Some Predictions as the New School Year Arrives…

With the arrival of the new school year, what can we expect?  Here are 6 predictions and a big question.

Prediction #1. More school districts will back away from relying  heavily on standardized test scores to hold teachers accountable. It seems to me that many educators and other leaders are aware what often results from ‘test-based accountability’: cheating, low morale, higher absenteeism/truancy, and growth in homeschooling.

When Washington, DC, Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced that she was putting her system’s method of judging and firing teachers (based primarily on bubble scores) on hold, the US Department of Education expressed dismay, but Henderson deserves credit for acknowledging that the approach [1] was causing more trouble than it was worth. Not only has DC’s central office budget been bloated by the cadre of highly-paid ‘inspectors,’ but test scores have flattened, while cheating incidents continue to be an issue.

Henderson cited the support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for a moratorium. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo now supports a moratorium on the use of test scores, something long advocated by the American Federation of Teachers and their state and local affiliates in the state.

I think we will see more of this. Whether the Department of Education wakes up to a new reality is the big unknown.

I believe that the best possible outcome of a widespread moratorium would be a concerted effort to create a useful and reliable way of judging teachers and the schools they work in.  “Multiple measures” rolls easily off the tongue, but we need to agree on what those measures are.[2]

Prediction #2. The tide may turn in the ongoing ‘war against teachers.’  We will hear more from Diane Ravitch and other defenders of the profession, and less from the attacking crowd.

Diane Ravitch is energized.  Her blog recently received its 14 millionth page view.  That remarkable number, 14,000,000, seems to be inspiring the tireless Dr. Ravitch to work even harder.

Ravitch’s principal antagonist, Michelle Rhee, has announced that she won’t be leading the organization she founded in 2011, StudentsFirst. She says her intention is to work with her husband, the Mayor of Sacramento, and serve as a Director of the company that makes Miracle-Gro, [3] but it’s also accurate to point out that her audience had shrunk considerably and that her organization has also been contracting in size and influence.

Expect Campbell Brown, a former TV journalist, to fill the gap. She’s smart and photogenic, and she apparently [4] has inherited the financial backing of many who once supported Rhee.  She’s reduced the pitch to its most basic talking point–‘tenure protects bad teachers and hurts kids’–and hasn’t gone into political battles in states and communities the way Rhee did.  To the right wing, Brown may seem preferable to Rhee. For one thing, she doesn’t have a track record to attack. Say what you will about Rhee, she at least has been in the arena, working with schools, parents, teachers and students.  Brown can’t be attacked for her failed policies because she doesn’t seem to have any.

Is the tide turning?  I have been talking with teachers who are not active in their unions.  One told me that she feels that public support is stronger now than at any time in her career.  “I think they understand how hard the work is,” she said.  Then she added a provocative insight.  “The public sees teaching as a calling more than a profession, and they are probably right.”  And because it’s a calling, she said, “We are too easy to push around. We are nurturers, not fighters.”

So, is ‘nurturing’ a profession?  Can a few million nurturers be part of a profession that refuses to be pushed around and taken advantage of?

Prediction #3: There will not be a letdown in the attacks on the two teacher unions, because that’s the right wing’s mantra–teacher unions are the source of most, if not all, of education’s problems.  I wonder what they make of the data that shows a high correlation between positive educational outcomes and strong unions, and the reverse: lousy results and weak unions. I know that correlation is not cause, but come on….

Teacher unions have enough problems (sometimes of their own making) without being recklessly attacked. Their membership is down, even though the teaching force is growing larger.  Some younger members are questioning their leadership’s strong support of LIFO, ‘last in, first out.’ A few state and local chapters are upset about the national leadership’s using so much money for political action [5].

I have a sneaking suspicion that many of those attacking the NEA and the AFT are not particularly concerned about “education.”  Instead, they are fundamentally opposed to unions per se. They represent management/capital in the unending struggle between labor and management. Teacher unions are a prime target because private employer unions are weak and because teachers are public employees with strong and effective unions.

Prediction #4: The media will pay attention to preschool, a good thing. The first stories will be of the feel-good variety about kids toddling off to get hugs, naps and cookies. But then there will be stories about unprepared teachers (probably true) and weak programs (also true, most likely). Please keep in mind that the alternatives for these children were worse.

Prediction #5: The Common Core brouhaha will get louder as public support weakens–which it has, according to the new Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup poll. “Most Americans (60%) oppose the Common Core State Standards, fearing that the standards will limit the flexibility of the teachers in their communities to teach what they think is best,” the report says.

