Sunday, February 19, 2012

Merit Pay

Another anecdote (I like them because I think they help people connect.) My husband works in a retail sporting goods establishment. His boss, a retiree from Corporate America and self-made millionaire, has a merit pay program based on revenue generated for the company. You work hard to make more money for the store, you make more money in the form of a bonus. (We'll disregard the fact that my husband hasn't seen a real raise in three years, but hey "it's the economy").

 What I have noticed is that those who Always work hard Always make their bonus. Those who don't like to work hard, never make their bonus, and it's ALWAYS the same people. The rankings have not changed in three years. People may fluctuate within one step, but nobody from the bottom every goes to the top, or vice versa. It really doesn't matter how big the bonus is. People rarely deviate from their set patterns. Hard-workers are born, and they can't be bribed. However, those who don't normally work hard will put forth more effort when the overall bonus to be shared by ALL employees is close at hand. They won't work for themselves, but they'll work for the good of the group, or the group will hurt them LOL. 

Now I posed him a problem. I said, "You are paid based on how hard you work. What if you were paid according to how hard others work. (I've had managers argue this point with me because their bonuses are based on their DEPARTMENT productivity, the work of others)  What if you weren't given bonuses by revenue, but by the achievements of your customers. I say customers because a manger can make changes and even fire people who don't do their job. Nobody is going to fire their customers (except maybe charter schools.)

So I ask, "What if you only got bonuses based on how many races your customers won?" That's what teachers face. We are not being offered bonuses based on our work but that of our students, who are our customers. Basically I get to see in action every quarter motivation at work. Here is the animated version of Dan Pink's speech about motivation. I love this video, and I think business owners could really learn something from it. It has been proven time and time again that for more complicated skills and jobs, money will actually make people LESS productive. It's counter-intuitive, but true.

Teachers know this, why doesn't everyone else. Money IS NOT our motivator. We WANT autonomy. We WANT to become better at our craft. We WANT to focus on our purpose of helping kids learn. We lost our autonomy in the test driven culture. Canned, scripted curricula strips us of our autonomy, along with pacing guides and principals who use the word test every 2 sentences. We are now being told that advanced education doesn't matter and we will no longer receive any assistance or extra pay for striving toward more knowledge. There goes our mastery. We are also now being told that our purpose is no longer helping kids learn, but to help them pass a test. There is a very big difference. I can teach a kid to pass a test without actually teaching them anything, especially how to think.

So why exactly do people think merit pay will help improve education? Oh wait, they don't actually THINK that. They just say it to get others to go along with their ideas. There's a whole lot motivating the "school reform" crowd that has nothing to do with "racial equality", "improving schools" or "educating our way to a better economy." I think Brian Jones has some accurate ideas about what's motivating them. That's a conversation for another time.

The True Motivation Behind Today's School Reform: Separate the Classess, Separate the Races

I just finished watching "Separate but Still Unequal" with Brian Jones. If you remember, Brian Jones was the amazing NYC school teacher who sat on the "Waiting for Superman" panel at the first Education Nation Summit. He is also one of the driving forces behind the answering documentary, "The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman", another video I will eventually be posting here. You see Brian made his video to get the TRUTH out there, NOT to make money, so he likes it when we share is work. I'm not ready to write my comments about the video, just know that my husband and children looked at me funny when I was clapping, yelling and giving it a standing ovation in my living (While listening with my earbuds).
Brian Jones Video

#1 I've often said that NJ is far more segregated than the small town where I lived in GA 20 years ago. I never imagined the cause, and I think I may need to do some research to substantiate it. Jones alludes to the idea that the middle class neighborhoods built after WWII were intentionally segregated. I believe him because you only have to look to see the truth. Both of my grandparents left Jersey City for one of those neighborhoods in Middlesex County. I work in Jersey City and grew up in my grandparents' neighborhood. I see/saw first hand every day how segregated those areas are. In fact I had more childhood friends of varying elasticities while living in GA, you know the deep south where the Jim Crow laws were in effect, than I ever did in NJ.  People wonder why I don't move from my current neighborhood. I say it's because I like living in a REAL melting pot. However, even towns are divided by neighborhoods. I went to HS in a town literally divided by the railroad tracks; black on one side, white on the other

He hits every major point. Watch and discuss. "Instead of approaching as a citizen with rights, you are coming as a customer, and they have the right to refuse you service."

