26 March 2012

The Administration Problem

I recently hosted a former co-worker and current friend who was visiting me here in the Central Valley of California. We took a day to visit Yosemite National Park, played an unbelievable amount of Settlers of Catan, and talked (probably more than rationale humans ever should) about what was wrong in education today. 

This should hardly come as a surprise if you've ever read this blog. This blog has, from the very beginning, complained about education. (On occasion it even offered a solution or two!)

So, as my former co-worker and current friend and I drove down the 405 in Los Angeles today, we were talking about the bane of most educators' lives: the administration. We work in different schools. They could not be more different in culture, location, demographics, or mission. They have basically two things in common: students and administrators. 

As I said at the very beginning of this blog, the students are never the problem, because educators know from the beginning that students are dumb. However, most educators don't realize when they leave the credential programs and student teaching what a massive problem they are about to encounter. 

Job search? Nope, that's something that they'll figure out.

Discipline? They'll figure out what works for them.

Making friends? If they're willing to open their doors, they'll make some. 

The thing that will be the biggest problem for them is the first person they probably met in their interview. Their administrator. 

(please don't think that this is an attack on all administration. I have several dear friends who are administrators. They are great people, and the vast majority of them work VERY hard. I have former co-workers who are now sitting on that side of the desk. It is a thankless job. They are hated by students, parents, and teachers.)

That administrative team isn't going to be a big problem until it comes time for them to perform the task which I think is most important, but which generally gets shuffled to the back burner: the evaluation process.

Let me explain: all of the evidence shows that the best way to improve student learning is to put an effective teacher in a classroom. The best way to make sure that teachers are effective is to evaluate them. However, since administrators have this evaluative role in the vast majority of schools, it generally is problematic. Why?

Well, because administrators tend to have roughly 1000 other duties to take care of. They oversee planning the schedule for next year, meet with parents, schedule and re-schedule sporting events, roam the halls, meet with different, angrier parents, go to LOTS of meetings, supervise lunch, take care of referrals, suspend kids, go to truancy court, meet with community members, and ohbytheway that trash can is on fire..... In short, they have lots of much more pressing things to deal with, and so evaluations get put on the back burner. In my experience, this leads to three things:

First, the evaluations generally aren't very good. I don't mean that they aren't accurate (although I did once get an evaluation supposedly for a class that wasn't even offered at the school), but rather that they don't actually help the teacher get better. In general, the form which is used has a lot of bureaucratic language and some check boxes, and then a space at the bottom where some canned comments relating to whatever emphasis is going on in the classroom can be plopped. These forms are great when someone needs to get fired, or when you have to prove to your supervisors that you have indeed been evaluated, but they aren't very good at actually making a teacher better. My experience has generally been that I look at the form to make sure I'm getting rehired, and then I try to end the meeting on a positive note. There's generally not very much that comes out of an eval that helps me be a better teacher. (Generally. I've had a couple of evals that were really helpful, especially early in my career)

Second, the evaluations don't happen often enough, and become dog-and-pony shows. I'm in my first year at a new school, and received a grand total of two formal evaluations. That's right, they made the decision to re-employ me based on watching me teach twice. (I'm not complaining, or really worrying since I think that I'm pretty awesome, but still). Because I know that my job depends on those two looks at my classroom, I really roll out the dandy show, every single thing I do is something that I know they're looking for. This a function of having the evaluation done by people who have many more pressing duties and of a person who wants to keep their job. If we had more evaluations they would be more accurate looks at what goes on in a classroom on a day when there isn't a scheduled high-stakes inspection.     

Third, since administrators no longer teach (and even when they did teach, they only taught one subject, generally), they generally can't give very good feedback about the class that they observed. Teaching is constantly changing, and people who have stepped away from daily teaching tend to forget that. They often offer suggestions that you think you've already done, or question why you're teaching what you're teaching when you're just following the curriculum that is dictated by the state. 

So, administrators doing evaluations is a problem. How do we solve it? I'm glad you asked, because I happen to have a plan. 

I think that there are two reasonable solutions here. For either of them to work, unions are going to have to move away from their current employment-protection mindset and into a school-improvement mindset and districts are going to have to find a way to employ a couple of extra people per school. Since neither of those things are ever going to happen, let's just sit back and enjoy this as a thought exercise, shall we?