Education Week is reporting that many teachers don’t feel prepared.

And you know that the politics will continue to be nasty. Some opponents of the Common Core are fighting it because they oppose any and all federal involvement in education. They’re perfectly happy to spread half-truths if it aids their cause. [6]

In another conversation, a teacher told me that the Common Core “has opened up teaching [7] for me because it’s foundational and leaves lots of room for creativity.”  She said that it had been put into effect ‘really quickly’ and that she and her colleagues didn’t have enough time to prepare, but she added her approval. “This tells us what is expected of us, and that’s what we need to know.” [8]

I love that veteran teacher’s common sense: “Tell us what we are expected to teach but don’t tell us how to teach it.”  Amen..

Prediction #6: Expect continuing turmoil in the teaching force. The resident guru regarding teacher data is Professor Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania, and he reports that 41% of new teachers leave within five years [9].  Any competent business leader can tell you that even the simplest of businesses–say, fast food–is hurt by constant turnover.  Churn in teaching is particularly high in schools in low-income neighborhoods, places often lacking in stability.

His report is worth your attention.

Ingersoll and his colleagues report on the changes within the profession as the teaching force grows larger.  Our middle and secondary schools apparently have about 50% more subject-area teachers, but there’s been a significant redistribution–winners and losers.

Among the losers are art, music, and physical education. Among the winners, besides special education, are mathematics and science. The number of teachers with mathematics or mathematics education degrees went up by 74 percent from the late 1980s to 2008. The number of teachers with degrees in one of the sciences or in science education went up by 86 percent. Although there are two and a half times as many general elementary teachers as mathematics and science teachers, the increase in math and science teachers accounts for almost 15 percent of the overall ballooning. Interestingly, the data also show that the fastest rate of increase among mathematics and science teachers occurred during the 1990s, before the advent of the No Child Left Behind Act.

What concerns some teachers I’ve spoken with is not the churn as much as the replacements.  One  veteran says the new teachers are simply not prepared to meet the needs of low income minority children. “It’s not their fault,” she said, “but they just are not prepared to teach children whose home situations may be unstable, who may be transient, and who often have huge gaps in their social and educational background.”  I asked her if she was talking about teachers from schools of education or from Teach for America?  “Both,” she said emphatically.

The Big Question: Can Teaching Become a Well-Respected Profession?  How?

Consider another observation from Ingersoll’s report: “Together, ballooning and attrition indicate a growing flux and instability in the teaching occupation, as both the number of those entering teaching and the number of those leaving teaching have been increasing in recent years.”

This phenomenon, “growing flux and instability,” has serious implications for the notion of a teaching profession.  How ‘professional’ can a profession be if 41% of those who join it abandon it within five years?  That simply does not happen in law, architecture, medicine, et cetera.

It’s easy to blame schools of education for the teaching’s low status. As I have written in this space, many of them actually benefit from churn, because they earn money training the replacements.  Just as it would be folly to expect polluters to clean up the river, it would be foolish to expect most schools of education to play a strong leadership role in strengthening teaching.

For teaching to become a genuine profession, it must be made more attractive, so that good people stay in the classroom.  We have to make it ‘easier to be’ a teacher, just as we need to raise entry standards in order to make it harder to become a teacher.

I think the problem largely resides in many school systems, which are often cavalier about their work force. Rather than invest in programs and policies that enable teachers to get better, they throw away dollars on superficial ‘professional development’ provided by outsiders and then hire cheap [10] replacements when lots of teachers leave.  A serious system would make sure that teachers had time to watch each other teach and then provide feedback.  A serious system would expect teachers to help develop curriculum and tests, and it would make sure teachers had time to do those things.  Don’t forget that America’s teachers spend significantly more hours in classrooms full of students than do their counterparts in other, more successful nations.

When I began my high school teaching in 1966, it was ‘sink or swim’ for rookies like me. Sadly, I have seen that ‘policy’ repeated time and again as a reporter.  When I mentioned that this morning, the teacher on the other end of the line nearly jumped through the phone:  “It’s still that way. My district doesn’t listen to us and doesn’t help us with problems like classroom management and lesson planning.”

Teaching won’t be a highly-regarded profession until teachers are treated like professionals, with serious pre-service training, carefully thought out opportunities to improve on the job, and significant responsibility for what is taught, how it’s taught, and how students are assessed.

But will those responsibilities just be handed over to them?  How often is power given up voluntarily?  Rarely, if ever.

