I wanted to write a blog entry about HB 1609, the “Great Schools” bill, which was debated in Olympia this week, but failed to move out of committee. A similar bill in the Senate, SB 5399, was blocked from public hearing by Senator Rosemary McAuliffe, chair of the Senate Committee on Early Learning and K-12 Education.
These bills seek to make teacher performance a factor in teacher retention and assignments, rather than basing these decisions on seniority alone. The bills also call for empowering principals and teachers with autonomy in placement decisions to ensure the creation of school cultures in which teachers and principals work toward shared goals for improving student achievement. They are timely because the education budget shortfalls mean reductions in force (RIFs), i.e. teacher layoffs, are inevitable.
I wanted to write about this, but really, what more can be added to the countless editorials and articles that have already been written? There is apparently overwhelming public support for placing a higher value on a teacher’s performance than on his or her seniority. Still, what stopped these bills from progressing was the fledging comprehensive teacher evaluation system, which critics of the bills say needs time in place before performance can be used as a metric in determining RIFs.
In the blog entry I wanted to write, I was going to tell you that in the past month I have participated in meetings of the Building Leadership Team at my elder daughter’s middle school, the Arts Committee at my younger daughter’s elementary school, a Seattle School District-sponsored Community Engagement breakfast and the District’s Middle School Language Arts Curriculum Adoption Committee. Sitting around rectangular board-room style tables surrounded by education professionals thoughtfully and intelligently brainstorming ways to improve the academic achievements of African American male students, reduce bullying, develop universally fair grading practices, increase community and family engagement in our schools and stock every middle school language arts classroom library with age-appropriate books at a variety of reading levels, I found myself wondering where the “bad” teachers are.
But serve pancakes to a group of middle school girls the morning after a sleepover and you will begin to hear about the bad teachers, the ones everyone tries to steer clear of because they are arbitrary, boring, ineffective or just plain mean. Take a look at www.ratemyteachers.com and what you’ll see might surprise you. Not limited to comments by students with an axe to grind or those with only rosy experiences, the feedback is surprisingly telling: “I thought she was mean when I had her,” one student wrote, “but I learned a lot from Ms. B. She was the best teacher I ever had.” The teachers rated as consistently bad on the site are the ones who are subject to eye-rolling over pancakes. The ratings on the website are “not far off,” one teacher friend admitted.
Parents warn each other to avoid certain teachers and they volunteer in the schools in part so that they have some clout and credibility when student placement concerns arise. Though we are not allowed to name names, in the game of “placement roulette,” we use codes, such as requesting that our kids be put in a classroom with “structure,” and hold our breath… We do this because teachers make a difference. In a school district with ever-dwindling resources, they make all the difference in the world.
I once participated in a Seattle School District hiring committee that also included Seattle Education Association president Olga Addae. I was curious to watch this polarizing figure in action and what I saw surprised me. As we evaluated candidates, Addae quietly commented, “Why is it always the superstar teachers who get all the attention? What about the competent teacher who comes in and effectively teaches day in and day out for thirty years?”
Fair point, just as fair as Rosemary McAuliffe’s desire to allow the new teacher evaluation system time to work. There are many ways to be an effective teacher and no one metric, not even test scores, tells the whole story. I agree that teacher evaluations can be a valuable tool in supporting the development of a strong teacher corps, by demonstrating areas in which teachers need to be mentored. But I believe that the one element shared by every good teacher, which has to come from within, is commitment.
Yesterday, at the end of a long day in which our Middle School Language Arts Curriculum Adoption Committee slogged through the criteria that will be used to select new books for classroom libraries, I looked around the table at the teachers and administrators who I have come to respect for their commitment to this arduous process. They looked tired. So did the teachers I saw last night at our elementary school’s Science Fair and Math night. The teachers were tired. The parents were tired. But we were there.
In the end, I decided to write this blog entry anyway because of a blog entry I read today by a Seattle high school teacher who wrote of her efforts to reach one of her students, who is now serving time for murder. If you have a few minutes to spare and you want to read a moving story about teacher commitment, check out this link: http://www.storiesfromschool.org/2011/02/those-students.html#more
Excellence for all requires commitment from all – students, parents, teachers and administrators. Now more than ever, we need to be part of the solution.