Solution the First - Specialist Evaluators

Take the evaluative power away from school administrators. When they have to do it, they put it on the back-burner and having them as evaluators makes it difficult for teachers to confide about mistakes and to collaborate. (it's a culture of fear problem) In this plan, I would hire two people who's only job would be to observe and evaluate teachers. I would want at least ten observations per year. (If you want to get union-y, let's say 3 announced and 7 drop-ins. Don't like those numbers? Comment with what you want. Or get your own blog.)

One of these evaluators would specialize in sciences, maths, practical arts and phys. ed. The other could do the arts, languages, English, and Social Studies. They would be in enough classrooms, and often enough, that they would still be able to identify with the classroom environment and its challenges. By having ten observations, they could build a dossier on every teacher, so that at the end of the year, I could get a really good evaluation, where they could actually speak to strengths and weaknesses. 

Districts might balk at paying "front-office" money to people who were just doing evals, but in reality, if you made the positions Teacher On Special Assignment positions, you could pay teacher wages, and it would work since they wouldn't need to observe over the summer. Everyone wins!

Solution the Second - Peer Observation Cadres

This solution is much less likely to happen, because it gives teachers power over their peers, and in many cases would lead to them having retention or dismissal discussions with their peers. There's so much privacy at issue here that simply writing that first sentence caused two HR directors to have coronary episodes. But, if we could find a way around the employment and privacy issues, think about how peer observations could work: Take a group of 9 master teachers (or 9 really good teachers, you know what I'm looking for here). Divide them into 3 three-person teams. Give each of them an extra planning hour to fulfill their observation duties in. Let them work as a team to make suggestions and provide feed-back. 

I like this solution less than the first one because it is rife with privacy and scheduling problems, but imagine how powerful it could be if teachers were observing and helping each other to become better teachers. There is no more powerful motivator than peer pressure, and if you knew that 7 times during the year a peer was going to just drop in unannounced and evaluate you, you would up your game. Add in the benefits to the observers of getting to see so many other teachers doing their thing, and I think it's a big winner. 

If I'm honest, I know that these solutions are probably too radical for the powerful forces of culture in education. To really fix this problem, and many of the other problems in education, we have to be willing to thing outside the box. Unions and districts have to give up things they're clinging to in the name of pride and work together to make schools better. It's going to take work, and outside pressure. Perhaps the pressure of school choice and charters (which you may have heard I oppose) will force traditional public schools to reform. 

I'm not holding my breath, but I will keep saying things like this here, and in conversations with my co-workers and friends. Someday, maybe we can create some small change for the better. 

20 March 2012

I'm baaaaaaaaaack

There has been a lot of chatter online and in what conservatives call the mainstream media (which the rest of us simply call "the media") about a study released when I should have written this post at the beginning of March that puts teacher job satisfaction at it's lowest point since I was 9.

Obviously there's been a lot of gnashing of teeth, and plenty of people on both sides of the aisle trying to score political points from this. Normally I would get in line to both gnash my teeth and try to score some political points from this kind of story (seriously, read the first parenthetical aside in this post), but I just can't bring myself to do it. Why? Because I think this deserves a serious look at why teachers I work with (and have worked with) are not happy with their jobs.

Also I think that this will be pretty easy to write, what with my history of job satisfaction.

And my wife is watching Dance Moms and I can't stomach Abby Lee Whatshername so I've sent myself to the office to write, and this is what came to mind.

So, with the worst intro in the history of this blog, and perhaps writing in general, here we go:

The study shows that teachers aren't happy because they don't feel like they have the same job security that they once did. They're also feeling attacked, because so much of the reporting is about bad teaching, and so all teachers begin to question their own teaching abilities. Add in the increasing focus on test scores (which, for the vast majority of students don't indicate much in the way of learning), more and more intrusive parents, and all of the usual pressures that go along with changing lives for the better or worse every day and it's no small surprise that teachers aren't very happy with their jobs.

I can't speak for every teacher out there, nor would I try to (at least until I get invited onto some talk show where I can be an educational pundit), but I can tell you why I'm not very satisfied in my job.

