Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Complications of Education

So, after a year of symbolic and monetary attacks, it turns out that a lot of teachers in the state of Kansas are retiring as early as possible.  As the linked article mentions, many are retiring for fear that changes in the pension plan will cause them to lose much of their retirement savings if they do not get out now.

People who push "educational reform" sometimes focus only on "teacher quality," this mythical abstract concept that variably means makes kids do better on standardized tests or is well-liked by students and peers, or has exquisite lesson plans, or whatever else the focus of the day is. Teaching experience is derided as a way of determining which teacher is "better" or not.

Now, I speak as someone whose job is vulnerable to cuts.  If my school has to reduce staff, I am one of the first to go, since I have less experience and am more untenured than many of my fine colleagues.  Despite the fact that valuing teacher experience over other traits could be harmful to me personally, I still think retaining experienced faculty is one of the most important things a school can do.  Why?

Well, according to the studies I have seen, teacher experience is actually one of the few proven ways to improve teacher effectiveness (at least up through 10 years of experience).  As a teacher progresses in years on the job, s/he masters the curriculum more thoroughly, adds student engagement and classroom management tricks to the trick bag, endures more professional development, etc., etc.  Few people disagree with this point too vehemently.

A more-overlooked reality, though, is that teachers who contribute many years of service to a school help create a school culture of stability and continuity which helps every other teacher in the school to be more effective.  Certainly, the more experienced teachers in my building have provided me with priceless mentoring and suggestions that relate to teaching.  But they also contribute knowledge of parents, of families, and of the community structure that cannot be purchased by any level of educational consultant.  One teacher in my building has been there forty years; she taught almost all of the parents of our current students.  Even if she were a totally ineffective classroom instructor (which she is not!), her relationships with parents make her worth her weight in home-grown tomatoes

Kids crave stability, and many of the students we serve have little stability in their homes.  Knowing that there are some stable adult fixtures in their lives is extremely important.  As our state and national policies move towards making teaching a short-term profession for young people, even if our brightest and best young people do start going into education for a few years out of college, our schools and our students will suffer from upheaval, from lack of community, from lack of personal expertise.

Brownback and his crew, just by threatening to mess with the pension system, have cheated many Kansas children out of a quality part of their education.  Every teacher I know took an effective pay cut this year (our salaries remained the same; our benefits packages declined); continued practices like this make teaching a poor career option.

I went to a conference last week with my school.  Although the presenters did have many good ideas, the basic gist of it was:  No matter how much the state cuts your resources, you can do better if you do all the right things.  Well, guess what.  "All the right things" means "ten to fifteen more hours a week of unpaid labor," and saying, "No, no, work smarter not harder!," doesn't make it so.  Cutting resources means cutting positions and/or replacing people with experience, saving a little money here and there in ways that cost a lot over time.  Our government, both national and local, is sending the message that teaching experience is not valuable to the state.  They are wrong, and their ignorance on this point will make Kansas kids suffer.

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