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  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.
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,  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  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 .
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. 
In another conversation, a teacher told me that the Common Core “has opened up teaching  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.” 
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 . 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  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.
- 1. It was put in place by her predecessor, Michelle Rhee.↵
- 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. 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. http://www.sacbee.com/2014/08/13/6626720/michelle-rhee-stepping-down-as.html↵
- 4. Like Rhee, Brown won’t say who’s paying the bills.↵
- 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.↵