Let Teachers Teach: More Teacher Regulations Only Undermine Education

Let Teachers Teach: More Teacher Regulations Only Undermine Education

Andres Alonso, CEO of the Baltimore City Public School System. Source: Baltimore Sun, January 25, 2012

Indypendent Reader's new print issue, "Occupy the Economy," has hit the streets. Here's a sample of what's inside the new issue. In this article, Baltimore city school teacher, Iris Kirsch, explains how the Baltimore City school system has implemented strict regulations, ostensibly to ensure high quality teaching performance. Kirsch argues that the new regulations will achieve just the opposite. 

“I’ve been a first year teacher four years in a row,” said the person leading the workshop for Baltimore city teachers. This was not the most reassuring thing I’d heard all day. I couldn’t help wondering why we were being taught by this young teacher who cheerily admitted to classroom management problems and had never required her 11th graders to write a research paper.

The new teachers in the workshop looked relieved to be handed a day-by-day map for a research essay. The problem, however, was that about 70% of the teachers in the room were experienced or veteran teachers. Most of us have always done research papers with our students, and most of us already had the rest of the year mapped out, making a mandatory three-week long unit highly problematic.

This strange scenario took place at a professional development workshop, mandatory for teachers at Baltimore City schools, with the purpose of aligning the school curriculum with the Common Core standards. Common Core is the new national curriculum being rolled out by the Obama administration. On this day, in late January, all teachers at so-called “opt-in” schools signed forms promising to have their students write very specific research papers. Although these projects are pretty interesting, critical, and rigorous, the requirement represents a dangerous trend away from regarding teachers as professionals.

Unfortunately, that’s the direction schools are heading in: teacher-proof teaching that keeps good instructors from really reaching their students.

To maximize learning, the ideal mix of teachers in a school is: a few new teachers; a majority of established teachers, four to twenty years into their careers; and a few true veterans with more than twenty years of service. The established teachers are comfortable with the materials, the students,

and the bureaucracy. They can mentor new teachers, learn from each other, and collaborate effectively to the advantage of the students. New teachers infuse energy and hope, while veterans provide perspective and contribute to institutional memory.

But this year in Baltimore, many established teachers suffered a serious blow: from end-of-year 2010-2011 to mid-year 2011-2012, our ratings dropped markedly. On a three-point scale from “unsatisfactory” to “proficient”, many teachers’ ratings fell one, or even two, levels.

At the Title 1 Baltimore high school where I teach, three of the most committed teachers fell from proficient to unsatisfactory in that timeframe. All of these teachers spend hours on the phone with parents and students, attend sporting events, chaperon dances, and sometimes even provide child care outside of class, so that students can complete their work. All of their classes are highly rigorous; the kind students dread going to, but come back from college raving about. But, these remarkable teachers all had minor technicalities they could be cited for, and now their jobs are in jeopardy.

Race to the Top links teacher's performance evaluations to their students' performance on a very narrow set of indicators. Even still, they've found it tricky to trace direct connections from students' achievement, attendance, and follow-through to individual teachers. So, instead of looking at individual-teacher-impact (which is impossible to measure, since students have other factors in their lives), principals have been called upon to rate a percentage of the teachers unsatisfactory, if the overall performance of the school is unsatisfactory. Unsatisfactory evaluations are a necessary first step towards firing teachers.

Allow me to say here that, contrary to popular belief, there are very few bad, negligent teachers. That said, there are a few people trying to do the minimum in every corner of life, and the public schools are certainly not spared by the plague. The vast majority of teachers who I’ve known try to do a great job, and generally do, to the degree that their efforts are not curtailed by overly-structured expectations. Yes, I said it: many teachers would be more effective at raising student achievement without the regulations.

The few underachievers would be hard to fire under any system because they put their energy into doing the minimum of their requirements and protecting their jobs. Providing emotional support for students is not in the contract. Those teachers who go above and beyond, who truly do set high expectations for their students and still give them the support they need to meet those expectations, have no recourse if they are fired for minutia. The fact is this system sees teachers as interchangeable. Principals are not being asked to identify the teachers who need some help, and then give those teachers honest mentoring and support. Principals are being asked to do the opposite. They are being asked to find a certain number of teachers to fire. And that is outrageous.

These positions, once opened up, will be filled primarily by inexperienced teachers coming through alternative certification programs, like Teach for America. This obviously upsets that ideal balance of new, experienced, and veteran teachers. There are schools in Baltimore City—where students have been mis-educated for years and desperately need the best teachers available—where 60% of the teaching staff is in their first three years. And now, even those of us who are generally excited to mentor new teachers are frantically crossing T’s and dotting I’s to keep our jobs. Under these new regulations, we don’t have the time to mentor new teachers.

That’s where scripted curricula comes into the picture. According to award-winning author Herber Kohl, in his beautiful book, Stupidity and Tears: Teaching and Learning in Troubled Times (The New Press, 2003), “Scripted curricula are intended to ensure that even the worst teachers will be able to deliver adequate learning.”

While the newly installed Baltimore City requirements are not scripted, they are in the same vein—they are solely structured for the lowest common denominator, and there’s no room for people ready and able to go beyond.

As school districts across the country tie themselves to “value-added” contracts, the already unsustainable teacher turnover rate will increase. This will further place the fate of our children into the hands of bureaucrats, because new teachers are less critical of what they’re told; they’re too busy trying to keep their heads above water. And tying our evaluations to the students’ scores on high stakes tests also shoves power into the hands of educational decision-makers, and takes it further out of the communities.

The Common Core is still being developed, as is our society’s contemporary view of democracy. As the current political crisis unfolds, it will be increasingly important to trust teachers to infuse a healthy, critical view of government and capitalism. A future populated by those taught only to answer questions correctly is a frightening one indeed.

It is important to note that these problems affect low-income communities and communities of color disproportionately. Education author and activist Jonathan Kozol, quotes the Education Trust, “a politically moderate advocacy institute,” in The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America (Broadway, 2006), saying, “high poverty . . . schools tend to employ a disproportionate number of inexperienced, low-paid teachers.” The specific verbiage is telling; the implication being that these inexperienced teachers are favored largely because they are low paid.

Teachers, students, parents, and community members alike must stand together to fight this alarming trend. We are living in a fascinating time; a very tangible shift of power and resources has occurred over the last 30 years or more, and the working people of this world are getting into position to take some of it back. We need strong communities made up of strong individuals in order to ensure that this moment is not a flash in the pan, but the birth of a movement. To do that, we need strong schools, where courageous teachers are trusted, as professionals, to encourage real critical thinking from our students. Working people won’t win a race to the top; we have to rise slowly, but rise together.

Iris Kirsch

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"5290","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"300","style":"width: 400px; height: 300px; float: left; margin-right: 0.5em","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"400"}}]]Iris Kirsch is a Baltimore City Public School teacher and a worker-owner of the Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse. A native New Yorker, ze has been living in Baltimore for the past 13 years and loves it. Ze is a voracious reader, an amateur costumer, and a perennial joke-player. Some of zer articles are partially ghost-written by zer cat, Cat Jones.