EMinNM

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 29 2012

“Great teachers should not have to be great in spite of lousy school environments.”

The title of this post is a quote from an Education Trust report on why talented teachers leave low-performing schools and how some school districts have tried to change that. (Read the report here.) I found this report really interesting, firstly because it articulated beautifully what my roommate and I could only say in crude terms when people from the local chapter house asked why teachers don’t stay here longer. It’s not just TFA, either; in general we have a very transient teacher population. Of course, in person there are many answers: our families are far away, the culture is very different and maybe not for everyone, it’s a very rural area and that can be a challenge. But none of those are as important as the crude reason, able to be voiced only in private and to each other: teachers don’t stay here because nobody wants to teach in a shitty school forever. Pardon my French.

According to EdTrust, the conventional wisdom holds that low-performing schools are undesirable workplaces because of the students. But it’s not true! The kids are not the problem! (Not just for me, look at the footnotes, they have research!)  The problems are poor leadership, poor policies, negative school cultures, restrictions on what you can and cannot do, and the constant feeling that in order to do anything great, you have to either do it sneakily without letting the district know, or you have to fight tooth and nail at every turn. And none of those problems come from students.

The second reason I really liked the report is that it showed how some school districts are trying to implement serious and real change. Not the kind of change we try to prove we tried, but the kind of change that is undertaken as an honest attempt to make things better. Plus, these ones are succeeding!

The programs vary, but they have a lot of similarities too. They value strong leaders, and attempt to recruit and train the best principals while also giving those principals significant leeway to run their schools as they see fit. They can trust these principals because they know they are prepared, and there are consequences for the principal if things go awry. Teachers, too, are held accountable, and there is a real focus on observation and data-driven changes. At the same time, specific attention is paid to collaboration, mentoring, and ongoing quality training to help teachers improve. Teachers who do not perform up to standards are not allowed to continue in that vein indefinitely: they must improve, or they must leave.

Just a note: extra money for being a good teacher, even extra money for known good teachers who are willing to move to a low school, did not help nearly as much as changing the school environment. It’s not the kids, it’s not the money.

A lot of these ideas sound like common sense, because they are. But instead of dreaming about what we could do if only…these schools are doing it.

At the same time, this is an interesting thing for me because in these ideal schools that have been improved, I would never get a job. Nobody with a choice is going to hire a relatively untrained, inexperienced college grad instead of a master teacher. The only reason I have a job now is because our schools are broken. And you know what? I would happily trade my job for a great school that effectively teaches the students I’ve come to love. Or hey, if that school was such a great place to work, maybe I’d have planned to be a “real” teacher forever. Lots of smart, hardworking, ambitious and caring college students might plan to be teachers, too. Education might be a respected, valued, and impressive field to apply oneself to, not a second choice or a fallback plan. And wouldn’t that be an interesting world to live in?

2 Responses

  1. meghank

    “They value strong leaders, and attempt to recruit and train the best principals while also giving those principals significant leeway to run their schools as they see fit. They can trust these principals because they know they are prepared, and there are consequences for the principal if things go awry. Teachers, too, are held accountable, and there is a real focus on observation and data-driven changes. At the same time, specific attention is paid to collaboration, mentoring, and ongoing quality training to help teachers improve. Teachers who do not perform up to standards are not allowed to continue in that vein indefinitely: they must improve, or they must leave.”

    Wow. This is exactly what’s happening at my school, and it’s getting worse. Half of the (good, experienced) teachers left this year. By principal training and recruiting, do they use New Leaders for New Schools? That’s what my principal went through.

    In my opinion, these are all buzz words, and if someone with logic who cares about the students uses them and changes a school with them, it will work, but if the same old people are in charge, and they start using these buzz words too, nothing changes. I don’t have much respect for the “data-driven” program of New Leaders for New Schools.

    • eminnm

      Wait, they call the program New Leaders and leave the same people in charge? That is what I mean when I say “change we try to prove we tried.” It’s not real. I don’t think you can train just anybody to be a great principal, especially if they are already a bad principal. That isn’t one of the programs they talked about in the report. There were a couple programs that focused on principals, but mostly they took great principals from elsewhere in the district, trained them even more to work in low-performing schools, and then moved them into the target schools. They usually got to pick administrative staff to come with them, and some teachers too. Then they got a lot of control over what they did in their school.

      Then again, these were primarily districts that had some good schools and a few bad ones, and the bad ones were disproportionately attended by minority and high-poverty students. They started their programs really small, like 2-6 schools, only in the ones that really needed it. I don’t know if it would work in a district like mine where most of the schools are low and our best elementary school has 60% passing rates….I don’t know where they would look for enough talented principals for all the schools that need them. Because if they did like your district and pretended buzz words will save us, we’d get nowhere.

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