Our kids "not hitching their wagons to stars but to a mule." Still applies today.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

What to do for the future?

I have been giving serious thought to going back to my alma mater, the local university, and teaching as an adjunct at the school of education. Perhaps I can smack the next generation of teachers in the head.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Broken Trust

It has been a very emotional and disturbing week.

On Monday a student stole my cell phone off of my desk.

We have been having a few problems with one of our students. He is a known behavior problem and is one of our special education students. We were excited when we came back from break because he was doing so well. By the end of the second week of January we began to become very disturbed. That Friday afternoon, he spilled honey all over the school Liberian's desk and computer. It happened at the end of the day on a Friday and he was never properly disciplined.

Over the course of the next week, he was caught in a number of lies. His lying has become compulsive. He was also caught drawing explicit pictures and he cut his hand on scissors he broke in his desk. All together it seems like cries for help, and indicative of a child in crisis. We gave mom, who came crying to us that she wanted to help her son, information about counseling. She never made the calls.

Just before my prep, I checked my phone for any missed calls or messages, left it on vibrate and left it on top of my desk in the corner of the room. I left the room during my prep. I didn't look for my phone again until 4pm when I was getting ready to leave for the day. Of course you think you just put it down somewhere else. You search. You have a friend call it. Would you believe the kid actually answered trying to use a fake voice. He answered the phone just before 5pm. Didn't answer after that and according to the phone company there was no activity really after that.

What to do? You can guess who took it, but you can't accuse without proof. Nobody saw it. It's just a cheesy phone, not a smart phone, so no tracking. Phone company says to file the police report but it turns out a phone like that can't be traced without a court order. So a very stressful hour in the police department was pretty much wasted. My administrator, who is very supportive, basically wants to expel the kid, or at least kick him out of the building for being out of district. (Our community aide went for a home visit and turns out they don't live there anymore.)

I just let the mom know that my phone went missing, all casual like. She came running back not 2 minutes later, and told me her son admitted to "playing with it" and it was in his desk. I knew this was a lie because we checked all desks before the children arrived just on the off chance it was still in the room. I told her I would look, but could she please look around at home. She denied it emphatically. My question is how can you KNOW it's not at home if you never looked for it.

The next day we had a huge meeting with case manager, guidance counselor community aide, and both teachers. Needless to say the need for counseling was reiterated, and told the mother about his constant lying, and my inability to trust him on any level. Needless to say, NOTHING HAPPENED about the missing phone. So we all know he took it, he even admitted to taking it and I CAN'T DO ANYTHING! My husband was irate and it takes a lot to get him working up. He's been asking me to leave teaching in the city for years, but right now there's nowhere to go, no jobs to be found.

The student was suspended for Friday for an unrelated offense, but is going unpunished. I can't help but be bothered by that. Also, how can I work with a student I don't trust. Something many people don't understand is that there has to be a level of trust between student and teacher, especially in Special Ed. How can I work effectively with this student? If anyone tells me to suck it up,  I will spit in their face. I suck it up everyday. I accept the abuse everyday and the disrespect by the parents, politicians, and much of the public. Must I also accept personal attacks as well?

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Comments about the Van Roekel/ Kopp article

After reading Diane Ravitch's response to the Van Roekel/Kopp op. ed., I had an opportunity to think and consider the situation. I've read many reactions to the piece, such as TeacherKen's, Anthony Cody's, and even my hometown hero Jersey Jazzman's. In replying to another reader's comments, I solidified my ideas and this was my response:

I have my own thoughts about TFA,
But when I read the interview that Van Roekel did with Valerie Strauss I started to give him the benefit of the doubt, except on one very important point; testing and data.