But if professional responsibilities are what teachers want, then that is what they must be fighting for, not simply higher pay, fewer meetings, and more job security.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. 1. It was put in place by her predecessor, Michelle Rhee.
  2. 2. Teacher turnover is an essential component of any yardstick being used to judge schools. Where 30-40% of teachers leave every year, something is terribly wrong, and intervention is called for, in my opinion.
  3. 3. But I would not count out Michelle (Rhee) Johnson, even though she failed to raise $1 billion and recruit 1 million members.  She’s smart and determined, and she seems to thrive on being in the spotlight.
  4. 4. Like Rhee, Brown won’t say who’s paying the bills.
  5. 5. That the AFT got punished for its smokescreen contribution to the 2012 Boston mayoral race can’t have made too many members happy.  It funneled $500,000 into a New Jersey (!) political action committee, which in turn sent the money to a Massachusetts group, which then spent $480,000 on TV ads supporting the eventual winner, Marty Walsh.  The AFT was fined $30,000 and signed a consent agreement.
  6. 6. It seems to be working. The PDK/Gallup poll reports a decline in public support for federal involvement in public education, and 43% gave President Obama’s education policies a D or an F.
  7. 7. But the PDK/Gallup Poll reports, “For the 60% of Americans who oppose using the Common Core, their most important reason is that it will limit the flexibility that teachers have to teach what they think is best.” Go figure.
  8. 8. That’s in sharp contrast with what a New York teacher posted on Diane Ravitch’s blog: “Common Core was imposed on teachers by non-educators. We were fed a lot of mistruths along the way, as well. However, there would be no backlash if the CC founders gave us an educationally sound reform package. We are rejecting CC primarily because the standards in ELA are un-teachable and un-testable, abstract and subjective thinking skills – essentially content free, the math standards are the SOS shifted around in developmentally inappropriate ways using unnecessarily confusing pedagogy, and the tests tied to teacher evaluations have become the epitome of educational malpractice. Furthermore, the notion of producing educational excellence with standards that cannot be changed, altered, deleted, or improved, is insult to our profession. And until the ESEA is dealt with by Congress, we are stuck inside a very deep hole, whether we support the CC or not.”
  9. 9.  Ingersoll reports that 45% leave because of dissatisfaction, 20% because they were laid off.  Here’s a relevant graf about the 41% from his report: “(W)e have also found that these already high levels have been going up since the late 1980s. Rates of leaving for first-year teachers rose from 9.8 to 13.1 percent from 1988 to 2008—a 34 percent increase. Again, however, an increase in the annual percentage does not tell the whole story. Since the teaching force has grown dramatically larger, numerically there are far more beginners than before (Trend 3), and hence the actual numbers of teachers who quit the occupation after their first year on the job has also soared. Soon after the 1987-88 school year, about 6,000 first-year teachers left teaching, while just after the 2007-08 school year, more than four times as many—about 25,000—left the occupation. Not only are there far more beginners in the teaching force, but these beginners are less likely to stay in teaching.”
  10. 10. The replacements may be cheap, but the system is losing in lots of ways, most notably in failing to educate its human capital–kids–to their fullest potential.

14 Responses to “Some Predictions as the New School Year Arrives…”

  1. Gisele Huff 21. Aug, 2014 at 12:32 pm #

    For the most part, I agree with your predictions, John. Reformers and status-quo’ers alike should take them into account as they consider where to invest their energy and resources in what should be a joint mighty effort to assure educational success for America’s kids. In your thoughtful discussion of the professionalization of teaching, you do miss one important ingredient. Until America’s schools are brought into the 21st century with adequate broadband and technology, teachers will be the only American workers not empowered by the technological revolution. We are asking our teachers to do too much and we are not giving them the tools that are now available to do it. If we relieve teachers of the grunt work that occupies too much of their time by relegating it to computers and provided them with the data they need, we would free them to personalize learning for each and every student. Where such blended learning is in effect, most teachers and students say they would never go back to traditional methods.

    • John Merrow 21. Aug, 2014 at 1:02 pm #

      You are correct. School districts, however, must be careful to plan first, purchase next. I have heard too many stories (LA, anyone?) about districts that rushed into buying the next new thing without any real plan for using technology to expand learning opportunities.

    • Linda Johnson 28. Aug, 2014 at 9:12 pm #

      If teachers have more technology, will Gisele Huff make more money?

