Category Archives: Updating Education

An idea: Teachers create a National Congress of Educators

In my last post, I asked myself and my reader(s), “Why doesn’t our word carry weight?” Shortly thereafter, I closed the post by asserting, “It is long past due that teachers define the image of the profession themselves and from within their own ranks.” 

The next day, I still agreed with myself. However, I hadn’t given anyone, including myself, any ideas on HOW to do such a thing.

I first started thinking about the organizations for teachers that exist today and their role in education.

The most obvious place to start is with the teachers’ unions, notably the American Federation of Teachers and the National Teachers Association.

When I first started teaching, I became a member of my local union. They were engaged in reform of the salary schedule and I believed in their cause. Several years later, I was offended by the caustic attitude and approach of our state’s union leaders, and I also disagreed with them on several key issues, so I stopped my membership.

A quick Google search says there are 3. 7 million teachers in the U.S. The NEA’s website says they have 3 million union members and the AFT site states they have more than 1 million members.

So do teachers keep getting pushed around then? Why aren’t the unions more powerful in affecting public policy? To the Google machine!

I found a slightly-dated article on Politico that outlined some of the problems and includes this quotation:

“People increasingly view teachers unions as a problem, or the problem,” David Menefee-Libey, a politics professor at Pomona College who studies education politics. That’s a striking shift, he said, because “for decades the unions were viewed as the most likely to contribute to the improvement of public education.”

Why do people view unions as a problem? According to several articles, the problem stems from the unions’ position on hiring and firing teachers. So maybe I’m not as much of an outlier as I thought, because one of my reasons for stopping my union membership was this very topic.

Unions exist to defend and support their members. The existence of unions have been of historical importance to our country, and I think they fulfill an important role in protecting workers’ rights.

Here we have the crux of the problem: the purpose of unions, to protect workers’ rights, has largely dealt with issues of money and legality of hiring or firing practices. These are not the same as professional standards.

So we have a loss of public and professional faith in the unions, but a growing (or continuing, depending on your perspective) frustration from educators who feel they have little autonomy in their jobs and little power to affect change. Makes for a bunch of pissed off people, and certainly an unhealthy system.

Moving away from unions, I began thinking about other educational organizations. It is a testament to educators and our desire for professionalism that so many exist. For example, I joined the National Council of Teachers of English and the Florida Council of Teachers of English while still in graduate school. I maintained my membership with both until last year, when I moved. I love these organizations deeply, because they gave me a sense of professionalism more than anything else in my teaching career.

In the last five years, NCTE has increased its advocacy efforts by in large part by establishing an office in Washington, D.C. and implementing an annual Advocacy Day. They have created a Policy Platform and post recommendations for policymakers. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics also has a page on its site dedicated to advocacy, as does the National Council for Social Studies. The National Science Teachers Association has its own Communications, Legislative, & Public Affairs team.

So based on their particular subject area or at which level they teach (elementary, secondary, etc.), there exist organizations which classroom teachers can join. But what about an overall body or organization that doesn’t delineate between grade level or subject? To the Google machine!

Fairly quickly, I came across the American Association of Educators, an organization with which I was unfamiliar. The AAE defines itself as a “non-union professional educators association established in 1994 by nationally recognized educators who saw the need for a professional organization that focused on student achievement without an emphasis on partisan politics.”  According to their website, the AAE provides “professional services” and “only take policy positions on issues germane to education.” They also have liability insurance for members, but they do not engage in collective bargaining. Mainly, they seem to define themselves by what they are not – a union. Their policies seem entirely based on a membership survey, and I couldn’t find anything about a conference or process for discussion.

After thinking about all of these organizations, I still feel something is missing. There’s a void somehow.

My dream: that teachers create their own nationwide forum for discussing, debating, disagreeing, and deciding on our education system. Teachers’ professional opinions should play a larger role in education policy. But “should” is about as far as we’ve gotten. We must take action as well – action that sets our professionalism on display and makes us better professionals at the same time.

So I’m going to throw this idea out there into the online world: what if we had a National Congress of Educators?

Bear with me as I share the bare-bones of my idea. There are two houses: the Delegation and the Body.

The Delegation would be modeled after the House of Representatives. Teachers can run to be a Delegate from their region. Only current classroom teachers have the power to vote on their Delegate. These Delegates serve to represent their delegation of teachers by gathering their opinions and using that information to vote on issues at the NCE Annual Meeting (more on that in a minute).

The Body would be modeled after the Senate. Organizations that represent educators of various sects (subject area, grade level, specialization) would have long-term seats in this house and would provide the kind of wisdom that comes from a long history of working with educators on a national level.

Every summer, the National Congress of Educators would convene. Everyone is welcome to attend, just like any citizen can watch a session at the Capitol, but only Delegates can take the floor to speak or cast a vote in the Delegation, and only representatives from the organizations in the Body can speak or cast a vote. All of this business would be conducted in public.