1. We hear a lot about good teaching and not-as-good teaching, but I'm not observed enough or given enough feedback to know which category my teaching falls into. I'm in my first year of teaching at a new school for me in a new state. I'm going to get two formal observations. I will also get some much less formal "drop in" observations. That's not enough. If society and school boards of education are going to put more pressure on teachers with more tests, then I want more and better feedback about the work that I'm doing.

1a. The observations I do get are bureaucratic crap. There are forms to fill out and jargon to check off. (Good lord is there jargon. When I first made a joke about the "random catchphrase generator" I was taking a cheap shot at education experts. Now? I'm trying to figure out how to put one on the side bar of this website. Might as well have it out there) The evaluation won't provide very much in the way of good suggestions, mainly because there isn't another classroom teacher involved. Listen, there are plenty of good administrators who were good classroom teachers, but they generally haven't been in the classroom recently enough to understand the new era pressures teachers are facing.

I would love an evaluation format that did two things that very few evaluations do today. I want it to happen far more often (but each one would carry less weight) and I want my peers in on the process. I want other teachers to see my class, see what I'm doing, and offer suggestions. You know what I don't want? A form that has been checked off by my evaluator and comments like "You know what you're doing!"

2. Teachers are disgruntled because there is a culture war in the profession. There are plenty of union-loving, worksheet-giving, book-reading, jean-wearing, 2:25-leaving lazy jerks in this job. They will do everything they can to prevent having to work hard. They are doing the job, but they aren't doing it well. Far too often, because they don't get upset about actual education, these people stay in education for a long time. Since education tends to reward seniority, these people then have more sway over the way a department or school is run.

The opposite of this are the teachers who never teach the exact same lesson twice, who bust their collective asses grading, planning and teaching. Even in systems with good merit pay systems (yes such things exist) there isn't really enough money to really differentiate between the lazy turds and the life-changers.

Worse yet, the passionate young teachers burn out fighting against the status quo maintainers, and end up leaving the job. The end result is that nobody is happy. The bad teachers are unhappy because they feel threatened by the ideas and work ethic of the good teachers, and the good teachers want to punch someone because nothing is changing.

3. I for one am tired of the public discussion of schools always being about what's wrong. You know what, cable news talking heads? There are tons of GREAT tings happening in schools. Sure there are problems, but every segment of society has problems. People who see doctors die. People who go to the dentist get cavities. People who use lawyers go to jail. Yet teachers feel singled out for criticism when their students fail high stakes tests.

4. It's the money, stupid. There isn't enough money in schools. For a change, I'm not talking about the money that goes into teachers' pockets, either. No, there simply aren't adequate funds for facilities, books, technology, or training. School districts have become bloated at the administrative level (a function of the increased emphasis on testing and data) and as a result less money is getting to the student level. I realize that what we're asking for is a monumental amount of money, nation-wide. However, I think that it's worth the cost of a fighter jet that probably won't ever shoot down another plane to help do things like have enough classrooms and books for kids.

5. We're tired. Really really really tired. In the past ten years, I haven't gotten any additional time to plan and grade. However, the amount of paperwork, calls to return, and meetings to attend has increased by a huge amount, as have the number of kids in each of my classes. I started with classes of 16-20. Now, I have classes of 38 across the board. More kids come with paperwork (IEPs, 504s, BIPs, and contracts) and that paperwork often has legal ramifications if you don't follow the accommodations laid out within it. Parents want to know what and why you're doing. The stress level is astronomical.

There was always stress, but the job used to be fun. You got to teach something you loved. Now, with high-stakes testing, you don't ever feel like you can do that. I spend my days trying to fill every minute with educational activities. I don't want to have a 3 hour long party while watching Dirty Dancing, but I also don't want to feel guilty when we watch Elvis and the Beatles in class instead of filling out review sheets, outlines, and guided readings.

That, boys and girls is the big lesson. Teaching isn't as fun as it used to be. And that's why teachers aren't as happy as they used to be. Low pay, long hours, dealing with idiots; all of that was ok as long as the job was fun. When the job got serious SERIOUS the rest of it started to suck a lot more.

But hey, that's not a good talking point, so none of those talking heads will be talking about it on the news. Instead, 90 seconds will be spent glossing over the idea that 7.2 million people in this country are less happy than they have been since the Soviet Union was still a viable entity, and then we'll be onto talking about more important things; like who's in a feud with Kim Kardashian

With that sarcastic closing, the BlazeBlog is back, babay!