  2. Barbara Cambridge 21. Aug, 2014 at 12:35 pm #

    If students are engaged, they will want to learn, whether in the environment of common standards or not. Teachers, too, need to be engaged, importantly, together. The OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) reports that teachers who engage in collaborative learning have both higher confidence in their abilities and higher job satisfaction. A national survey by the National Center for Literacy Education revealed that teachers with time to collaborate feel positive about the Common Core State Standards and confident that they can create teaching materials and strategies to help students meet them.In other words, both teachers and students need the organizational conditions for student and teacher engagement and collaboration. Because we know these conditions, we can decide–or not–to invest in creating and implementing them.

  3. Robert Schaeffer 21. Aug, 2014 at 12:35 pm #

    Saw your predictions for the 2014-2015 school year and agree that the testing resistance/assessment reform movement will be a top issue.

    Here in Florida, where schools are back in session, protests are already escalating

    Check out these news reports from deep-red Southwest Florida where I live (note that at least four of the five Lee School Board members are Republicans or Libertarians)
    Large Florida County School Board Votes to Research Opting Out of Standardized Testing
    Florida District Test Opt-Out Options Legally Unclear

    As a result of Lee’s actions, the much more liberal Palm Beach School Committee, which governs the 11th largest district in the country, is considering similar actions

    This is a great, ongoing story — hope Learning Matters covers the rising tide of parents, educators and community activists who are saying “Enough is Enough!” to testing overkill

  4. Joe Beckmann 21. Aug, 2014 at 1:59 pm #

    I’m actually surprised that there has been no discussion whatsoever about the principle reason for teacher tenure: politically motivated curriculum. The reason for academic tenure at any level is not essentially “job security,” but, rather, to protect the independence of fact vs. fiction, and prevent ideology – whether creationism, fundamentalism, sexism, racism, ageism, or the wisdom of the bible (or Koran) – from being dictated by politicians. Looking at the Brown murder, or the ISIS beheading, one might think the analogy to Campbell Brown’s payoff politics should be clear enough to justify a teacher independent of a political party or politician. Or, perhaps, we might build a case that ISIS is on US Television, and not just in Iraq.

  5. John Merrow 21. Aug, 2014 at 2:57 pm #

    Here’s the BIG NEWS: Arne Duncan has backed off, Motoko Rich is reporting in The Times right now. Here’s her lead: “Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced on Thursday that states could delay the use of test results in teacher-performance ratings by another year, an acknowledgment, in effect, of the enormous pressures mounting on the nation’s teachers because of new academic standards and more rigorous standardized testing.

    Sounding like some of his fiercest critics, Mr. Duncan wrote in a blog post, “I believe testing issues are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools,” and said that teachers needed time to adapt to new standards and tests that emphasize more than simply filling in bubbled answers to multiple-choice questions.”

  6. Ken Bernstein 23. Aug, 2014 at 8:52 am #

    Another issue about colleges/schools of education – remember that in many states they actually, with permission from the state, do the certification. In many cases that can be done with NO practical practice teaching experience, which means for all the educational theory and practical instruction they may receive, they can be as unprepared for the classroom as are those from TFA and other quickie programs.

    Also remember that the requirements for continuing education for teachers to maintain certification is a cash cow as well as the training of replacements for those teachers who leave.

  7. john merrow 24. Aug, 2014 at 6:37 am #

    “K-12 education programs should focus much more instructional time on helping students acquire and practice soft skills, if they expect them to master and apply hard skills in appropriate and effective ways. The authors of the Common Core continue to claim that the Standards, will properly prepare our students for college and careers, despite countless surveys and interviews regarding the critical importance of soft skills.
    Clearly, thoughts and feelings do matter. Students who care and who feel cared for, are more engaged learners and employees are most engaged in their work when they feel a sense of passion and purpose.
    Even PARCC recognizes the critical importance of soft skills and they have issued a disclaimer acknowledging that their own Common Core assessments will not provide a comprehensive and reliable measure of career and college readiness…
    “A comprehensive determination of college and career readiness that would include additional factors (such as persistence, motivation, and time management…) is beyond the scope of the PARCC assessments in ELA/literacy and mathematics…Since these non-academic factors are so important, PARCC College- and Career-Ready Determinations can only provide an estimate of the likelihood that students who earn them have the academic preparation necessary to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing courses.”

    Here’s hoping the 2014-15 school year sees the retreat of the Common Core from the classroom and the return of common sense and increased teacher support for student-centered education reforms and learning standards that will prepare every student for the diverse challenges and opportunities of adulthood and employment.
    As Robert Green Ingersoll said…
    ‘It is a thousand times better to have common sense without education than to have education without common sense.’”