The Delegation and the Body can put forth policy, legislation, or recommendations. Ideally, committees would be formed to reflect and refine these items before they come up for a vote, just like in the government. Again, all of this would  be done openly and publicly since every teacher has a voice and a vote. It would seem natural that joint committees may even form to create a constant bridge between the Delegation and the Body.

Something like the NCE would make every teacher part of the process of reform and on our own terms. Maybe we wouldn’t have power at first, but I’d like to dream that eventually an organization that was created by U.S. educators in order to better U.S. education would mean something to the counterparts in our state capitals or Washington, D.C.

The Women’s Rights movement started with a meeting. Why can’t the same be true for teachers?

 

 

 

 

Going Pro in Education

Flashback to a week ago: I have embarked on a (modest) quest to save update education in America. I went online in search of articles written by those more intelligent than myself and did not have any difficulty finding such information. This past September, the New England Journal of Public Policy, published by the University of Massachusetts, devoted an entire issue to the topic of education. All of the articles had to use the “2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores as a starting point and address the obstacles to education reform.” The site allows people to download the articles, and so I did.

I’ve read four of the articles thus far, covering a wide range of aspects of U.S. education. In my next few posts, I’d like to offer some commentary, thoughts, opinions, and conclusions I’ve drawn from my readings, as part of my quest to answer my own questions. (Sorry about the “questing” motif; I may be listening to the instrumental music from Lord of the Rings right now.)

Going Pro

I always considered teaching to be a profession. I entered the classroom with that mindset after graduating from the ProTeach program at the University of Florida. I held myself to professional standards, but I also realized there were fundamental differences between the environment and system in which I worked as compared to those of other professions, namely doctors and lawyers.

Ronald Thorpe, the President of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, begins his article entitled “Sustaining the Teaching Profession” by asking, “Is Teaching a Profession?” I think many educators would agree with me in saying I behaved as a professional, but in many ways was not treated as a professional. Thorpe argues convincingly that such conflict arises from the sad-but-true fact that teaching is not a true profession right now.

Why not? Some of Thorpe’s reasons echoed questions I’ve pondered before. For instance, does our lack of political and systematic influence stem from the roots of our fore-teachers? Think about it. Those who stood in front of the K-12 chalkboard were single women and spinsters; later, they were educated women who faced three career options if they wanted to work. I don’t think anyone would argue those women were in a position of power. Have teachers gained any power since those days? Thorpe writes, “we are talking about a workforce, unlike that of any other profession, that is made up mostly of middle-class women who take care of children.” It is unclear whether he means our students or our own children, but the point is nearly moot as most teachers are doing both.

Thorpe follows this consideration of gender with another painfully on-point point: “Furthermore, teachers do work that most people think anyone can do.” That’s the damn truth. It’s like when I first became a stay-at-home mom and my husband wondered why I couldn’t keep up with the dishes. Walk the walk, man, and you’ll find out. (He did. We’re still happily married.)

This belief that anyone can be a teacher is perpetuated by the fact that in many places, anyone can be a teacher. As an educator from Florida, I’m well-aware that someone can be hired for a teaching position and given three years to obtain their certification. If you have 25 high school students in six classes a day for three years, that equals 450 students. That number again is 450 students being taught by someone who is not fully trained to be a teacher. Hurts your brain, doesn’t it?

Here’s one of Thorpe’s main points and strongest opinions:

“Every profession has a culture that is shaped by a shared experience that in turn is defined by the profession’s standards and expectations. The experience must be universal, and everyone must travel the same path into and through the profession. Teachers complain that they do not receive the respect they deserve, but respect seldom comes from asking for it. It is hard-earned, and it comes not from what one member of the profession does but from what they all do.”

Same path? Universal experience? The part of me that embraces choice feels a little queasy. And yet, there’s an undeniable truth here. We respect other professions because of the high bar they set for themselves. We know them to govern themselves, from college all the way into their careers. We admire those who pass the LSAT and MCAT. We trust their expertise in large part because they’ve proven it to their own colleagues.

In teaching, others set the bars for us. Various levels of governments and politicians have regulated and governed our training, education, requirements for hiring, evaluations, and requirements for firing. Think about all of the things teachers have had impressed upon them from “above” and ask yourself: do doctors have to deal with this shit?