His list to improve teacher preparation includes:

*Raising the bar to entry by requiring that every teacher candidate have one full year of residency

*Advancing a new tiered system of achievement for career teachers by providing different compensation and responsibilities for novice, professional, and master teachers.

*Ensuring that teachers take on leadership roles in their schools to take responsibility for helping to improve instruction, curriculum, and school performance. (I agree if they are to call themselves "Master Teachers")

I agree with pretty much all of these ideas, especially the full year internship, though I think they should receive some kind of compensation.

The joint list of Top Three Things include:

*using data to improve teacher preparation (The test scores of the students received by graduates; sounds mathematically impossible like Value-added is proving to be)

* bringing new talent to the teaching profession (agreed)

*giving teachers opportunities for continuous professional development. (Isn't this why we have to do 100 hours?)

In the interview he said the one great thing about TFA is that they actively seek and recruit possible talent for the profession and that's what everybody needs to start doing.

"One of the things I've learned they do well is recruitment," he said. "In the regular teaching profession we don't have a recruitment process. They do. They identify certain students and go after them to get them to apply. Outright antagonism toward Teach for America doesn't make much sense, he suggested. They are not going away. They have too much money backing them. They are around the world now. If there are things we can learn from them, let's take it. ... It's talking to people with whom we don't agree on every issue. This is way too important to only talk to people we totally agree with."

This makes sense to me and I can't fault him for thinking that. What I can fault him for is jumping on the data (i.e. testing) bandwagon.

What I think we all need to work on is actual improvement of teacher preparation programs. Some thoughts provided by Andrew Hartman include the most expansive study of TFA success, he said:

"Professors of education Julian Vasquez Heilig and Su Jin Jez, in the most thorough survey of such research yet, found that TFA corps members tend to perform equal to teachers in similar situations —that is, they do as well as new teachers lacking formal training assigned to impoverished schools. Sometimes they do better, particularly in math instruction.

"Yet 'the students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well,' Vasquez Heilig and Jin Jez discovered, 'than those of credentialed beginning teachers.' It seems clear that TFA's vaunted thirty-day summer institute—TFA "boot camp"—is no replacement for the preparation given future teachers at traditional colleges of education." Here's a link to the actual study.

So they are somewhat better than other emergency certified teachers who earn credentials while on the job, but they are NOT better than traditionally certified teachers. Makes sense to me.

My cousin the TFAer  HATED the program she was assigned to in the state where she is teaching because it just didn't meet her standards for education to which she is used. (She said the deep south college basically had a 7th grade reading level.)

We need to take a page from Finland on this one and start with requiring an undergraduate, subject area major and an Education Masters. (NJ was starting to head down this road, but then people erroneously voted for Chrsitie who thinks we don't need advanced degrees OR certification.)

These are my ideas for improving Teacher Ed Programs:

*There should be an "exploring teacher" practicum BEFORE people apply to programs. (At my university 50% of the people who do the practicum DIDN'T apply to the program because they find out real quick teaching is not for them.)

*There should be a minimum requirement of practicum/fieldwork prior to student teaching and 1, "1 day a week junior field" IS NOT enough.

*There should also be a balance of theory, ideology, and practical application, as taught by research professors AND working teachers. (What can I say, Rutgers has one of the BEST programs going, I'm not biased)

I was never an advocate for standards based education, but there are areas in this country where there are notoriously low standards in their educational systems (known from my own personal experience, though things may have changed in 20 years, but I doubt it), including teacher preparation. Also, let's address the idea that teachers who are better prepared are better able to deal with the intricacies and stress of everyday teaching, and are more likely to stay passed that 2nd, 3rd or 5th year.

Over the years I've had the opportunity work with colleagues from a number of different programs, and each had its own philosophy and skill set. What I usually see is a deficit in some skill sets from some universities. I do have to wonder if it's because I was better prepared, or if I'm just more proactive in learning new ideas and approaches and honing my craft. There is one thing I can do that they can't, and that's create a curriculum out of thin air, which I had to do while in the inner city.

