want to continue working for:

  • a boss they don’t respect
  • a district that doesn’t give its teachers raises for years, in spite of improved outcomes.
  • a Board that responds to legitimate concerns voiced at a public meeting with removal and arrest
  • A Board President that refers to a former Teacher of the Year as a “poor little woman.” SOURCE

But here again, teachers like Hargrave are presented with a dilemma. While leaving might make the most sense, it’s not such an easy choice for a veteran teacher. If you’re an engineer who feels disrespected by your employer, you can quit and go work somewhere else without much consequence. Same goes for doctors, lawyers, managers, and nearly every other professional. Indeed, research shows that those who change jobs frequently make more money over their careers. (Read why here.)

But thanks to salary schedules and the way incentives work in education, Hargrave can’t leave without sacrificing thousands of dollars. Having 10 or so years in with her district, she stands to ruin her career earnings if she opts to leave a place where she’s grown disgruntled.

Here is her district’s salary schedule:

She’s probably making somewhere around $42,000 a year. In a just world, a former Teacher of the Year with a track record of results would be able to send her resume to nearby districts and make more money. But that’s not what happens in education. There is a far greater incentive for districts to control costs than there is to improve student achievement. So even though Hargrave (and thousands of other veteran teachers across this country) could improve a district’s outcomes, most won’t pay them for their expertise. Hargrave would be lucky to get five years and she’d most likely start at Step 1 in her new district, costing her thousands of dollars.

Hargrave is doing the only thing a veteran teacher who wants the benefits of mobility can do: become an administrator. One study in Texas found that the average tenure for a high school principal is just over three years. It’s not because principals are especially nomadic. Education is hard. People get worn out and seek a fresh start. Administrators can start anew without taking a huge hit in pay. Teachers, thanks to salary schedules and hiring districts’ penny-pinching, can’t.

We can feel bad for Hargrave. But this is about thousands of effective, dissatisfied veteran teachers just like her. Some of them risk their careers by fighting for change. Some give up and quit the profession altogether. Some quietly persist. But many, many teachers are just showing up, going through the motions, putting in the hours until they can retire. That’s bad for everybody, but given their poor options, can anyone really blame them?

 

SOURCE: Deyshia Hargrave: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

* Technically, she was arrested for “remaining after being forbidden” and resisting an officer. But she was removed for asking her boss a question that the Board President deemed non-germane, even though it was totally germane.