Another article in the journal, written by Florida teacher Catherine Boehme, is entitled “School Reform in Canada and Florida: A Study of Contrast.” It’s a fascinating read, and I plan to use more of Ms. Boehme’s insight in future posts, but for now I want to connect Mr. Thorpe’s comments to the teaching environment in Alberta, Canada, as observed by Ms. Boehme. Here are a few key points:

  • “[In Alberta] There exists a “strict requirement that teachers earn a full teaching certificate before stepping into a classroom as the teacher of record.”
  • “Teachers and school principals in Alberta may not be licensed unless they have completed all certification courses, including 48 credits (semester hours) in pedagogy and at least 24 credits in a particular subject specialty, and at minimum a full, supervised ten-week (250 hour) internship.”
  • “Unlike many states in the United States, including Florida, Alberta offers no alternative routes to a teaching certificate.”
  • Florida now fills 35% of the state’s teaching vacancies with untrained or minimally trained individuals. With about nine thousand teachers leaving the profession each year, the number of poorly qualified individuals filling teacher vacancies in Florida is shocking.”

And finally, a related point raised in an article from the same journal written by Linda Darling-Hammond: “As segregation and school funding disparities grew worse throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the practice of lowering or waiving credentialing standards to fill classrooms in high-minority, low-income schools – a practice that is unheard of in high-achieving nations and in other professions – became commonplace in many U.S. states, especially those with large minority and immigrant populations, such as California, Texas, Florida, and New York.”

So we face a problem. Teachers are not truly respected because we are not truly seen as experts who can govern ourselves. How else to explain the degree to which others with no experience in education profess to know what’s best? And if complaining and protesting were enough, wouldn’t we have seen a difference by now?

Why doesn’t our word carry weight?

Our collective word must come from our collective expertise. To establish unquestionable, undeniable expertise – the kind that makes classroom teachers an actual force with which to be reckoned – we must join together to create, support, and advocate for a professional path to becoming a teacher. This challenge can only be taken up by educators if it is to be a defining moment for teaching as a profession.

In his article, Thorpe says, “Professions are more like Michaelangelo’s figures waiting to be released from a great hulk of stone.” For decades, everyone else has been chipping away at educators. It is long past due that teachers define the image of the profession themselves and from within their own ranks.

michelangelo-s-david

 

 

 

 

Let’s Update Education!

So earlier today I had a conversation in my head with several voices, ultimately leading me to arrive at the conclusion that I wanted to save education. And this was after only one cup of coffee!

Here is the crux of my thoughts: What do we want the U.S. system of education to look like at the end of the day? If we want to reform, what form are we trying to create?

As I spent the rest of the day working (re: taking care of my two kids), I made a mental log of questions that arose from the aforementioned questions. Here’s where my brain went:

  • What role do today’s schools play in our society?
  •  How can we better recruit, prepare, support, and retain teachers?
  • What do we want kids to know when they are handed their diplomas?
  • What does “preparing our students” look like or even mean?
  • How does accountability play a role in education?
  • For what are schools responsible?
  • Should the school environment as a whole be re-imagined?
  • What can we all agree on?

I also put on my mom-hat (re: yoga pants) and asked myself the following:

When my own kids go to school, what do I want for them? Here’s where my brain went:

  • I want them to feel safe, supported, and inspired.
  • I want their teachers to be happy, educated, professional people.
  • I want their classrooms to be clean, welcoming, and puts kids in the mood to learn.
  • I want them to learn to think. I mean really think. Inside, outside, and around the box kind of thinking.
  • I want them to learn to read, write, and do arithmetic, but I also want them to experience art, drama, music, science, technology, and government.
  • When they’re little, I want them to have a good, long recess. When they’re older, I want them to participate in clubs and on teams.
  • I want them to learn how to struggle and persevere, to cope with failure, and to handle success with grace.
  • I want my children to be happy. A huge part of their happiness will come from their experiences in school. That’s big.

That last bullet point made me realize something. In a year and a half, my daughter will enter kindergarten. My experience with education has always been as the caretaker of other people’s children. Pretty soon though, I will watch Z walk into someone else’s classroom and trust that she will receive the education I believe all of our kids deserve. Yikes. My concern for our education system isn’t just professional, it’s personal.

Another thought just occurred: does our system of education need saving? Is it in peril? I actually don’t think so. Perhaps we’re at a moment of upheaval, rather than danger? By saying I want to “save” education, have I internalized a sensationalized version of our system, one that depicts schools as broken and teachers as unaccountable, vacation-loving lag-abouts?

What if, rather than saving it, I re-frame my thinking to say we are looking to enrich our education system? To enhance it? Refine? Improve? Or even update?

The word “reform,” though technically apt, now carries a negative connotation with it. Even when referring to the abstract concept of education, “reform” carries a whiff of blame, a hazily-drawn finger pointing at “them.” I’m drawn to the word “update.” It places no blame on past versions, while promising something better. If Adobe Flash needs to be updated every hour (it seems), certainly our education system can be said to be in need of an update. AND NO ONE IS TO BLAME!

So, how can we update our system of education in the United States of America?

Let’s start at the very beginning: teacher recruitment and preparation. I know a bit about this topic, but I’m smart enough to know there are smarter people out there. I’m going to find their works, start reading, and I’ll report back in my next post.

Until then, stay warm out there, and enjoy!