As a career educator, I am all for improving the teacher ed process.  Even Van Roekel said that 5 weeks will never be enough, and I believe that emergemcy certification should be for EMERGENCIES.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Thoughts on TFA

As I am sure you are aware by now, this blog is more a diary where I share my thoughts, feelings, and personal experiences. I usually use anecdotes to get a point across. I do that with my students too. When the information is humanized and personal, they are more likely to make their own connections to it and remember it later.  That being said, the TFA  program has been on my mind a lot lately, for a multitude of reasons. The main reason is because I feel very conflicted about it.

Just recently I was reading a column written by Andrew Hartman posted in the Washington Post under Valerie Straus about TFA.

"After twenty years of sending academically gifted but untrained college graduates into the nation’s toughest schools, the evidence regarding TFA corps member effectiveness is in, and it is decidedly mixed. Professors of education Julian Vasquez Heilig and Su Jin Jez, in the most thorough survey of such research yet, found that TFA corps members tend to perform equal to teachers in similar situations —that is, they do as well as new teachers lacking formal training assigned to impoverished schools. Sometimes they do better, particularly in math instruction.

Yet “the students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well,” Vasquez Heilig and Jin Jez discovered, “than those of credentialed beginning teachers.”  It seems clear that TFA’s vaunted thirty-day summer institute—TFA “boot camp”—is no replacement for the preparation given future teachers at traditional colleges of education."

I take this to mean that TFA is as effective as any novice teacher entering the classroom as any alternate route candidate. They are NOT better than novice teachers who have studied education, served in the classroom as a teaching intern, and earned a degree. I can believe that. After reading countless blogs, articles, and comments written by TFA corps and former corps members, it has been said time and time again, the training is inadequate and it just puts a band-aide on the larger problem.

One commenter talialynn80 said it best, though sometimes reading comments can be dangerous, "Any profession is debased when temporary workers with on the job training are considered equivalent to those with degrees in the field and long term commitments. Imagine the up roar that would ensue if a similar program were created for nursing or police work. Or better yet, imagine if TFA had a matching program, where for every inner city school, a prestigious private or well functioning suburban school was required to take in an inexperienced TFA trainee who will leave in two years. TFA smacks of a program that is great "for other people's" children."

Yes, I feel that way too. It is a smack in the face to have inexperienced people, good motives, or bad ones (the resume padders) placed in a building when there are now literally hundreds of qualified applicants for the jobs.

I teach in NJ. Here it is very difficult for an alternate route teacher to find employment. I have a friend with a science degree who has been trying for three years now. She wants to work close to home to be accessible to her 2 children, one who is autistic, so working in one of the cities is a no for her. In NJ, I presume it is similar in other states as well, teachers with alternate route degrees will most likely be hired in urban areas, and for positions like math, science, and special education. Those are the hard to fill jobs. Alternate route teachers, like my friend, are usually starting a career change and do the course work upon hire to keep their jobs permanently.

I'm not ashamed to admit that I am an alternate route teacher for special education. There is one big difference though. I had my standard certificate in elementary education and had three years of teaching experience before switching to special education; therefore, I am not considered alternate route credentialed. Now that I have been teaching for 10 years it doesn't matter anyway. I don't think it is a stretch to ask people to be qualified for the job they have or want. Would you go to  lawyer in training? or a doctor who may have a medical degree but never did any internships? I know some people don't like the analogies, but why should teaching be any less important?

I can also say that my first year, even with all of the training, fieldwork, and internships, I stunk out loud.  Hard to admit that, but hind-sight being 20/20 and all. In 10 years of teaching I can say I know 10 times more than I did that first year. Yes, experienced teachers cost more, but they are definitely worth more. Are there people I wish would be fired? Few and far between, but yes they are there.

Yes, I think ALL children, even those attending private, charter, and parochial schools, should have a certified teacher in their classroom. As of now only public schools require certified teachers. How sad is that? Don't hate me for saying this, but in NJ it is said that if you're teaching in a private or charter school you more than likely didn't pass the praxis or couldn't get hired elsewhere. Yeah, I know that's not true for everyone, or even the majority of people outside the public school system, but it's what people say.

