Thursday, April 18

It's Not Rocket Surgery

I ran across a blog post over at Teach for America by accident this past week while looking for something else. While I understood the writer's lamentations over the lack of veteran teachers in charter schools (and similar frustrations on the part of school districts and policy wonks over the lack of experienced, high quality teachers in Persistently Lowest Achieving Schools, high-poverty schools and high-minority schools), I can't help but shake my head.

There are perfectly logical reasons why we have a deficit of high-quality teachers where they're most desperately needed, and it's not exactly rocket surgery to understand them:

1. We're abusing our teachers. Having been a manager, I can tell you that very little sucks more than being assigned responsibility without authority. Every re-write of the educational paradigm makes teachers more and more responsible for student outcomes while giving them less and less to work with. This is particularly true in the three aforementioned types of school, which routinely suffer from low parental involvement and are burdened with principals and administrators who are so tied up in political correctness and legalese that they can't provide any kind of functional discipline, backup or authority. We expect teachers to work miracles with troubled kids and deny them the very tools that have been document-ably proven to make the difference between success and failure. Of course they're not going to freaking stay! They're going to survive a couple years - just long enough to get a solid resume, and then either transfer to a better district or move into a different career field where they can use their skills to actually get somewhere.

2. Teachers care about quality of life, too. Despite the pleas and coaxing of Fair Housing advocates, the reality is that people naturally gravitate towards the best neighborhoods they can afford to live in - the kind that make them feel safe and give them a return on investment. Teachers holding down solid jobs want to live in safe, pleasant communities just like everyone else - and they districts they are being begged to work in rarely fit the bill. Who wants to have to worry about their safety and the safety of their family 24/7 - you pissed off a kid on Thursday and he might come vandalize your house on Saturday. But because he's a minority or because the cops are already overwhelmed or whatever, nothing will happen to him and it will be your loss - physically, mentally, emotionally and financially.. not a real great motivator, guys.

3. Teachers have financial responsibilities. If you've ever looked at the tenure track system, it quickly becomes clear that it's not designed to promote flexibility. Every time you leave a position or a district, you start over at the bottom of the barrel, with no security. You can be the best teacher in the school, but if you're the newest hired, you're the first to go when budgets get tight. Charter schools don't even count in that system! Considering that teachers are required to get their Masters, very few come out of school without significant student loan debt. Add that to rising costs of living across the board and the fact that many teachers are married and/or have families to provide for, and it shouldn't be surprising that so many of them choose to stay where they are even if it isn't great. In today's unstable economic times, they can't afford to toss what little financial security they may have to wind and go off on a jaunt to teach troubled kids for a few years.

4. Have you looked at the rules lately? At least two of the four options provided to Persistently Lowest Achieving Schools who have been legally mandated to overhaul their programming include firing at least 50% of the staff. Who exactly wants to sign up to work somewhere that has such an incredibly high probability of tossing you out the door without reason or appeal when they inevitably are required to pick an overhaul method?! (See #3)

So yes, I hear and understand the lament that new teachers struggle to thrive without the wisdom, guidance and stabilizing influence of their more experienced peers. I acknowledge the research demonstrating that experienced teachers play key roles in troubled districts among struggling kids. But with all due respect, the modern educational system engineered this problem.

They also have the means at their disposal to fix it. So don't go online and gripe about how unfair it all is. Own up to your errors, and hold your system accountable. It won't be pretty, certainly not at first, but it CAN be changed. Not by throwing money at the problem, or by guilt tripping people, but by systematically changing the factors that keep a strangle-hold on mobility and by working with municipalities to create Walk to Work and other intentional, safe neighborhoods in which teachers can live while serving troubled districts. Practical solutions to specific problems will go a lot further than whining.

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