Law & Courts Opinion

Teachers and Parents: Natural Allies in Defending Our Schools

By Anthony Cody — November 21, 2012 5 min read
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I have been thinking a bit more about the strategies at work in the battle over our schools that I described yesterday. Michael Petrilli’s op-ed makes division the key weapon that reformers will be using in the years to come.

Division 1: Middle class suburban schools vs. high poverty urban schools.

Mr. Petrilli wrote:

Top-down, one-size-fits-all efforts such as formulaic teacher evaluations tend to overemphasize the high-stakes testing that can take the joy out of learning. Parents and teachers in richer areas typically hate this pressure. Reformers can't put together winning political coalitions if they lose the suburbs. When it comes to middle-class schools, reformers should follow the doctors' dictum: First, do no harm.

Since the middle class parents are joining with teachers to oppose high stakes tests that are taking the joy out of learning, split them off by letting their schools off the hook. Only focus “accountability” systems on the urban schools where the parents are not capable of resisting. The “winning political coalition” must pit suburban parents against urban teachers.

Division #2: Separate “good teachers” from “bad teachers” and the leaders who protect them.

Mr. Petrilli:

...we must renew efforts to show respect for teachers. This can be complicated: Many schools face a teacher-quality crisis after years of low professional-entry standards and lax accountability. At the same time, most teachers are dedicated and hardworking. We need to stress that bad teachers are rare but devastating and that efforts to weed them out will lift the entire profession. Any rhetoric that implies that most or even many teachers are incompetent or uncommitted to children needs to be scrapped.

The success of their efforts to get rid of due process and mandate data-driven teacher evaluation systems depends on people (especially parents) believing that “bad teachers” are such a malevolent force that the schools will be transformed if they can be removed. But when this message is oversold, then people get the idea that the reformers are ATTACKING teachers. So the message has to be an inherently contradictory one - that most teachers are wonderful, dedicated professionals, but that a small number of apples are so very bad that we must root them out. And to the extent that teachers resist these changes, it is not the GOOD teachers who are complaining, it is the bad teachers themselves, and the union leadership, which is determined to protect bad teachers, because that is what they do.

Recently we saw Teach Plus, a Gates-funded advocacy group that has mobilized teachers to testify against seniority and due process, come out with a survey that attempts to project this division along generational lines. They conducted a survey and found that less experienced teachers were more favorable towards data-driven “reforms” than their more veteran peers. According to Teach Plus, more than 50% of teachers have fewer than ten years experience.

The survey found that teachers of all experience levels favored more time for collaboration, and agreed that small class sizes were very important. But the report also found that less experienced teachers were in favor of including “student performance” (ie test scores) as a significant part of teacher evaluations, and were open to trading higher salaries for a lower level of due process protection.

The analysts at Teach Plus call these novices “the new majority.” The profile of the profession they offer is worrisome in part because many of this “new majority” will not be sticking around for very long - and thus, as baby boomers retire, we will have a growing number of novices in the classroom, without the intention of choosing teaching as a career. Someone who does not intend to work for long as a teacher may not care so much about due process, or pension benefits. If we restructure the profession to suit these short-timers, then we end up reinforcing this pattern, making teaching far less attractive as a career.

Teachers with different levels of experience have far more in common than this dichotomy would suggest. Once teachers have actually experienced the vagaries of VAM, they are going to be dismayed at the results, no matter how many years teaching they have. When they see that teachers with English learners and special education students have lower scores, and that scores fluctuate dramatically from year to year with no apparent reason, their views will shift. In a time when budget cuts are causing layoffs, seniority can work against the interests of newcomers. But due process is critically important, and once teachers have achieved permanent status, they will discover its value.

Division #3: Parents vs. Teachers.

Mr. Petrilli:

... proponents have to get better at political organizing, especially the ground game. The only way to defeat an army of determined educators is with a larger army of equally determined parents. The advocates of school vouchers and home-schooling have learned this lesson and can bring busloads of supporters to state capitols on remarkably short notice.

Parents and teachers are natural allies.
Teachers learned long ago that communication with parents is of great value in guiding students towards academic and social success. In order to succeed, education reformers have to activate parents AGAINST teachers. Mr. Petrilli’s column correctly notes that this has been done with some success by some charter school operators. We also recall when Chicago politicians paid people to attend rallies to support school closures. Groups like StudentsFirst and Stand For Children spend millions of dollars to represent themselves as grassroots organizations, to portray broad public support for “reforms” that are often unpopular.

We know that due process is not about protecting “bad teachers.” There are ways to get rid of poor teachers, and they should be used. Programs like Peer Assistance and Review have been shown to be effective - and I worked for the PAR program in Oakland for two years, so I saw this first-hand. Due process exists to make sure that if there is an issue with a teacher, there is an agreed-upon means to investigate, provide evidence, and move towards termination - or resolve the issue in a more positive way. Administrators are not perfect, and schools ought to be democratic places, where teachers feel some safety when they speak their minds.

For each one of these attempts to divide, our best strategy is to unite.
We need to make sure that suburban parents understand that parents in our cities want the same things for their children. They want them to be safe, to experience the joy of learning, the challenge of meaningful projects, the freedom to be creative, and the skills necessary for success. Urban teachers are not disproportionately ineffective in comparison with their suburban peers. They are not the reason for lower test scores. And they do not need draconian accountability regimes, school closures and charter school takeovers in order to improve. They need solid support, time to collaborate, and small class sizes - just as we saw working at New Highland Academy in Oakland.

Wherever the “reformers” are working to divide us, we need counter campaigns aimed at strengthening our unity.
We need to make sure less experienced teachers understand the value of due process, and the reasons we object to “data-driven” evaluations and pay systems. We need to develop social and educational activities that bring generations of teachers together, so they recognize how much they have to learn from one another, and how much better they can be when they support one another and work together. We need serious outreach efforts to communicate with parents, both urban and suburban. Our public schools are community treasures, and they must be guarded by all of us working together.

What do you think? How should we respond to attempts to divide us?

Continue the dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

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