Ok, I don't really believe in the Teach for America Program. After teaching in the inner city for  what is now 7 years, I can say wholeheartedly, our poorest students need our BEST teachers. I taught in the suburbs for three years before coming to the city. Frankly, it doesn't take much to teach suburban kids who don't have learning or language difficulties. Little did I know then. Once I came to the city, I realized I never worked so hard in my life. Now I am in a working-class neighborhood in the same city, and even there I don't feel I work half as hard as I did in the "ghetto". If you want to see fundamental change in education give the hard jobs to the "good teachers" in the suburbs instead of rewarding them by sending them to the easy schools. So how can I in good conscience support a program that puts the least prepared instructors, because they aren't teachers just yet, in front of these kids? I can't! I am conflicted because saying that makes me feel disloyal to family.

I may have mentioned this before, but I have a relative who is a TFA teacher in a rural area.  She was a psychology major hired to teach middle school science. She went into it thinking, "Hey I want to teach at the college level, so why not teach for real before graduate school." Seemed like a good idea. I looked at the program myself when I was in grad school because of the loan forgiveness, which I should have gotten anyway teaching in the inner city. Missed it by "that" much. Whole other argument there.

For three years now I have been saying, "Yeah, but my cousin is in TFA and she does a great job." She announced she is quitting this year. If there's one thing I hate, it's someone living up to a stereotype. TFA again stands for Teach for a While. I shouldn't hold it against her because she never intended it to be forever. I think that's the biggest problem of all. These corps members never intend for it to be forever. It truly bothers those of us who have dedicated our lives and livelihoods to education to hear these folks receive accolades for "teaching for a while." Also, why do districts have to pay a head-hunters fee when there are 100's of free applicants out there. As a parent, I know I would rather have a certified and experienced teacher leading my child.

My cousin would complain that the other staff members treated them like garbage, second class citizens. I encouraged her to see it from their perspective. She would also tell me how many of the staff members themselves were not certified because the school/county had a very hard time retaining certified staff.  To that I say, Pay them more and treat them better for starters. She also commented on how the staff didn't go to very good schools and didn't seem nearly as knowledgeable as say myself or her sister. (She said the state university functioned at about a 7th grade reading level, and hated the idea of doing any kind of graduate work there. I think the negative attitude swung both ways there.)

Anyway, she earned a good reputation and seemed to enjoy her work and seemed successful at it. However, now that I think back on it, there are startling differences between her and myself. She thinks about success in terms of classroom management and higher test scores. She has been made to believe that the all mighty test score is the actual goal of education. I rate success as increased reading levels and joy of watching a child's face light up when a new skill is mastered or concept understood. I HATE what testing has done to education.  I teach for understanding and joy, not for regurgitation.

My scores look good, but I don't feel pride in them. In the burbs I was at 95% passing as a first year teacher. I always say they did that despite me, not because of me. The other  5% bug me because those were the kids that walked in as basic skills students and I feel I didn't help them one lick that year. My co-teacher and I were praised last year because we had the best scores in the first grade on the Terra Nova in our building. I accepted my accolades and kept it moving. My reward was a transfer to a building that already has passing scores. Go figure.

Long story short, My cousin is leaving her teaching post and is now being considered for a management post with TFA. If she gets the position she will be overseeing about 30 corps members in her area. Really?!! They think that after 3 years she has enough experience to be a supervisor? I had my first student teacher this year. She was kind of sprung on me the third day of school. I always said I wanted one, but I was unprepared for her. Frankly I never felt ready to oversee another teacher until now. Does my cousin and her company really think that after a mere three years she's ready to oversee 30 new teachers without any kind of teaching experience behind them. Also, if the veterans in their schools are that adverse to having them on staff, who will really mentor them. I keep seeing problems and not many solutions.

So I guess the question is, am I being disloyal, because FAMILY IS EVERYTHING, or should I stop biting my tongue and say what  I really think?