  8. Liz Wisniewski 24. Aug, 2014 at 9:51 am #

    RE: Tenure

    I respectfully disagree with Mr. Beckman, a principle reason for tenure, at least at the elementary level is “job security.” Tenure is a cornerstone in the elementary teaching profession’s hierarchy and salary structure. With a little imagination, knowledge of the education field and sensitivity to the economics of a career in education, the problem of removing tenure without reforming the basic structure of the profession is clear: the truncating of the teaching career path. Without tenure, or reform, more experienced teachers would be “priced out” of their jobs by the continuous flow of “cheaper” teachers entering the profession. Certainly experience would be valued in many instances and this problem would not be 100% universal, but my guess is it would be prevalent. Eventually, any thoughtful individual would steer clear of making teaching a profession, as they consider the costs and benefits of obtaining a bachelors and masters for a relatively short term career and a nortoriously low salary. Simply yanking tenure, would have disastrous effects on the teaching labor supply.

    Tenure partially exists because this problem is difficult to address, do we pay all teachers with a level of proficiency the same salary? How is that level determined (time on the job, test scores, differences in specialization?) Can the teaching career path be successfully redesigned to address this problem – i.e. instituting “beginning,” “professional” and “master-teacher” levels? Or, perhaps we should just accept the idea of “short-term” teaching staffs who rely on scripted curriculum?

    Personally, even as an elementary school teacher, I find tenure to be an inefficient mechanism, a rotting cornerstone supporting the house of my profession. However, simply yanking that stone out of position will cause greater harm than leaving it in. Finding another way to support the structure of my profession is necessary before adopting the simple solution of eliminating tenure. Another example of our very American propensity to act, without giving some consideration to the consequences.

  9. Victoria M. Young 26. Aug, 2014 at 4:01 pm #

    For the most part, I believe the majority of the country is on the same page as you, Mr. Merrow.

    My biggest concern is that schools of education appear to under prepare their students in some major areas: politics, history of education and reform policies, and the oft-missing understanding of the parental role. Will lack of understanding in these areas lead to higher turn-over?

    As I personally prepare to approach colleges and universities across the country to broach these topics with whoever will hear me, I hope you are wrong on this one point; “it would be foolish to expect most schools of education to play a strong leadership role in strengthening teaching.”

  10. Linda Johnson 28. Aug, 2014 at 9:21 pm #

    I predict that more people will acknowledge the true “status quo” in education, which is

    Education by zip code. This means that affluent children generally go to beautiful, well-equipped schools that have fully credentialed teachers while poor children generally go to poorly equipped schools staffed by teachers just out of college.

    Highly segregated schools.

    Poorly run districts like Los Angeles and DC hiring almost anyone during times of teacher shortages and then blaming “the unions” when these teachers turn out to be less than stellar.

    Poorly treated teachers. Teachers, mostly female, have long been treated like high school students. This has made the profession very unattractive to well-educated young men and women.

    Huge achievement gap by kindergarten. The gap between poor and privileged children is firmly established by the time they enter kindergarten.

    Now that the fraudulence and idiocy of the present “reform” movement

    • Linda Johnson 28. Aug, 2014 at 9:44 pm #

      Sorry, I accidentally hit “send.”

      Now that the fraudulence and idiocy of the present “reform” movement are becoming known to most citizens, I predict we will see authentic changes that will truly improve education for all children. Hopefully we’ll see:

      Carefully monitoring of babies and toddlers, as well as parent education for their mothers and fathers;

      High-quality preschool for our poorest children;

      Open enrollment in many public schools;

      An end to high-stakes testing (We’ll still have testing for the eyes of parents and teachers);

      Higher standards and more professional autonomy for teachers;

      More insistence on equal educational opportunities for all children (see Vergara decision) with parents getting lawyers to help them get their children into “better” (i.e.richer) schools;

      Authentic evaluation of teachers;

      Stronger due process rights for teachers;

      More money and more experienced teachers for schools in poor areas.

      It’s time to put an end to the status quo of the poorly funded and segregated schools for our least privileged children.

      Oh, and last but not least, we will see politicians lose their chances for re-election and higher office because of their poor treatment of the nation’s teachers. We’ll see the end of Chris Christie, Andrew Cuomo, Rahm Emanuel and Bobby Jindal. These politicians messed with the wrong people, as they are now finding out. Good!

    • Ahniteb 20. Feb, 2015 at 9:15 pm #

      Heidi,Very powerful. What you alettlraied came from the heart and rings so true. The advice and insight you offer is superb. I will be passing this on to our community.Bill TraskPrincipalMaple Creek Middle School

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Social Widgets powered by