Bargaining for the Best Teaching: Can Teachers and Superintendents Agree?

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The national debate about the quality of our public-school system to which Peter R. Greer referred in "Another Simple Truth" (Commentary, June 2, 1982) will continue, and our students, parents, and communities suffer as a result, as long as school superintendents continue their ill-advised, ill-conceived, and unwarranted attacks on teachers.

If Mr. Greer and other such critics are serious about trying to improve public schools, they should adopt strategies other than the ones they are using. And if it is true, as Mr. Greer says, that the best and brightest students are no longer entering the teaching profession, attacking the teachers we now have will do nothing to reverse that trend. Moreover, if we accept his word, why does Mr. Greer want the freedom to fire current teachers in order to hire new teachers whose abilities are suspect and whose skills remain to be demonstrated?

I suspect the answer to these questions has to do with money. New teachers cost much less to employ than veteran teachers.

Mr. Greer criticizes former physical-education teachers now teaching history because of reductions-in-force (RIF). Is he suggesting that physical-education teachers cannot read, think, or teach? Aren't these teachers certified to teach the subjects to which they are assigned?

Shouldn't a teacher of general science be able to learn the new information and skills that would enable him or her to teach physics? Does Mr. Greer's school system (or any school system for that matter) provide retraining to help teachers become effective in new subjects when layoffs occur?

Mr. Greer says he is tired of the claim that there is no valid method of identifying the most qualified teachers and the claim that seniority should be the only factor considered.

The fact is that there is no objective method of identifying the best and most qualified teachers.

I am a school teacher, and I consider myself qualified and effective. Does that mean my school system should hire only people who teach as I do? I think not. I am also a supervisor, paid to evaluate other teachers. I know I can't objectively define or identify a set of criteria for identifying the most qualified teachers. I know only what I like to see in a classroom.

I like to see eager, hard-working students, students who are curious and who ask questions, students who know how and where to find answers to their questions. I like teachers who understand how children grow and develop, who know how to challenge youngsters without frustrating them, who know how to interact with students on a basis of mutual respect, who know how to use humor to motivate students to learn. I like teachers who are skilled questioners, who require that their students speak in complete sentences and write coherently. These are qualities I would identify as hallmarks of the best teaching. They exist in teachers who are 25 years old and in teachers who are 65 years old.

When I identify areas needing improvement in the teachers I supervise, I try to provide them with assistance that will improve the quality of instruction. I don't tell them that they are "retreads" or that they have "lost it."

Instead of this process, however, Mr. Greer suggests that we ask "serious" students to identify the best teachers. But on what grounds will such judgments be made? Are the best teachers the easiest, the ones who make the students work hardest, the ones who make learning fun? Why not ask "problem" students who the best teachers are?

Mr. Greer also suggests that parents be consulted to identify effective teachers. Yet most parents can only judge teachers within the framework of how their child reacts to or is affected by a particular teacher.

And Mr. Greer suggests that school board members should identify the best teachers. They do that, when they award or withhold raises. But, increasingly, boards of education make educational decisions on the basis not of the benefits to students but of the costs to taxpayers. Is good teaching a factor in the decisions that lead to spending disproportionate amounts of money on extra-curricular activities that serve only a few students. Were good teachers consulted in those school districts that have spent thousands of dollars on microcomputers and software before they made thoughtful plans for integrating computers into existing curricula? Did anyone ask the good teachers whether the students would benefit more from smaller classes or from computers?

If there are teachers who are ineffective, why aren't administrators doing something about them? Why aren't they assisting those teachers who have "lost it" to find it again? I know that effective job retraining takes commitment, energy, and time. And these days, it's much simpler and more fashionable to grumble about the problem of supposed teacher "incompetency." Isn't it amazing how many of the teachers identified as incompetent happen to be those with many years of service? Are there no incompetent five- or ten-year veterans in the profession?

Mr. Greer suggests that boards of education ought to have the sole responsibility and authority for the selection of teachers to be retained, provided that its selection is not "arbitrary or capricious." Who is to judge whether firing a particular teacher is arbitrary or capricious? The school board?

He attacks those who argue that collective-bargaining agreements are the only protection that teachers have from the "alleged nefarious and ulterior motives" of administrators. He is comfortable advancing the statement that most administrators seek only good for our schools. Would he grant that most teachers also seek only good for our students and our schools? Apparently not.

Were boards given the powers Mr. Greer seeks for them, we should find ourselves returning to the years when female teachers were not allowed to marry and no teacher could smoke or drink in a public place.

