Time to Treat Teachers as Professionals

Kudos to the Tribune and the Joyce Foundation for fostering a dialogue on education in the Chicago schools!

If you missed the Tribune’s coverage of the Joyce Foundation/Chicago Tribune public education survey (“Survey”) last week, take a look at it at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chi-joyce-foundationchicago-tribune-public-education-survey-20130322,0,5109873.htmlpage . You will see that researchers surveyed parents’ opinions on a variety of educational topics, including the purpose of school, merit pay, teacher quality, teacher evaluations, the biggest issues facing schools, parental support of education, and school closings. Not surprisingly, the respondents to the Survey identified crime, gangs and drugs and lack of financing as the biggest issues facing schools. It was great to see that only 11.3% of the respondents were concerned with teacher quality. Also, respondents were committed to reading to their children and monitoring homework.

Even though respondents to the Survey appeared satisfied with teachers, many of the survey questions centered on teacher quality (teacher evaluations, impact of poor teachers, retention of weak teachers). Teacher quality is a complicated question. A strong teacher may connect with one student, but not another. As author and educator, Jim Delisle points out: “in the world of people, there are no perfect fits. “ The Survival Guide for Teachers of Gifted Kids, p. 49. The “teacher/student fit” can be improved if parents communicate their child’s strengths, needs, and interests to the teacher. That’s what I call a crucial (needs to be ongoing) conversation. Student feedback is even more important. As author Ralph Ellison notes, “Education is all a matter of building bridges.“ Id. p. 5.

We want students, teachers, and parents to have strong relationships. But asking parents to weigh in on teacher evaluations, teacher training, and teacher retention—like this Survey does--does not build bridges, it burns them. It fuels the notion that teachers are not “professionals.” It encourages a sense of entitlement among parents. I’ve seen parents march in to the school and demand that a teacher be dismissed.” Or insist that a child be removed from a teacher’s classroom. Scary. Teachers deserve more respect. They need to be evaluated by those in their profession, not the public.

Think about it. Are Chicago residents qualified to answer the question below?

Question 13: Under the new Teacher Evaluation System, 70% of a teacher’s evaluation will be determined by how much the Student actually learns in the classroom as measured by state tests and other exams…. Is the 70-30% split about right?

Answer:  No. Improvement in student achievement should carry more weight.” 62.9%

The Tribune and the Joyce Foundation interpret this response as a thumbs up for the new evaluation method:

Is that [30 or 40%] too high, as union officials contend?  Not at all, Chicagoans say.”  More than 6 in 10 respondents say student achievement should carry more than 30% weight in a teacher’s evaluation The power of a teacher, Chicago Tribune, Tuesday, March 26, 2013.

I really question this conclusion. First, nearly 75% of the respondents to the Survey admitted that  they weren't  even aware that there was a new teacher evaluation system in place. Also, nearly half of the respondents to this Survey don’t even have children in Chicago Public Schools. Tough to infer that Chicago parents have really pondered the difficult question of how to evaluate a teacher. But beyond that, why should Chicagoans have a say on teacher evaluation (or other topics like retention and training)? The experts—academic administrators--designed the new teacher evaluation and devised the 70-30 split. They understand the internal (some kids just don’t test well) and external factors (conditions of school buildings, safety concerns) that can influence standardized testing results and decided to only base 30% of a teacher’s evaluation on that factor. That’s wise. Growth depends on so much more than standardized test scores.

Parents—despite however many think so—are not trained educators. Students in education programs are schooled in philosophies, theories, and strategies designed to enhance learning. They are required to study curriculum in the major disciplines. They are trained to work with special populations, including students with special needs, dual language students, and gifted students. Teacher trainees learn a whole new vocabulary-- words like scaffolding, differentiation, chunking, and summative and formative assessments. In education, we call our professional training “pedagogy” or the art and science of teaching.

A big component was missing from this survey. Neither parents nor their children were asked what students thought of their education. We need to know what children have to say about their educational experiences. What enhances their learning? What blocks their learning? Are students raising issues with their teacher? Is their teacher conferencing with them? If a student is to make meaningful progress, the student must have ongoing and constructive dialogue with his teacher.

The Tribune, in the article on “the power of a teacher,” asks readers to think about “How I can help [a] child learn?"  My advice:  love him, support him, and teach him to advocate for himself in the classroom. When that doesn’t work, get involved to get an academic dialogue going. That’s an effective and appropriate response. I call that the power of a partnership.

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  • Hi. This particular website with a focus on gifted students is particularly of interest given Shimer's focus on early entrants. You may find this site relevant: http://www.chicagonow.com/chicago-campus/2013/04/i-am-stuck-in-high-school-but-i-want-to-go-to-college/

  • It's a tough tough time to be a teacher. Thanks for standing up for teachers!

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