Accountability Opinion

What Bothers Me, Pedro ...

By Deborah Meier — September 27, 2012 5 min read
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Dear Pedro,

Since I’m not in the city often enough to drop into your office for a chat, this will have to do instead. You know that I love an argument, so I’m glad you ended your first column with something that bothers me.

In the past few years I couldn’t get Diane to pick a fight with me—although I suspect we have our disagreements. For example, whether everyone should (even if not mandated) learn Latin. But I had dinner with her last night and we agreed: We have entered the Age of Alice in Wonderland, or maybe “The Twilight Zone.”

Incidentally, my colleague in Chicago, Mike Klonsky, says Diane’s response to your piece in The Nation was in response to his critique of it, or something like that. To make it easier on readers, here’s the controversial paragraph in your words.

The teachers have been bold in their denunciation of the high-stakes testing that has been used to rank students, schools, and now teachers. But they have been less clear about what should be done to promote change and improvement. The union has raised the critical issue of student poverty by calling for more social workers and school-based clinics, but it has not acknowledged that more learning time and a clear and fair basis for judging teacher effectiveness are issues that must be addressed."

What about doctors? I rarely, Pedro, hear people blaming the medical profession for not coming up with a solution to America’s poor health system; or the law profession for not being sure that every American who comes before a judge or jury is well-defended by a “great” attorney. But, then, maybe we should?

As you and I both know, teachers have never been viewed or treated like professionals, and the lower the status of their students, the less professionally honored they have been. Explicitly or implicitly, people of high status cannot imagine how any smart, capable, and well-educated adult would do it—especially as a career, year after year. As an “experience” akin to the Peace Corps, they can imagine and honor its attractions. As a step toward a career as an education policymaker, maybe that’s reasonable, too? But to teach year after year ... 5-year-olds, or 8-year-olds, or “urban” 15-year-olds. (As our cities are becoming gentrified, Pedro, do you think we’ll have to assume new code words for “them”?) OK for nuns, spinster ladies, men who couldn’t get a college-level job, but ... And it wasn’t too long ago that they were right.

So to expect their union to spend the time and resources re-inventing American public schooling seems unfair, But I agree with you. I’d like them to—if they survive.

Actually, the union has always had a social and political agenda on issues beyond 8:30 a.m.-3 p.m. schooling. And they have always complained about the inadequate support and supervision system in urban public schools. For a variety of reasons, most principals of big-city schools could not and do not have time to frequently step inside classrooms. And because most schools are petty dictatorships—whether malign or benign ones—the natural tendency to distrust the judgment of principals. Department chairs in high schools have been generally held in higher esteem than principals. The way schools are organized and time allocated literally NO ONE is in a position to evaluate or judge teachers well. But if their performance is so bad as to attract the principal’s attention, believe me, there is no provision in the contract that prevents a competent supervisor from winning an appeal, even if the teacher takes it that far.

The schools where I’ve been the head teacher (principal) have found ways. Ways designed by the staff who are responsible for hiring, evaluating, supporting, and firing teachers. It was my job to make that possible. Sometimes they stretched decisions out longer than maybe they should have, but it was precisely because they cared for both the person involved and the school that they proceeded carefully. And the union in both New York City and Boston endorsed our approach. It was management that was often the stumbling block. The Pilot Schools in Boston each have a different system for evaluating the faculty; all are union-approved. There is no ONE RIGHT WAY, but the union insisted only that we design a fair way.

Pedro, we also disagree about “learning time.” The United States has, for children, a longer school day and year than most of our competitors. And in the case of Finland children don’t even start formal schooling until age 7. What’s missing in American schools is professional time for teachers to do the hundreds of tasks essential to really be “great"—which was the subject of Ted Sizer’s classic Horace’s Compromise. Sizer was criticizing the nature of the compromises that Horace was forced to make. That’s what the Coalition of Essential Schools was and still is trying to figure out: how to, within a typical budget, un-compromise the Horaces out there.

We do not need a longer school day. What we need are exciting, creative, safe opportunities in every community for all young people starting at a very early age! And I include summer in this. They all need that second set of life experiences that are not based on the limited priorities we created schools to serve. That would be expensive, I suppose. But we cannot do it with the one set of teachers already responsible for too much.

There was a school (private) on Manhattan’s west side that operated half day and got the full academic curriculum done in that time, so that self-initiating kids with family support could design themselves rich “extracurricular” lives around what New York City offers. At the old Central Park East Secondary School we did that for half a day a week—so that teachers had 3 full hours to meet and work together. We called it “community service,” and it turned out to be a life-changing experience for a majority of our students—to our surprise, in fact. It required one full-time staffer for a school of about 400. It should have had more, and then it would have then been even better.

But this, too, is not a panacea. It worked for us because New York is amazing, and transportation in Manhattan is great, and because we weren’t competing with any other schools doing the same thing. And, because we attracted some foundation support, and perhaps, because we were a school of choice.

What we need is to work together with unions on how to create structures designed to use time and space more effectively—plus more money.

But a union fighting to simply preserve public responsibility for all children’s schooling is already going far beyond the protection of its special interests. They need to be joined loud and clear by all of us in this perilous time.


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