Mr. Greer suggests that "we should just admit that fine teachers will never be paid the salaries they deserve and will never have the recognition they deserve." Teachers will continue to be poorly paid as long as administrators like Mr. Greer spend their time and energy attacking their employees and, by doing so, encouraging the public to do the same. Instead, Mr. Greer ought to be defending, praising, and supporting teachers.

For many years, I have taken part in the process of collective bargaining in my school district. In years of teacher shortages, when many new teachers were recruited annually, I listened to arguments that for the district to be competitive, starting salaries would need to be high. Teachers with 10, 15, and 20 years of dedicated service were shortchanged. The school system was growing, new schools had to be built, little money was available for raises. When the teacher shortage ended, a new problem--inflation--appeared. The salaries of veteran teachers, who were at the top of the salary scale, rose only half as much as the salaries of beginning teachers. Now that funds are scarce and student enrollments are declining, these same teachers--seasoned, competent, hard-working, caring--find themselves abused again by critics, who label them "ineffective."

If Mr. Greer seeks the best, he ought vigorously to support a national campaign to increase all teachers' salaries by 50 percent, and he ought to put the increase into effect in his own school district as a model for other enlightened administrators. Such public action, more than any single proposal, will restore the vitality of teachers in classrooms across the nation. Such an acknowledgement of the teachers' importance will be met by an immediate response from teachers in the form of extra effort, increased energy, renewed dedication, and a restoration of faith.

The second task should be to begin a systematic program, planned with local teachers' colleges, to teach new subjects and to upgrade skills. This program could provide the opportunity to fill the gaps in science and mathematics with experienced teachers, newly trained.

Finally, a public-relations program of praise for teachers and the public-school system could also help to rebuild confidence in our schools. The many laudable things going on in our schools need to be brought to the public's attention. It's time for school superintendents and boards of education to emphasize these positive happenings.

With all its flaws, our system of education is the best system any nation has been able to develop. Now is as good a time as any to make it even better.

Mr. Greer Replies

My essay was not, as Ms. Traberman suggests, an unwarranted attack on teachers, and this misunderstanding is not a very good basis for further discussion, but here it goes.

In my essay, I described what might be at the heart of the problem regarding public education; that is, in the face of budget reductions and RIFs, educational leaders do not show enough courage when they evaluate teachers and negotiate RIF clauses in contracts; most building administrators are too easily tagged with the labels of favoritism and capriciousness; and ineffective teachers of all ages are allowed to teach in our nation's classrooms and are not given much help to improve their skills.

Ms. Traberman tears into my article and asks for support and serious consideration of her opinions that:

  • If I were to be taken seriously, educational leaders would quickly hire cheap and inferior teachers;
  • General teaching certification is the same thing as knowledge of a subject and quality teaching;
  • There is no hard research as to effective teaching (if this is so, we are all in trouble, though Ms. Traberman does show she has indeed read the literature and she lists some solid indicators of effective teaching);
  • All students and parents have no capability to judge teaching beyond their own selfish motives;
  • School-board members always have the sole prerogative and vast power to decide on what is arbitrary and capricious. (Lawyers and arbitrators are making very good money in arbitrations on this complex issue!);
  • School-board members would themselves be arbitrary and capricious if we but took our eyes off them for a second.

The problem with Ms. Traberman's analysis is that she demonstrates absolutely no faith in anyone in authority. She shows what William Bennett calls the "Ah Ha!" theory of behavior, a theory that predicts the inevitability of the basest motives in human beings--no one is capable of noble, compassionate, and courageous actions.

Because of that attitude, Ms. Traberman doesn't offer any hope or direction to improve public education as I attempted to do. I may be nave, but I do believe in the integrity and good will of most teachers, administrators, and school-board members. I do respect and take seriously the opinions of parents and thoughtful students who care about education. In my 17 years in public education, I have seen examples of the best behavior and professionalism from individuals in each of these groups. Ms. Traberman might consider the idea that realism does not preclude idealism. We must all find the right goals and move toward them.

I really believe we can substantially improve our public schools, while Ms. Traberman really doesn't think so. She has found all the excuses and definitely all of the bad guys.

We should all heed Ms. Traberman's advice regarding the retraining and in-service of teachers, though I hope she didn't mean on-the-job training of history or physics teachers. She is right that we have the responsibility to help many teachers to develop in new areas--a career-planning concept for teachers.

Finally, I do believe in our ability to attract, keep, and improve quality teachers. I do believe we can upgrade our present teaching staffs. I do believe we must find ways to respect the abilities and achievements of our nation's teachers.

I do not believe public education can win the respect it deserves by making excuses for what is often called teaching in our classrooms. I will not subscribe to the excuses used for "no-fault" ineffective teaching. And, therein lies my real disagreement with Ms. Traberman.

Vol. 01, Issue 42, Page 20-21

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